In recent years, there has been significant growth in the scientific literature on the implementation of non-traditional teaching methods in higher education to renew teacher training programs and improve teaching–learning processes [1
]. Within a wide variety of constructive and innovative practical proposals, it is worth highlighting gamification as a pedagogical concept that is acquiring a wide epistemological and didactic development [4
Following Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke [7
] gamification is defined as the use of game design elements in non-game related fields, and it means the implementation of this methodology in many areas that are different from where video games originated.
In the educational context, it is a procedure based on a system of scoring and recording rewards that provides students with tools for developing skills, solving problems related to social behavior, improving their performance, as well as greater involvement in the processes of teaching and learning [1
]. However, Landers [12
] suggests that serious games and gamification share a common set of tools, but the processes by which these elements affect learning differ.
The literature review reveals that this active methodology has been applied at all educational levels from primary education [13
], secondary education [15
], and higher education [17
]. In this study, we focus on the university context in which gamification, as a technological innovation, is attractive to both teachers and students coming from the digital culture, opening new perspectives for future generations [11
The effect on student motivation is one of the fundamental elements that characterizes the use of gamification in different educational stages. In this sense, other academics have analyzed how the design of activities that incorporate challenges typical of video games improves the level of commitment and motivation of students in formal learning contexts [19
]. Another fundamental element of gamification is in the promotion of participation, so that learners are actively in control of their interactive learning, which is constantly being reviewed and changed [22
]. A third element is the active promotion of conflict resolution linked to greater independence in the learning decisions that students can and should make about their trajectories and tendencies towards self-learning [4
Additionally, another positive effect of the use of this methodology is the creativity and innovation that is configured as an essential quality in the interdisciplinary and holistic approach of gamification. The active participation of students enhances the imagination and creative capacity for learning [26
]. It implies an exercise of permanent questioning about how to approach teaching operatively with the clear orientation of achieving the best results in the conditions of greater well-being, participation, and inclusion of all students. In this sense, and as a basic axis of the gamified educational processes of high quality, it is worth highlighting the capacity of initiative, both personal and cooperative, that is generated in the students. The aim is to stimulate critical thinking and proactive behavior concerning student participation in university classrooms. Within this, the emotional factor derived from enjoyment, aesthetic enjoyment, and the satisfaction of curiosity as inherent ingredients of learning are transcendental. The increase in self-esteem, self-confidence, and the increase in the pedagogical commitment of teachers and students represents a clear opportunity to build more fruitful, dynamic, innovative, and democratic classes thanks to the creation of atmospheres and scenarios that optimistically invite learning [27
]. This type of didactic methodology globally conceives educational processes, taking into account a wide number of ecological and inclusive teaching–learning contexts.
An example of this philosophy of learning that underlies gamification is found in Wang and Lieberoth’s [28
] study of the Kahoot application to more than 600 students. The results obtained highlight the exponential growth of learning using a platform that encourages dynamism and participation, offering significant improvements in increased student concentration, commitment, enjoyment, and motivation in line with other results [29
Other studies have examined students’ perceptions of the use of gamification in the teaching–learning context. In the study carried out by Gómez-Carrasco et al. [6
], the results show that students have a positive opinion about the innovative potential of this methodology and its effect on motivation. Along the same lines, other studies [2
] show greater participation, autonomy, and commitment to learning.
Some limitations can also be found, and precautions should be taken when reviewing the literature. Clark et al. [35
] point out that, although both studies and their data are indeed completely homogeneous environments, this scenario is almost impossible in practice, so they recommend not limiting future studies to the characteristics of higher-performing games. They also point out that one should move from trying to demonstrate whether games support learning to other types of studies that address cognitive outcomes and the value added that explores how design decisions driven by theory influence learning outcomes [35
In the review carried out by Dichev and Dicheva [36
], as a conclusion to their study [36
], they suggest that gamification should be used in education as an element of motivation and that it should try to improve the student’s commitment to the subject being studied.
Finally, it should be noted that the use of gamification within a classroom not only contributes to an improvement in the students’ academic training, but also to a substantial improvement in emotional and social terms [37
]; therefore, it not only promotes more intuitive, direct, and dynamic cognitive constructions but also focuses on shaping the students’ integral development, improving and facilitating communicative processes, autonomous learning, and teamwork, which reconcile very well with the need to learn, enjoy, and maintain a high expectation towards university learning.
