July 25, 2022

Engagement, Challenge, and Feedback as Indicators of Higher Ed Playful Learning

Fabián Dulcé, Isabel Tejada, Paula García, Jimena Alviar, & Martha Ramirez

Several months ago we posted the first in a series on playful learning in Higher Education. As a reminder, we are a team of 5 Colombian educators who took the Pedagogy of Play, Let’s Play mini-course through Project Zero. We use this space to share our thinking about playful learning. You will find a Spanish version of this post here.

As an essential part of our Let’s play practicum training, we were invited to explore different Indicators of Playful Learning around the world (see some examples here and here). This turned out to be a mind-blowing task for two reasons: firstly, we realized that indicators, as the combination of theoretical and practical configurations of why and how playful learning can take place, have a significant impact in the way we deliver our teaching practice; secondly, we learned to express and define these indicators through the ways they looked and felt like in our classes - meaning, how our students experienced them. So this proved to be a very concrete way to grasp their power. In fact, having a set of indicators led us to understand that, as educators, we need a framework of reference of our own that helps us appreciate how we conduct our practice, as well as guide our reflections, decision-making processes, and actions in a meaningful and sound way.

Coming up with our indicators

As part of our exploration, we were encouraged to outline a configuration of indicators for our own contexts. Since we all work at Higher Ed settings with diverse characteristics, this was a tricky endeavor, given that most of the examples we explored belonged to primary and secondary school. So we observed our own classes and analyzed all the playful approaches we use in our teaching. This was the basis for the development of the indicators that we now share in this post.

The analysis was divided into 3 moments: first, we had a thorough brainstorming session (individual, then collective) where we poured all the keywords that characterized our practices; second, we mapped out and grouped these terms based on how we interpreted them and what they meant for each of us; and third, we decided one by one on the terms we agreed on, what they looked like and felt like in our settings, whether these really mattered, and if these matched across our scenarios. In this process we used Marc Brackett’s Mood Meter (you can find an editable version in Spanish and English here) and examples from our classes to narrow down the selection of the key words. Finally, we came up with three main indicators for the Higher Ed classes we lead: Engagement, Challenge, and Feedback.

Our indicators

As you can see in the figure below, each of our higher ed playful indicators has words that describe how they look and feel. Moreover, we found there were two cases of descriptors that were transversal to all three indicators: motivation and safe space. We believe engagement, challenge and feedback in a playful setting should lead to a feeling of motivation (feels like) and should be developed within a safe space (looks like).


Engagement is related to “students’ willingness to invest and exert effort in learning, while employing the necessary cognitive, metacognitive, and volitional strategies that promote understanding”  (see Blumenfeld et al.’s work). Thus, from a playful lens, engagement is the pivotal tool that unlocks sustained learning, and allows students to put into practice their strategies, make adjustments, and regulate their attention and effort levels while playing/learning in the classroom (see Dearybury & Jones’s book).

Hence, based on our experience, we can state that engagement is the most observable indicator!  It provides clear clues on how students are living and navigating the tasks and learning experiences we have designed for them, revealing a path that provides clear do’s and don'ts in terms of what boosts or hinders learners’ motivation. Within this line, in higher education,  this indicator looks like focused attention and decision making practices inside the classroom. We can also observe movement and active participation, collaboration and interaction among learners, as well as negotiation and reflection of the processes that are being carried out.

On the other hand, students experience engagement with feelings such as curiosity, confidence and being at ease when navigating the tasks we have designed for them, which means they have a sense of openness and trust in a stress-free learning scenario. Additionally, this indicator is experienced by students feeling enthusiasm, enjoyment, pride and belonging. These sentiments promote a fun atmosphere that invites them to speak up for themselves and for their partners, and to share their backgrounds and previous knowledge in the quest to accomplish the set learning objectives. Finally, engagement might provoke feelings of belonging and connection that allow them to inhabit and share different emotions, and to express them freely within our classroom.

Overall, the engagement indicator opens a variety of options to design playful tasks bearing in mind the strategies, feelings, and levels of sustained attention and motivation that we want our students to bring on during tasks. It is one of the keys that opens enjoyable playful scenarios.


The Cambridge Dictionary defines Challenge as “something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s ability.”

