Providing Students with Positive Failure Feedback

I have written in the past about the importance of making failure okay, and indeed par for the course, in education. The fact that games make failure normal, acceptable, and even fun is one of the many aspects of play that has drawn me to game-based learning, gamification, and gameful teaching/learning. But even when I tell students that it is okay to fail and build in a do-over system into my classes, it is still a struggle to get students to buy into the idea that failure is an acceptable and necessary component of learning. I am currently re-reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken and have spent much time studying and contemplating her chapter on failure. McGonigal points out that there is a biological imperative to our avoidance of failure:

It’s to our evolutionary advantage not to waste time and energy on goals we can’t realistically achieve. And so when we have no clear way to make productive progress, our neurological systems default to a state of low energy and motivation. (70)

This would certainly explain why so many students choose avoidance over failure. But even when I believe that I have provided my students with clearly attainable goals and lavished them with multiple streams of formative feedback, sometimes even the most capable student will give up and become disengaged. It could be a problem with my perception of the assignments I am creating, the feedback I am giving, and the mechanisms for self-direction I have built into those assignments; perhaps my instructions are not as clear or the goals as obtainable as I believe them to be from the students’ perspectives. Perhaps it’s a problem with students’ self-efficacy beliefs or their ability to persist in the face of academic failure (which is certainly more life-threatening than virtual failures in a game). I can certainly try to address the former, but I am not sure what more I can do to remedy the latter. Another component that is within my control is the type of feedback that I provide students when they fail.

One of the reality fixes that McGonigal sees games providing is that of “fun failure:” “The right kind of failure feedback is a reward. It makes us more engaged and more optimistic about our odds of success” (67). She provides several examples of this in games and explains how studies have shown  that players exhibit the most heightened positive emotions, such as excitement, joy, and interest, immediately after they have experienced failure. Why is this? McGonigal believes it is because games allow us to fail spectacularly and actively. In a game, failure is not something that just happens to you; it is not beyond your control. If you fail, it is because you did something wrong and you know it. And when you do fail, it is communicated to you immediately and usually in a way that is so celebratory (via sounds and visuals) that it renews feelings of positive engagement. According to McGonigal, the trick to accomplishing this magical failure reaction is pretty straightforward:

[Y]ou have to show players their own power in the game world, and if possible elicit a smile or a laugh. As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying–and remain hopeful that we will succeed. (67)

I am still grappling with how to achieve the first aspect of this method in my formative and summative feedback. But, in the meantime, I’ve decided to try to at least achieve the second aspect by attempting to elicit a smile or a laugh from my students when they fail.

I decided to start playing with integrating some positive failure feedback into my current short-term online FYC class. The easiest thing to start with, I decided, would be the quizzes, since Blackboard offers a way to provide immediate feedback to a student based on whether they answer a question/problem correctly or incorrectly. I had already added some positive feedback when students answered some of the most difficult questions correctly. This is something that seemed natural to me at the time that I was creating the quizzes. But I am not sure why it has never occurred to me to also provide positive feedback when students answer those questions incorrectly. For some reason, this seems counterintuitive to my teacher senses. But, if you think about it, it actually makes much more sense than providing feedback when a student gets a question/problem correct. If a student gets a question/problem correct, they don’t really need us to give them kudos: success should be reward enough. It is when a student has failed that they need the most encouragement. So, I decided to do this by trying to do two things: make light of their failure (it’s really not the end of the world that you got this question/problem wrong) and, by extension, make them smile or laugh (so, just dust yourself off and try again and, if you happen to fail again, you’ll get a good laugh out of it). I chose to do this by selecting .gifs featuring the minions from the Despicable Me franchise either failing miserably (and spectacularly) or comforting each other after such a failure. They are, after all, immediately recognizable, have a reputation for screwing up, and make us feel all warm and fuzzy because of their persistence and unfailing hope and happiness. I embedded the .gifs in the feedback box for incorrect answers on what I considered the most difficult questions in each test pool, choosing a random approach, since randomness is another way in which games reward the brain. My hope is that, should a student begin to become unmotivated in the face of failing to answer a difficult question correctly, a funny .gif will both make them smile and encourage them to try again with more confidence in their ability to succeed or, at the very least, get a good laugh if they fail again.

For future classes, I would like to try other ways of integrating positive failure feedback, especially with writing assignments. Even though students can attempt a writing assignment multiple times, for students who lack basic writing skills, it can often take anywhere from three to six attempts to get a piece of writing to an acceptable level and this can become extremely frustrating for them. If I can determine a way to make them feel more in control of their success and more empowered by their failures, I can perhaps keep them motivated and engaged.

I would love to hear readers’ thoughts and ideas on ways to provide positive failure feedback to students.

An Easy Way to Encourage, Track, Assess, and Regulate Class Discussions

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For me, one of the more difficult aspects of teaching a seminar-style class has been encouraging, monitoring, and assessing open-ended discussions. There are several things that make whole-class discussions difficult to pull off successfully. The most problematic is simply getting the students to talk to begin with. This is often due to lack of preparation, but it is as often due to the fact that students have not had proper training in how to participate in an open discussion, having spent much of their educational lives in drill-and-test, top-down “learning” environments, and many of them are simply afraid of saying something that is “wrong” (because in these kinds of environments there are only right and wrong answers) and/or of appearing “dumb” in front of their peers. If you are successful in getting students to open up and talk, a scenario usually develops in which a few students dominate the discussion, either because of lack of participation by others or because these students have dominant personalities and tend to “over share” their knowledge and opinions. And then there is the issue of tracking, recording, and assessing discussion participation. I have seen various methods suggested over the years, from putting names on popsicle sticks and cold-calling on students whose stick is selected to marking hashmarks for each contribution to giving students a plus, check, or minus for the number and quality of their contributions. But I have never found any of these systems to really work. So, when planning my seminar-style Graphic Novel Survey class this term, I had to figure out a way to address all of these issues. This is the method that I came up with and which is working quite effectively.