Gamification and Sustainability in the Higher Education
Education for sustainable development concentrates its efforts on solving the planetary crisis that surrounds us, recognizing global problems such as the loss of biodiversity and climate change [38
]. It relies on the involvement of various social institutions, including the university, as a place in which to acquire conceptual and procedural bases and values with which to exercise the profession from the perspective of ethics and care for the environment [39
]. In this context, education is a key element and a priority to involve new generations to carry out personal actions that contribute towards respecting the environment and increasing social awareness [40
In 2015, within the framework of the United Nations, world leaders unanimously adopted the document “Transforming our world: The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development”, constituting the most ambitious global agreement in our recent history. This Agenda came into force on 1st January 2016, with the aim that by 2030, the world and all societies would be able to move towards a better, more sustainable, and inclusive future [44
]. The Agenda defines the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, alluding to the need to promote education for sustainability, reorienting training plans at all levels of education, including university [45
]. In the report derived from the previous document, the need to create learning spaces focused on students is highlighted, promoting a playful, innovative, and participatory pedagogy, capable of enhancing motivation and academic performance through attractive teaching methods such as gambling. In this way, it is possible to promote self-regulated learning based on an interdisciplinary approach to environmental conflicts. Given this panorama, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations (UN) are in favor of the use of video games in the educational space to provide training in topics related to social conflicts and environmental protection [48
]. In the university context, in particular, there are more and more teachers committed to the use of gamification as an avant-garde methodology that favors learning through the implementation of virtual teaching experiences. According to Gatti, Ulrich, and Seele [49
], the elements of game positively influence both the motivation and the experience of the student in terms of their pro-environmental attitudes, reaching higher levels of conceptual knowledge, awareness, and sensitivity towards ecological conflicts. In the same line, other authors suggest that serious environmental video games or game-playing platforms will improve the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral potential of students in problems related to climate change. When these factors converge with social interaction, the possibilities of implementing actions that will result in an improvement in environmental reality are increased [48
Despite all the declarations of intent made by international organizations and the importance they give to the learning/teaching attitudes or patterns of behavior contributing to increased sustainability, there is a great deal of research that focuses on analyzing the process of curriculum greening at the university, which reveals the necessary involvement of teaching staff to generate changes in teaching following the sustainability paradigm [39
] The implementation of education for sustainable development in education and higher education requires a commitment to reorienting learning experiences to make students aware of their environmental responsibilities, capabilities, and motivations [60
Following Langendahl et al. [61
], based on the gamification defined by Deterding et al. [7
], gamification can be used as a means to engage students in management education for sustainability. Research in support of gamification, as an active and innovative methodology, for education for sustainable behavior is scarce [49
]. The purpose of this study is, on the one hand, to identify the assessment of higher education university students about the convenience of the use of gamification as an active methodology in the teaching–learning process, as well as the implementation of education for sustainable development in higher education. On the other hand, to test these new ideas established by Gatti [49
] and Langendahl [61
]. Concretely, we analyze the effects of implementing the gamification on motivation, on different applications of the gamification, and on the development of attitude towards sustainable behavior—all refer to the perceptions of the university students interviewed— based on a model of structural equations. These students of education from university will be teachers in the future.
The literature described above allows us to consider a conceptual exploratory–confirmatory model. Several authors point out that the training and design of gamification affects motivation; the following hypotheses are confirmatory: H1 and H2 are established based on [28
] and [48
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
Training and teaching criteria about gamification are directly positively related to motivation.
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
Training and teaching criteria about gamification are directly and positively related to applications of gamification.
], H3 and H4 have been established.
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
Training and teaching criteria about gamification are directly and positively related to attitude towards sustainability.
Hypothesis 4 (H4).
Applications of gamification are directly related to attitude towards sustainability.
Now we test if there was a relation between the rest of the construct. The following hypothesis are descriptive–exploratory with no established sign:
Hypothesis 5 (H5).
Global motivation directly affects applications of gamification.
Hypothesis 6 (H6).
Global motivation directly affects attitude towards sustainability.
The final theoretical model includes four constructs with 12 items (from a total of 26 initial considered items): applications of gamification with two items; training and teaching criteria (in the design of gamification and the minimum criteria of the activities of subjects to learn) named with two items; global motivation with three indicators; attitude towards sustainability with two items.
4. Discussion and Conclusions
This study had several purposes, first, to analyze the perceptions that higher education students from Malaga University have about the use of gamification as an innovative methodology in the teaching–learning process. Related to this objective, the results reveal that these higher education students perceived gamification as an active methodology that has positive effects on the motivation of both students and teachers. In this sense, the participants show that obtaining rewards, points, or medals are tools that stimulate students in the development of an educational activity. These outcomes are consistent with other studies that have analyzed how the use of innovative techniques, including gamification, promotes and improves the motivation, perception, commitment, and social awareness of students in learning [19
]. Concerning the viability of gambling in the teaching–learning context, this study highlights that the perceptions that the implementation of gamification in the classroom requires teachers to have adequate training in this methodology and its practical application to the classroom context. Moreover, following Aróstegui-Barandica and Darretxe-Urrutxi [30
], teachers must organize, plan, and select the appropriate digital games for the teaching topic. The objective is to encourage curiosity towards learning new content; to adapt to the learning pace of the students; to motivate and generate a good climate in the classroom. Concerning the educational applications of gamification, the participants perceived that these applications in the classroom can contribute to the acquisition of skills, among which is learning to learn, digital skills, and social and civic values. These contributions are in line with other research [33
], which indicates that gamification and the appropriate use of serious video games are key tools for teaching content, skills, abilities, and improving creative capacity. The study by Villalustre and Del Moral [32
], carried out with students of the Degree in Pedagogy, obtained similar results, showing that the use of game dynamics applied in the realization of a project increased motivation, the level of satisfaction with the task entrusted, knowledge of theoretical contents, and the development of key generic competences.
