Gamifying your preparation

Back in 2005, when I was preparing for IIT-JEE, I hated Inorganic Chemistry. It just looked like a huge collection of uninteresting facts to me, which I was unable to memorise. I attempted it several times, but just couldn’t get through it. I tried several books, but none of them managed to make it interesting. Around 1-2 months before the exam, I decided to give it one final attempt. This time I ended up inventing a technique that was very effective at making Inorganic Chemistry enjoyable! I had accidentally done what is now popularly known as “gamification,” i.e., making things enjoyable by converting them into a kind of game.

Here’s what I did.

Even though I hated memorising facts, I still liked problems that we used to call “roadmap” problems. A typical roadmap problem would provide you with some information about a few unknown compounds and ask you to identify them. For example, one piece of information could be that when mixed in Sulfuric Acid, the compound gave a red colored precipitate. Or perhaps the compound made the flame turn green. Or may be it burned violently when put into water. These kinds of problems had a very detective-like feel to them. You could imagine yourself at a crime scene having just found traces of a yellow colored powdery substance. What could the substance be?

The only problem was, since I was too impatient to read through those giant Inorganic Chemistry textbooks, I never knew how to interpret these facts. What does it mean when something turns the flame green or burns violently when put into water?

So I got a book that had a large collection (around 300 problems) of solved roadmap style problems and directly started attempting to solve the problems; with no background whatsoever. The first problem I read made no sense to me. So I just read the solution. But when I read it, I learned a few new facts. This time, those facts were interesting to me, since those were exactly the facts that were required in order to solve the problem. So I had a greater retention capacity for them in my brain. In fact, the first 10-15 problems made no sense to me and I just kept on reading the solutions and trying to remember as many of the facts as possible. But on the 16th problem, I read something I had read a few problems ago. The unknown compound in question had the same behavior when put into some kind of acid as the unknown compound from 5 questions ago! Thus I knew that we were dealing with a copper ion or whatever. With some extra guessing and extrapolations, I started getting the answer right with a reasonable accuracy.

I realized that this was just a more advanced version of the popular “memory game”! Memory game is the one where you place several cards face down on the table and you can see what’s on the cards one by one, starting from the top left. and keep each card back face down on the table after seeing it. If you see a card and feel that you’ve seen its copy before, you go back and flip the card you think is the copy. If it does turn out to be a copy, you can leave both the cards face up. Your final aim is to have all cards face up on the table. So the challenge is in remembering which card was what. Similary, in the Inorganic Chemistry game, each question presents you with some information about a compound and you need to remember from the previous questions what the particular piece of information meant.

Gradually, I started spicing up the game. I started counting the number of correct answers I got in one continuous streak. If I got 7 correct answers in a row and then 1 wrong answer, that would give me a score of 7. So I started trying to beat my own previous record. Slowly, things became very exciting. Eventually, I managed to know a significant part of the “roadmap problems” portion of Inorganic Chemistry.

The moral of the story is not just that you can make Inorganic Chemistry interesting. But that, you can make anything interesting by building an interesting game around it. Setting up a scoring system and then trying to beat your own previous record already makes things interesting. You can also set up a system of rewards and compete with other friends.

I learned the trick of counting the number of correct answers in one continuos streak from my father when I was perhaps around 10 years old. He told me he used to do it when he was small. In fact, his method has an extra step too. You can assign these scores to the batsmen of the Indian cricket team in the sense that a wrong answer means a wicket and a correct answer means a run. This way you can have a full India vs. Pakistan match! I have “played” this game in the past and it gets seriously addictive.

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013. Written by Vinayak Pathak. 2 comments.

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