Encouraging Discussion

First, I needed to figure out a way to encourage students to not only participate in discussion but come properly prepared to do so. If the students were thoroughly prepared, I felt certain that they would be more comfortable talking. I also needed to ensure feelings of responsibility and accountability on every students’ part; they each needed to know that they could not just let someone else carry their load, so to speak. I tackled these two related issues in the following ways.

I addressed the aspect of preparation by having our discussion days at the end of each unit, so that students had already completed several virtual and in-class activities that ensured that they had read the novel we would be discussing and had had ample opportunities to work with it via interactive lectures, small-group activities, and individual analysis, and by requiring that every student bring a potential discussion question to class on the day of discussion. I also had students volunteer to be discussion leaders for each novel; this meant that students’ peers were responsible for previewing and selecting from their submitted questions, determining what order in which to ask the questions, ensuring an active discussion via prompting and encouragement, and moving on to the next question when discussion waned. I felt that students would feel more comfortable if their peers were facilitating the discussion and, since students tend to be more sympathetic to each other than to me, they would actively participate rather than watch their peers struggle to carry out their assignment. Lastly, on the day of discussion, I had students sit in a circle so that everyone was facing each other; this helped communicate mutual responsibility and accountability, since all students could see each other and make eye contact.

Tracking, Assessing, and Regulating Discussion

Next, I worked on determining an efficient method for keeping up with which students contributed, how often they did so, and the quality of their contributions. Since this class usually contains its fair share of fanboys and fangirls, groups that can quell other students’ enthusiasm with their encyclopedic knowledge and exuberance for sharing it, I also had to figure out a way to allow students to self-monitor their contributions, since I needed to focus on recording and assessing contributions and I knew that the student discussion leaders would not know how to diplomatically handle a domineering peer. I managed to kill all of these birds with one stone in the following way.

I adapted the popsicle stick method, using sticky notes instead and making the students responsible for selecting when they contributed. I gave each student four sticky notes and had them write their name on each.  Whenever they wanted to contribute to the discussion, they had to give me a sticky note; once they were out of sticky notes, they could not contribute until everyone else had used up all of their notes. This facilitated two aspects of the discussion: in terms of equalizing participation, it forced those who would normally over-contribute to self-monitor and be more selective about when they spoke up, and for those who normally would not have contributed, it forced them to speak up because they could no longer rely on the dominant students to do so and they had a visual reminder of how much they were expected to contribute. This method also allowed me to easily track who had spoken up and how often.

In terms of assessing contributions, after receiving a sticky note from a student, I would listen to their remarks and then quickly make note of their quality on the note (a plus for excellent quality, a check for good quality, and a minus for all other remarks). I stacked each student’s notes on top of each other on a page of my legal pad. After class, I could then very easily assign a grade to each student for the discussion: 4 stickies equalled an A, 3 equalled a B, 2 equalled a C, and 1 equalled a D. I used the plus/check/minus notations to determine whether they received an A+, A,  A-, etc.; if the majority of notations were pluses, then the student earned a plus, if the majority were minuses, the student earned a minus, etc. While it is not a perfect system (a student could potentially earn an A for making 4 remarks of poor quality), so far, for this class, it has been very accurate thanks to the preparation and responsibility components that I have combined it with.

The open discussions that my students have had so far this term have far exceeded my expectations. They have made connections between novels and with both their personal lives and society at large without my prompting them to. They have submitted thought-provoking questions and raised additional questions during their discussions. They have taken to the task of facilitating their own discussions with enthusiasm and finesse. And, without fail, on discussion days, we have consistently lost track of time and went over our 90 minute discussion period. I have no real way of knowing how much of this is attributable to the students themselves and their enthusiasm for the course materials and how much is attributable to the methods that I have used to encourage, track, and regulate their discussions. I plan to try these methods with my freshman in the fall and see if I have similar positive results. I’ll certainly blog about the results, whether positive or negative.

Hopefully, if you have struggled with encouraging and recording open student discussions as I have, you will give some or all of these methods a try or adapt them for your own needs. Please let me know if you do so and how it works so that we all can learn together!

War of the Words: How to Gamify Online Discussions

photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc
photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc

Ask anyone who teaches online and they’re 99.9% certain to say that encouraging engaging and consistent discussion is the biggest challenge of teaching online. That percentage probably goes down in upper-level discipline-focused courses, but for those of us who teach freshman- and sophomore-level core curriculum courses, this percentage is pretty accurate no matter what the class or the students’  level of online learning experience. Why are (quality) online discussions so difficult to initiate and sustain? This is especially perplexing when you consider how much social media has revolutionized our ability to engage in virtual discussions. Such discussions are a ubiquitous, daily component of almost every millennial’s life. Of course, some would question the quality of those discussions, but I tend to favor some, however questionable in quality, discussion over no discussion at all when it comes to preparing students for online learning. If they come to us already in the habit of using Facebook and Twitter to engage with peers on a regular basis, then shouldn’t transitioning this kind of virtual verbal give-and-take to a course-focused setting, whether it’s Blackboard or a private group on Facebook or Google+, be easy? And once engaging in those discussions we can help them develop the quality of their contributions, right?