Secondly, students’ assessments of how education for sustainable development is carried out in the university context were studied. The results show that the respondents’ attitudes are in favor of receiving an education based on the knowledge of values and skills for a life marked by sustainable nuances, as well as the power to ensure that the next generation has an environment as healthy as possible. These results are also in line with other studies that focus on giving students tools to respond to conflicts related to global degradation [39
]. Similarly, participants have expressed that teachers are not actively involved in making the principles of education for sustainable development a reality. The green curriculum does not only include the incorporation of environmental contents in the teaching programs, but it is also necessary to integrate global changes in the teaching processes that link theory with practice, action with reflection and, in short, a global conception of education that can guarantee the development of the individual, as is pointed out by Aleixo et al. [40
] and Murga-Menoyo and Novo [43
Thirdly, following Dichev and Dicheva’s recommendations [36
], we have contributed to an empirical work that investigates. Concretely, we have estimated a PLS-SEM in which the effects of the training and teaching criteria of gamification in the educational context, students’ and teachers’ motivations, applications of gamifications, and attitudes towards sustainability are related.
The results of the PLS-SEM model are limited as they refer only to the higher education students from the University of Malaga towards gamification and education for sustainable behavior; therefore, the sample is not representative of the population of all students at this university. However, the results obtained are in line with the findings of other studies that have been carried out.
Specifically, the introduction of gamification in the educational framework is perceived as a positive influence on the motivation of students. H1 teacher training and planning in gamification directly and positively affects global motivation, student motivation and teacher motivation, and is supported in line with findings of several authors [19
]. Furthermore, the global motivation mediates totally between training and teaching criteria, and applications of gamification.
Additionally, the motivation has a direct and positive influence on the acquisition of pro-environmental attitudes (H6), together with greater awareness and sensitivity towards environmental conflicts, which are included in the construct named attitude towards sustainability, being a descriptive result. The most relevant finding are the total effects of this exogenous construct—training and teaching criteria—on attitude towards sustainability [49
] and global motivation. Thus, as a result of these students’ assessments, the key role of the teacher, as the main architect, is being responsible for motivating and encouraging students to develop sustainability skills, which come into play as he or she plans and designs educational activities with the environment as the central focus [48
Among other conclusions, it can be pointed out that the use of active methodologies in higher education, such as gamification, requires that future education teachers assume a change of role to respond to the needs of today’s society. To do so, they need to have acquired generic professional skills that are adjusted to the changes generated by the technological impact. Furthermore, their teaching methodology requires clear, rigorous planning and minimum criteria for the selection of teaching and learning materials to motivate both students and teachers; however, although the attitude towards gamification and pedagogical innovation is positive, maybe there are lecturers, who are reluctant to innovate methodology. This may be due to the demand for time and the imbalance it can create in terms of research when, up to now, research and academic papers are more relevant in the university’s system of rewards compared with university teaching. It must be kept in mind that the various digital resources are continually becoming obsolete, which means that teaching staff must constantly update their knowledge.
On the other hand, we must stress the existence of technological limits to reach the maximum levels of interactivity and participation in the development of gamification, either because all students do not have technological resources, or because the participation at a collaborative level among students (through groups) is not sufficiently developed. However, the continuous digital advances will progressively overcome some of these limitations. Similarly, it should be measured whether the increase in motivation and participation of students is transferred in parallel to an increase in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. It is also necessary to reconcile the different student profiles with the teaching style used by the teaching staff, making use of gamification.
Taking into account the contributions derived from this study concerning sustainability, we highlight that although there is a favorable predisposition on the part of teachers and students concerning a green curriculum, the reality shows that the training received in the university context related to the development of sustainability is scarce, and teachers do not have the necessary innovative tools with which to promote sustainability skills. For all these reasons, we need to use the active methodologies, such as gamification, that guarantee the motivation of students not only in terms of cognitive learning results but also in their attitudes towards sustainable development. However, this last result related to the education for sustainable behavior is merely descriptive–exploratory based on education students’ assessment from one grade and one university and needs to be compared with future researchers’ results. Future lines of research should continue to investigate the potential of teaching tools as a learning resource, of an education in values, and civic and environmental attitudes in the university context, above all, with more empirical studies and with control groups.