In higher education this definition comes in very handy since most of what we experience in this context is challenging at some level. However, from a playful perspective, this indicator has required us to thoughtfully design activities that first push learners out of their learning comfort zone, and then show them how learning challenges can be resolved playfully.  Some ways in which the challenge indicator looks like in the higher education classroom are thinking in a purposeful way; making mistakes as part of the learning process; carefully solving problems such as designing and following instructions; struggling and striving to achieve the learning goals.

Learners may feel challenge in playful learning as temporary unbalance and making an effort that invites them to look for new ways to think of a known issue or to provide answers to unfamiliar situations. This indicator also feels like being uncertain of first trials when attempting to provide an answer. This insecurity can turn into a surprise when learners realize that working through the challenge has taken them through a discovery process. Being challenged during the learning process also feels like fun for the learning to be playful. Learners might also feel curious and imaginative while working on challenging activities.

We have learned that the element of challenge in a playful setting connects to student engagement. When this indicator is missing and the task at hand becomes too easy, students disengage and lose interest.


Feedback can be defined as “any information about a performance that learners can use to improve their performance or learning. Feedback might come from teachers, peers, or the task itself. ” (Lipnevich et al., 2013, as cited in Lipnevich and Panadero, 2021). We adhere to this definition as feedback comes from various sources depending on the type of play involved. Moreover, Dearybury and Jones (2020) acknowledge feedback for growth as an important element in supporting student success within a playful classroom. Thus, the inclusion of feedback as a playful indicator becomes crucial since there must be feedback involved for learning to take place; in other words, playfulness plus feedback leads to learning.

Feedback in higher-ed students' learning journeys includes a sense of clarity of a learning outcome to be achieved; progress indicators or ceremonies that act as a beacon to stay on track or to make corrections on their learning processes; validation mechanisms for self reflection;  gained confidence regarding their diverse ways to approach a problem while embracing vulnerability as a key element that ‘lowers the shields’ and brings group cohesion and trust from their classmates.

You may see students trying their best to overcome the creative tension, constantly questioning their defaults & defying their comfort zones; smiling when they are either struggling or succeeding. Based on these behaviors they develop open communication with the teacher and with their peers while understanding the value of making (and honoring) mistakes.

The role that feedback plays in any learning scenario encourages students to lower the consequences of failure, take risks, explore, have some fun and try new things. Feedback leads to engagement, thus, to student motivation. However we have found that it is the feedback that comes from a growth mindset perspective (in how it is given and received) that will allow a safe space to exist and where there is no room for judgements or punishments.


To sum up, playful experiences can be enhanced by offering students a set of challenging and engaging situations, having in mind, from the instructional design perspective,  what you would like your students to feel and what playful learning should look like along their learning journeys. Other enhancements include letting them practice and solve these situations iteratively until they have achieved their mastery by using feedback tools and thinking routines in order to reflect collectively or individually and extract the learnings from the experience, so they can apply their gained knowledge in new types of contexts.

We’ve shared an overview of our playful indicators (engagement, challenge, feedback) that can be used as guiding principles for designing innovative classroom experiences aimed to foster a growth mindset and consolidate a flow state in our students’ learning journeys. If you would like to dig deeper into our playful indicators please stay tuned for our next posts on this mini-series of Higher Ed playful learning!

About the authors

Fabián Dulcé is an edupreneur and a highly curious lifelong learner. Passionate about making things different in education; enjoys integrating game and lean-agile thinking to create innovative learning experiences. Since 2013 he’s been working in varied educational institutions in Colombia as a trainer, lecturer, researcher and consultant.

Isabel Tejada is a Professor at the School of Education at Los Andes University (Bogotá). She's a passionate and playful life-long learner, growth mindsetter, and intercultural educator.

Paula García teaches future teachers at the School of Education at Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia. She has devoted her life to learning through a number of approaches, and found playful learning one of  the most challenging ways to make sure learning happens and stays.

Jimena Alviar is a proud and passionate English teacher who has devoted more than 10 years to exploring engaging and playful learning scenarios. Her curious and committed teaching spirit has allowed her to apply and navigate different teaching approaches with a varied range of students from preschool to higher education.

Martha Ramirez is a teacher educator, academic consultant and researcher specialized in flipped learning and growth mindset. Throughout her teaching career, she has sought ways to teach outside the box: playful learning has been one of the key approaches she uses in every teaching scenario she can.