Right. But we have to get them there first and that’s the biggest challenge. This is not a case of “build it and they will come.” We’ve tried that. Some of us, recognizing the clunkiness and walled garden atmosphere of most LMS discussion forums, moved to trendier forums, meeting students where they were on Facebook and Twitter. This helped some; maybe we overcame the learning curves inherent in LMS discussion boards and we saw a spike in discussion activity initially as students’ curiosity got the best of them, but this either didn’t work (because students didn’t follow the rules regarding appropriate posts or never learned how to use hashtags to signal course-related tweets) or it didn’t last (as the novelty wore off and students realized it was just the same boring kind of class discussion relocated to their social spaces). [As a reminder, I am focusing here specifically on 100% online courses, as I know several teachers have had success with using social media in face-to-face and hybrid classes to spark discussion and participation.] The problem, of course, is multifaceted. Some of it has to do with students’ perceptions about the value of deep, meaningful discussion about academic texts and issues and their lack of experience with such discussion, triggering fears about how others will view them if they say something “dumb.” Part of it is our inability to transcend the artificiality of such discussions; even relocating a teacher-constructed, forced discussion to an organic forum like Twitter cannot disguise/mitigate the true nature of the interchange. And we’ve only added artificial sweetener to an already artificial ingredient by superimposing rubrics onto the discussion, requiring a certain number of posts and comments, and assigning point values to each post and comment, further de-motivating students who fear they’ll be penalized for inept posts/comments and imprisoning students within an inorganic, regimented system of forced, mimicked responses. So, what’s an online teacher to do?

That is the question I was faced with as I began to design my first 100% online first-semester First-Year Composition class for the upcoming Fall term. So, I began to think about what kinds of activities triggered the most engagement and meaningful discussions in the classroom. I ended up isolating two specific kinds of activity: debate and cooperative competition games like the one I designed to gamify required readings. So, my next question became how I could translate those kinds of activities to a virtual space rather than a physical classroom. This question proved to be much more problematic, as both of these activities are based upon physical proximity and the ability to receive and give immediate feedback. And while both involve an artificial construction, the context and rules imposed on the students force them to be creative and to deeply engage with the questions/issues at hand if they want to “win.” So, artificiality is the whole point: these are both games and a game is an artificial construct that embraces its artificiality and uses it to encourage deep player engagement. It just so happened that I was also re-reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken at the same time as I was pondering the dilemma of how to redesign these two activities as virtual games. In particular, her chapter on “Stronger Social Connectivity,” which outlined social network games like FarmVille and Lexulous, seemed to hold the answer. While I was not familiar with Lexulous, it immediately reminded me of Words with Friends. As McGonigal points out, these kinds of social network games are typically asynchronous (as are online discussion forums), but are designed to encourage checking in on a regular basis to keep up with and respond to “friends'” activities (something online discussion forums can’t quite seem to accomplish).  This seemed to be the blueprint that I needed for the kind of discussion game I was contemplating.

I ended up using Words with Friends as a model and designed three different types of discussion games. The games will be played in a Google+ Community. Each game has a start date/time and an end date/time; during the interval the game is “on” and students can post whenever they wish. In some cases, I imposed a limit to posts in order to discourage students from monopolizing the game and farming points. I decided to make all points earned during the games bonus points; each student’s bonus points will be tallied and recorded on a scoreboard and added to their final course grade at the end of the term (because this is a dual enrollment course, I have to use a traditional grading structure and have not gamified the class beyond the discussion games). The points earned by the highest-achieving student will determine the baseline grade; so, if they end up earning 15,000 bonus points, then all students’ bonus points will be recorded as X/15,000 (again, because this is an online dual enrollment course, I have to use Blackboard’s grade book, which requires a maximum point value for all grades entered). Some games are team-based, so students earn points for themselves and their team and the team with the most points scored earns even more bonus points. I did design rubrics outlining criteria for the kinds of posts expected for each game, but because of the gameful nature of the activities, students can have posts of varying degrees of quality and still earn points and, in the case of team-based discussion games, help their team.

The first game I developed is an online version of my power card reading game. It basically works the same as the in-class version of the game, only without the cards (I’m still working on how to use the cards virtually). Each student will be responsible for posting questions and answers at any time during the period in which the game is “on.” Here’s a breakdown of the guidelines and rules:

  • The questions must be open-ended, meaning there is no right/wrong answer, and they must require supporting evidence from the book as part of the answer.
  • Each team member may ask no more than three questions.
  • Each team member may answer no more than three questions.
  • Repeated questions or answers will not earn points, but still count towards a player’s maximum question/answer allowance.
  • Players should tag their question posts with their team name so that other players know which team posted the question.
  • Players may only answer questions posted by members of the opposing team.
  • Players who wish to answer a question must post their answer as a reply to the opposing team’s post.
  • A question may be answered by more than one player but be careful of repeating answers.
  • Each question and answer will be assigned a point value by me, based on the following scale:

4 = excellent
3 = good
2 = fair
1 = poor

  • Points for both questions asked and answered with be tallied and the team with the most cumulative points earns an additional150 bonus points.

The second discussion game that I designed is a version of the in-class debates that I often require students to participate in. Again, this one is team-based and the winning team earns an additional 150 bonus points. I will randomly divide the class into two teams and post the debate topic at the game start time. Here are the guidelines/rules:

  1. The debate begins as soon as the debate topic is posted.
  2. I will create two posts based on the two sides of the debate and tag each with the appropriate side.
  3. You may only argue for the side that you’ve been assigned to.
  4. Each response must be posted as a reply to the appropriate post and must include both a claim (your reasoning) and grounds (the facts supporting your reasoning). You may have more than one piece of supporting evidence for each claim; in fact, the more grounds you have to support your claim, the better. You can find out more about developing a well-structured and well-supported argument on pages 194-200 of your writer’s handbook.
  5. Each claim will earn a player 10 points and each piece of supporting evidence will earn them 10 points.
  6. A player may also respond to a claim by the opposing team with a counterargument, which must also include a counterclaim and grounds. A counterclaim will earn a player 20 points and each piece of evidence used to support the counterclaim will earn them 20 points. Counterarguments should be posted as a reply to the argument being rebutted.
  7. A player may post no more than three arguments and three counterarguments for full points. After this limit is reached, the points earned will be reduced by half. A player may post no more than six total arguments and six total counterarguments. 
  8. Repeated claims and counterclaims will not earn points but will still count against a player’s maximum number of claims/counterclaims. Grounds, however, may be used to support multiple claims and counterclaims.

Last, I designed a discussion game that requires the students to take turns creating and posting questions about the topic/issue under study that the rest of the class has to answer, using specific kinds of answers. This will the first game that I have students play (with me asking the first question) in order to orient them to the discussion game format and begin helping them develop meaningful discussion posts. The students must restrict their responses to the questions to the following four answer types (which can be combined in any way), with each answer type assigned a different point value:

  • Explanation (+10 pts.): this type of post is focused on explaining how something works; what happened and how it happened; what something is or how something is done; etc. (fact-based)
  • Argument (+20 pts.): this type of post is focused on presenting an argument with the purpose of persuading others to agree with you (opinion-based)
  • Evidence (+30 pts.): this type of post is focused on presenting supporting reasons why an argument is valid, using either primary or secondary sources or your personal experiences/observations (source-based)
  • Challenge (+40 pts.): this type of post presents a counterargument or rebuttal to a classmate’s explanation, argument, or evidence (opinion-based)

In this game, I also encourage students to +1 peers’ posts that they think are especially thought-provoking, persuasive, and/or insightful. Each post will earn 1 extra bonus point for each +1 it receives; however, each student is limited to 3 +1’s, so they must be selective with their bonus points (again, to discourage teaming up for point farming). 

My hope is that by framing the discussions as games, which acknowledges and embraces their artificiality and encourages both individual and cooperative competition, and making all points earned as part of the games bonus points, which are additive rather than subtractive and encourage experimentation and risk-taking, I can help students overcome their antipathy/animosity towards and fear of online discussion forums and inject a little fun into them in the process. I do not have false hopes that these games will completely alleviate all of the challenges inherent in online discussions, but I hope that it will be one step towards getting students involved and engaged in the process so that those challenges can begin to be addressed.

I know that some teachers have probably been able to effectively address the challenge of online student interactions in other ways. If so, please share your ideas, as I would love to incorporate them into my own design.

Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 3: Rewarding Effort


In my last two posts, I covered two aspects of turning your class into a game: creating the experience and designing experience systems. In this post, I’m going to cover the third aspect: rewarding effort. In games, all effort is rewarded and failure is not punished. In fact, failure is built into games. No one ever plays Mario Kart or Assassin’s Creed without failing–multiple times. This, as has been pointed out by several GBL advocates, is one amongst several reasons why games get learning right and schooling gets learning wrong (or, at least, has poorly designed it). In addition to de-stigmatizing failure, games reward every effort on the part of the player. Every effort. No matter how small. No matter if the effort leads to ultimate success or abysmal failure. Not only do games reward all effort, but, as James Paul Gee points out in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, they reward effort based on the amplification of input principle. In this design principle, a little input results in a lot of output. By rewarding the player with mega-feedback and mega-output, the game encourages them to put forth even more effort in the hopes of receiving ever larger and larger returns. Again, this stands in stark contrast to how schooling responds to effort. So, how can we apply these principles to the classroom? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in this post, though this is an aspect of games-based learning that I have only recently begun experimenting with myself, so what I’ll offer are some basic principles, as gleaned from well-designed games, and a few ideas based on things I have done or plan to do in my classes.

One way that games reward effort is, of course, with points (XP). This is usually the first thing that people think of when they think of GBL and gamification: giving players/students points for doing things. But points are only one way in which games reward player effort. They also reward effort via achievements. Achievements can be almost anything that has value within the game: tools, clothing/armor, virtual money, powers, bonus content, advantages over other players/NPC’s, etc. In general, there are two types of achievements in games: measurement achievements and completion achievements. Completion achievements are earned simply for completing a task, while measurement achievements are awarded based on the degree and/or proficiency to which the task is completed and are evaluative in nature. A good example is the star rating system in Angry Birds, in which the number of stars you receive for destroying the pigs’ structure in each level depends on how well you did so (evaluating aim, accuracy, speed, and number of projectiles you used). In The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Karl Kapp recommends awarding completion achievements for boring tasks and measurement achievements for challenging and interesting ones.


Achievements can be expected or unexpected. Expected achievements, according to Kapp, encourage goal-setting and self-evaluation, as players seek to earn achievements that they know are available. Unexpected achievements, on the other hand, encourage exploration and creative gameplay; as a player discovers an unexpected achievement, they become curious about other achievements that might be hidden in the game and actively seek them out. A good example of unexpected achievements are Easter eggs, which I discussed in a previous post. Kapp recommends using unexpected achievements sparingly, but I’m not sure that I agree with him. I think that using both expected and unexpected achievements as much as possible will allow you to target and encourage both types of behavior, and unexpected achievements will offer more challenges for those students who crave them.

There are four general types of achievements in games: status (badges, character classes, etc.), access (to places and items that other players don’t have access to), powers (extra abilities and advantages), and loot. There are several types of loot, including money, goods, bonuses, and time. Money can be used to purchase apparel and tools/weapons for your character or items within the game world. Awarding players money encourages autonomy, creativity, and problem-solving, as they must consider what items to purchase based on both their current and future needs. For example, in the game that I designed for my argumentation and debate class this past Spring based on classical Greek institutio rhetorica (schools of rhetoric), teams of students earned (virtual) gold for participating in in-class activities; they could then use this gold to purchase “favors” from their patroness (me) such as the ability to select which side they debated in an upcoming debate or what order their debate would be held in. In the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game that my English 102 students played, they earned money for completing writing assignments and for helping out their guild members with their “cases”; the players could then use this money to purchase virtual investigative tools for their character. The number and cost of the tools their character owned determined their character’s status within the world of the game in terms of renown within their field.

Goods are a second type of loot. The investigative tools that my students purchased in “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” is one example. Goods can be used to personalize and/or strengthen a character or allow the player to play “smarter.” In my upcoming FYC game, players will earn potions for various efforts (peer review, attendance, commenting on peers’ blog posts, etc.); there are three different colored potions, each earned for a different type of effort, some completion-based and some measurement-based. The potions can be combined to attain various kinds of powers, which give the players advantages within the game (extended deadlines, bonus XP, skipping tasks, etc.), with each power requiring a unique combination of potions–the more advantageous the power, the more complex the potion combination required. And once a potion has been used to attain a power, it is used up, so, with some potions scarcer than others, the students will have to think carefully about which powers are most needed at the moment and which might be needed later on. So, like money, goods encourage creativity and problem solving, as well as goal-setting.

Bonuses are also effective ways to reward effort, whether in the form of bonus points or items, because they often allow players to catch up with other players or recover from an especially debilitating failure. A good example of this is found in Mario Kart, where the best weapons are often dropped at times when and in places where the players at the back of the race can pick them up. Students who start a class late (either literally due to late registration or figuratively because they chose to ignore early assignments due to lack of interest or competing commitments) or who get behind later in the term may become demotivated if they feel that it’s impossible for them to catch up with everyone else or make enough progress to pass to class. Having bonuses that allow these students to get back on track may help keep some of them from giving up. I’m attempting to address these students in two ways in my upcoming FYC class game. For one, a couple of the powers that can be attained by combining potions include earning double and triple XP on quests and the ability to skip certain tasks. I have also designed a couple of bonus quests that students can complete, adding the bonus XP earned for doing so to their current quest XP in order to help them level up to the next quest (one of the rules of the game is that players have to earn at least 50% of the total possible XP for a quest in order to move on to the next quest). Like bonuses, time can be used as a way to gain advantages over other players or over the game, again allowing players who get behind a chance to redeem themselves by either slowing down or speeding up the game for themselves or for others.

Whatever types of achievements you design to enhance the experience of your players/learners, have what game designers term a trophy room–a place where students can (re)view and relive their glory, whether virtually or physically. And try to tie achievements to activities that are rewarding in and of themselves. Too often, teachers believe the lie that we have to purchase student effort by assigning (subtractive) points to everything. This practice creates a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein students begin to buy into the idea that only things with points attached to them are worth doing. And that is ultimately the message we send when we attach rewards to some things and not to others (these things are worth doing, these are not), even though we scream about how lazy students are because they won’t read the assigned textbook or essay (but we haven’t designed any explicit reward system for doing the reading, while everything else is replete with punitive, external motivators). Within well designed games, rewarding effort is not about attaching extrinsic carrots to everything. An excellent example of this is the “student in peril” component of the Lego Harry Potter franchise. In each level, there is a student hidden somewhere; if you manage to find that student, the game rewards you by playing special music, having the student dance around while other students cheer, and providing you with a celebratory announcement. That’s it. No points. No extra powers. If you happen to rescue all of the students in peril (there are 50), then you earn the status of having rescued all of the students in peril. There’s no real extrinsic value in doing so. Yet, I have dedicated more hours than I really wish to think about trying to locate and rescue all of the students in peril, even replaying levels I’ve completed in order to do so. Why? Because it is a challenge (the students aren’t easy to locate, so it takes effort and skill to do so) and it feels good knowing that I have the potential to overcome this challenge the more I engage in the process (once you’ve located one student in peril, the chances are good you’ll be able to locate another and then another). And the fact that I’m not getting anything out of it actually makes it even more motivating, strangely enough (although Daniel Pink has proven this is actually not that strange).


An achievement is just that–a) a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage, or skill; and b) the process or fact of doing that something successfully. In order to be most effective and to encourage intrinsic motivation, achievements need to be part and parcel of an experience in which the effort, courage, and skill required to do something successfully and the process and fact of doing it successfully are the rewards most valued, both by the teacher and the students. If you think about it, I am, in fact, receiving something for rescuing the students in peril in Lego Harry Potter: positive acknowledgment and feedback from the game (reward for effort) as I engage in the process of locating them and the pride and self-confidence that comes with doing so successfully. Points are not the only, or even the most powerful, form of rewards available to teachers. Positive feedback, acknowledgement, pride, and self-confidence are all types of achievements that belong in any classroom, whether it’s been designed as a game or not.

What do you think? How can achievements be used most effectively in the classroom? What kinds of achievements work best in the classroom? How can we best balance extrinsic and intrinsic rewards? These are questions that I am considering as I begin the process of integrating achievements into my classes and, I believe, some of the most important ones to consider as we turn our classrooms into game spaces.

Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 2: Experience Systems

Warning: Designing effective experience systems is not easy!

In my last post, I began a discussion of how to turn your class into a game by addressing the most important component of a game: the experience. In this post, I’m going to focus on designing and integrating effective experience systems into that experience. Experience systems are what many people think of when they hear the term gamification: experience points, leaderboards, etc. But truly effective experience systems are so much more. I’ve discussed these systems and my struggles to integrate them effectively before (see “Experience Points in the Classroom: Back to the Drawing Board”), but I think that it’s important that the discussion about how best to use experience systems in the classroom continue. These systems are often viewed as not only a ready-made and easy-to-install substitute for traditional grading systems, but a way to automatically increase student engagement and motivation, neither of which is true. So what are experience systems, if not a game-based version of grades, and, if they increase gamers’  engagement and motivation so effectively, why are they so hard to integrate into the classroom?

Firstly, experience systems are methods for tracking both player progress through the game and their accomplishments and skill level. It’s important to remember that players don’t play the game to earn points, loot, or skills; rather, points, loot, and skills are byproducts of engaging in the experience in which the game immerses the player. This is why you should start the game design process by first designing the experience, then considering your experience systems. There are two major types of experience systems: experience points (XP) and levels. XP are a form of extrinsic reward system that are most often utilized in gamification and many teachers who are attempting to gamify their classes make the mistake of simply replacing grades with XP or adding an XP system to the class that is indirectly tied to grades (I’ve been guilty of both). This is a mistake because game designers don’t rely on XP alone to drive player motivation; instead, they purposefully and thoughtfully utilize both XP and levels in ways that aim to trigger both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Another mistake teachers may make is using XP as a substitute for traditional grades, but doing so in a way that simply turns XP into grading by a different name. The key characteristic of XP is that they are additive rather than subtractive. In other words, whereas traditional grading systems punish failure or a lack of effort by subtracting points from a predetermined grade (such as 100 points on an exam), players start a game with zero points and earn XP for every effort (whether it is entirely successful or not). Using XP in the classroom requires a reconceptualization of assessment that recognizes all effort and does not punish failure, one that reflects the degree of correctness and not absolutes. You should also balance the difficulty of the task with the amount of XP that the students can earn for attempting it. In the language of traditional grading, instead of all exams being worth 100 points, the number of points possible on each exam should become exponentially larger as the difficulty of the exams and the amount of knowledge, understanding, skills, and effort required to complete them increases. And when it comes to assigning XP to tasks, think BIG! Instead of 100 points, make something worth 1,000 points! The value of each point is still only relative to the points system itself, but you would be surprised by the difference in response from students when you raise the number values within that system. Lastly, for XP to be truly effective, you should update them immediately and frequently; one of the ways in which games reward the brain is via clear, immediate, and frequent feedback. The more rapid the feedback (whether it is XP, achievements, or narrative), the more likely the student is to link the feedback to an action/behavior on their part, synthesize and analyze the causal relationship between the two, and make adjustments accordingly.

The next type of experience system is levels and there are three types of levels: experience, progress, and difficulty. Again, all three of these types of levels should occur simultaneously. Experience levels are tied directly to XP and establish both short-term goals (leveling-up to the next experience level) and long-term goals (reaching the highest experience level). Players usually earn both status and external rewards of some kind (bonus XP, loot, etc.) when they reach a new level. When integrating experience levels, have a way for students to visualize their current level and how many XP they need to earn in order to level-up. Again, this is a type of feedback, so it needs to be updated rapidly and frequently. Progress (sometimes called game) levels help structure the game narratively and establish short-term goals for players, as each level presents new information and a new set of skills to master before moving on to the next level. This is just the game version of scaffolding or organizing learning into units, something most teachers are probably already doing. The difference with game levels is that the player’s progress is visible at all times (via a progress bar), allowing them to easily measure and visualize how far they’ve come since they started playing and how far they have left to go in order to win. Again, progress through the levels (or units) is a form of feedback that helps students develop metacognition (self-monitoring of effort and learning progress) and should be kept up-to-date.

The final type of level is difficulty levels. There are generally three difficulty levels: easy, intermediate, and hard or advanced. Having multiple difficulty levels allows you to differentiate learning; increases student autonomy; improves the chances of achieving the zone of proximal development (because each student can select the task that best correlates with their current skill level); and increases the re-playability of the game (if students can re-play a level at different difficulty levels). I’ve heard teachers say that, given a choice, students will opt for the easiest task, but, in my experience, that is not true. Though some students may do so (those trying to avoid failure, for example), most students are very accurate judges of their current ability level and relish a good challenge that will push them beyond that level if the classroom environment supports risk-taking and and if they are engaged in an experience that is relevant and interesting to them (both of which are present in effectively-designed games). It may take extra effort on the front end to develop different tasks of varying degrees of difficulty for each game level and then keeping track of which level each student is working at, but it will be well worth it if it means that more students are working in the zone of proximal development. And not all game levels have to be diversified; you could taper off explicit difficulty levels so that, eventually, all students are working on the same task, but one that is designed in a way so that each student can work at their own skill level (such as a problem-based project). If a three-level system is too complicated to schedule or difficult to design, then you could just use a simple two-level system: normal gameplay for the majority of students and advanced gameplay for those who want/need a more challenging task/quest (like those extra credit projects that students are always begging us to let them do). Either way, having different difficulty levels for students to choose from will increase the motivational and engagement factors of your game and is an important component of a well-integrated, multi-tiered experience system (experience points, experience levels, progress levels, and difficulty levels).

Because the most effective game strategically integrates all of these components, designing your experience systems is a difficult and potentially time-consuming task, especially when you factor in creating spreadsheets that allow you to update the experience systems so that students can see and monitor their progress. I have found it to be a trial-and-error process, with failure almost certain (either in terms of quality of design or in terms of how effectively your systems impact student motivation). It’s important to keep an open dialogue with students about the effectiveness and impact of your experience systems so that you can make any necessary changes quickly, before they have the potential to become a de-motivating factor that cancels out all of the hard work you’ve done in designing an engaging learning experience. But implementing experience systems into your game is essential to providing students with rapid, frequent feedback; to encouraging them to set and achieve short- and long-term goals; and to inspiring competition, whether it’s player vs. player, player vs. self, or player vs. the game. Students must have a way to visualize their current status in the game environment, how much progress that represents, and how close they are to winning.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers when it comes to designing effective experience systems, but I am more than willing to share my own ideas and experiences, if you have questions.

Next in the series, I’ll address different methods for rewarding effort in games.


Teaching Revision vs. Editing

image courtesy of Alex Pang
image courtesy of Alex Pang

My most recent post dealt with postmortems on student writing. In a related line of thinking, I have been considering more effective methods for teaching students the differences between revising and proofreading/editing a piece of writing. I often hear composition teachers express frustration with students because they insist on conflating editing with revision, despite the teacher’s best efforts to teach students the difference. It’s an issue that I have also struggled with and it is probably the one aspect of writing instruction to which I have yet to find a satisfactory solution. This term, I am teaching the first-semester course of my department’s First-Year Composition class. Since it is Spring, and this course is generally taken by students in the Fall term, the students in my class are taking the course out-of-sequence, meaning they have either failed the class once (or more times) before or were required to take our remedial writing class in the Fall. Both scenarios indicate that these students are, generally speaking, weaker writers than those who take the course in sequence in the Fall. Since weak compositions are, in my experience, more a reflection of lack of effort and revision/editing skills than lack of ability or writing proficiency, I decided to focus on teaching the students better revision/editing skills.

I decided to try to get to know more about the students in the class by having them write a literacy narrative as their first piece. I hoped that the literacy narrative would provide two things: some insights into the students’ experiences with and feelings about writing and a platform for explicitly teaching the writing process by requiring multiple drafts that focused on different writing processes.

The overwhelming majority of students chose to focus their literacy narrative on negative experiences with writing, either at the secondary level or at the college level. These experiences, while painful for the students to write about and, sometimes, for me to read about, were, I believe, cathartic for the students and extremely helpful in showing me, from the students’ perspectives, what methods do and do not work. One common factor among these negative experiences were feelings of inadequacy as a result of being singled out or overly criticized by their writing teachers. One student told a story of being unable to even begin writing an impromptu essay in their high school English class and feeling overwhelmed by being the only student in the class who was struggling to get started. They were then called on by the teacher to share their essay with the class and decided to improvise, despite not having a single word written down. When the teacher called the student out for not having written anything and speaking extemporaneously, the student broke down in tears and experienced what she termed “permanent writer’s block.” Another student wrote of their first college writing class, describing a grueling essay assembly line of in-class writing with no opportunities for revision after the pieces were graded. They elaborated on one incident in which the teacher marked off because the student had used “you” in their essay; in an effort to not make the same mistake, the student spent extra time on the next essay, making sure not to use “you,” only to receive deductions again for using “you.” When the student approached the instructor and pointed out that they had not used “you,” the teacher responded, “You implied it.” With experiences like these, it is easy to see why so many of our students see their composition classes as either a nightmarish torture chamber or a game filled with arbitrary rules, which they have no hopes of winning.

The thing is, most students did not write this openly or use these kinds of illustrative examples the first time they wrote their literacy narrative. Typically, most students submitted bare bones pieces, some no longer than a paragraph, full of vague and abstract generalities. Normally, I would spend the majority of my feedback addressing this lack of content and the need for examples and supporting details and use the minimal marking method to mark but not correct errors in grammar and mechanics. It would be up to the student to address these issues in a second draft that would, normally, be their final draft. The result is very rarely a second version that meets both the needs for more fully developed content and corrections in grammar and mechanics.

But this time, I did things differently. Students ended up submitting four versions of the literacy narrative. The first version was their rough draft. When reading and providing feedback on this draft, I focused only on content and organizational issues. The class completed a playlist on Blendspace that focuses on revision and we discussed and practiced some revision in  class with their initial drafts. For the second version of their narrative, I asked students to focus only on addressing the content/organizational issues pointed out in my feedback. Once they had submitted this second version, I marked grammar and mechanical errors and we repeated the same process as we did with revision, this time focusing on the proofreading/editing processes. Once students had submitted a third version that had been proofread/edited, I did a final read-through and addressed any additional issues with content or grammar/mechanics and they submitted their fourth and final version for a summative, holistic assessment.

I found that students did significantly better when it came to both revising and editing their narratives by following this method. What started out, for many, as a skeleton of an essay eventually blossomed into a fully realized piece that was fairly devoid of major errors in grammar/mechanics. In their self-assessments, many students mentioned the positive impact that multiple drafts had on the finished essay and how the process of writing the essay helped them in overcoming some of their fears about writing. I feel that the quality of the essays also proves that poor writing is not necessarily the product of lack of writing ability, but rather a lack of  understanding of the writing process and/or a lack of effort to produce a quality piece of writing, either through apathy, fear of failure and/or criticism, or low self-efficacy beliefs.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to repeat this multiple-draft process with the rest of the pieces that students will be asked to complete this term due to lack of time. My goal now is to figure out a way to make this multiple-draft process workable in the next iteration of the course because I feel the results, both in students’ responses/efforts and the quality of their pieces, are too extraordinary to ignore or neglect due to time constraints. My job as a writing instructor is to find a way to make what works doable. And that’s what I will do.

I would love to hear from those who have identified other methods for effectively teaching the revision and editing processes and those who have found a way to effectively integrate a multiple-draft process into their classes.

Postmortems in the Composition Classroom

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt

I recently ran across an article on grading writing that began by quoting a tweet from a fellow Composition teacher that equated grading a final piece of writing with performing an autopsy on a dead body. I have desperately tried to find the article, but to no avail (if you know the article I’m thinking of or recognize the tweet being referenced, please let me know so that I may give the authors credit).  What puzzled me was that this analogy was meant to have a negative connotation (at least that’s how I read it). I by no means support a summative assessment-only form of grading. I, too, emphasize the process of writing and provide formative assessments that seek to help students to internalize the importance of thoughtful revision and careful proofreading before submitting a “final” version of a piece of writing. And, at one point, I too viewed that final version as a relic to be archived with all of the other finished pieces the student accumulated during the term. But several things have changed for me during the past few semesters: 1) I’ve switched to having students blog instead of submitting traditional word-processed essays; 2) I’ve switched to a portfolio system that allows students to select which pieces they wish to be formally graded, allowing them to revise and edit those pieces before adding them to their portfolio; and 3) I read Lauren Griffin’s “An Open Letter to Writing Instructors from a Motived Student,” which included the following eye-opening (for me) observation:

In many courses, I felt like an overworked employee at an essay factory, producing ten to twelve mediocre and forgettable papers — ones that teachers accepted as final drafts that were, in actuality, first drafts. . . . I wish that all of my instructors had challenged me to produce portfolios with five or six mind-blowing papers instead of valuing quantity over quality.

Griffen, in effect, sums up the kind of traditional method for organizing the First-Year Composition course that I had been told to use as an adjunct and everything wrong with that method: a focus on quantity over quality.

These three things have altered the way I view both the student’s writing process and their writing products, in that I now value both as equally important. For one thing, blogging allows students to view their writing as something alive; they see their readers respond to it and, often, realize that their own views of it change as a result.  Since their blog posts are living things, they can be revised and edited after they’ve been published; much like a garden, a blog needs regular maintenance, from pruning dead links to “growing” or expanding upon a previous post. Secondly, as Griffin argues, the portfolio system encourages writing students to make conscientious changes to pieces. As students read through their work in order to select which pieces to include, they often recognize weaknesses in earlier pieces because they see them in juxtaposition with later pieces. Hence, they begin to recognize their own growth and learning.

I have tried various methods for providing both formative and summative assessments of student writing, including utilizing both anonymous peer review for rough drafts and anonymous peer evaluation of finished products. This past semester, I had great success with having students submit a rough draft to me for feedback and then allowing them to evaluate each others’ finished product (these evaluations were not grade-based and had no impact on the student’s grade). The reason why I made this change was because I have realized that, especially for first-semester composition students, peer review is not as effective as I would like it to be. Even in anonymous, guided peer review, students have difficulty providing constructive criticism on someone else’s draft. Emotions are often involved, either on the reviewer’s end (“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”) or on the reviewee’s end (“One person said this and another said that, and I’m not sure whose advice to take”). While I think college students need to develop the ability to take criticism, writing is already emotionally fraught for them and the added emotions of peer review seem to make the writing process more, not less, difficult for many students. So, I decided to forego peer review and have students submit their drafts to me for review. While this did require quite a bit of time on my part, I think it paid off in dividends in the students’ final posts. I was able to direct their energies much more effectively than their peers could. I stuck with the minimal marking method and focused on asking questions about the students’ ideas and suggesting areas that needed further development or that seemed off-track. Students responded very enthusiastically to this method and, for the first time ever, I saw students really focusing on revising their writing (rather than the kind of minimalist adding on and editing that often passes for revision with most first-year composition students).

Unlike peer review, students seem particularly adept at evaluating final pieces. I am often amazed at how accurately their evaluations reflect the very things I would have pointed out in my own summative evaluation. I am not sure why this is the case and why they cannot do the same with peer review of rough drafts, but I decided to capitalize on it; since I was investing so much extra time and energy into reading and providing feedback on rough drafts, I completely handed summative assessments over to the students. I did perform a quick read-through of final posts in order to see how much effort the student had put into revising and editing the original draft and I did read through the summative feedback to ensure that student evaluations were accurate. Again, this system was very effective, as it removed the burden of summative assessment off of my shoulders (so that I could focus on helping with the writing process), it gave students multiple assessments of their final product, students were much more honest with each other about weaknesses in their writing, and they genuinely valued their peers’ evaluations and integrated them into their revisions and edits for their portfolio.

Next semester, I would like to add a few more layers of feedback to each piece of writing. I am considering, for example, adding a peer review session back into the process, after my own review of their drafts, to encourage a multiple-draft process. I am hoping that I can model effective feedback methods and encourage students to apply them to their own reviews. I would also like to focus more on the finished product and to integrate a postmortem of that product. I already have students write a reflection on each piece that takes their peers’ summative evaluations into consideration and establishes goals for the next piece of writing. But I would like to encourage students to autopsy their products in a much more explicit way after their emotional attachment to the piece has cooled a bit. While some may view the idea of an autopsy negatively, I see value in the process for FYC students.

Let us consider what, exactly, an autopsy is. It is, foremost, a thorough examination that seeks to determine the cause of death. But an autopsy often reveals much more than the cause of death, including diseases or injuries, both past and recent, that are not directly related to the death but that tell us more about the subject’s life and their relative health. But pathologists are not the only ones who perform autopsies. Game developers also perform postmortems. These postmortems seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in the game and to brainstorm how to improve it in future iterations. I think that having students work in groups to perform postmortems on the pieces they select for their portfolios would be an ideal way to encourage them to both value their final products and consider what they could do to add more life to each to make it an even stronger piece of writing. More than a pathologist, I’d like to encourage my students to become like Victor Frankenstein, seeking to collect the best pieces they can find in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts and imbuing it with life. But, rather than being afraid of and rejecting their creature like Frankenstein, I want them to thoroughly examine it and come to love it, both for its strengths and its faults.