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.

Advertisements

Gamifying a Short-Term Online First-Year Composition Course

Amazing-Race-BannerNEW

In an attempt to stem the outflow of students to universities with more extensive online programs, my university is piloting several core curriculum short-term online courses this summer at the regular tuition rate and I was asked to teach the 6-week online English 101 class. Needless to say, the thought of having to teach a first-semester FYC class completely online in just six weeks was fairly daunting. How to cover the basics of effective writing, the writing process, research methods, citation formatting, and critical reading in such a short period of time with the added hindrance of a clunky LMS (Blackboard) and no physical contact with the students (who would also not have access to the Writing Clinic, which is closed during the summer terms)? It felt like trying to coach 25 students through their first 50-meter dash. And ideally, an online class has lots of structured interactions via a discussion forum and/or blog posts in order to alleviate students’ sense of isolation, but the brevity of the term meant there was barely enough time for writing assignments, much less huge chunks of time dedicated to discussing stuff. So, I decided to turn what seemed like a huge disadvantage into an advantage and use the whole idea of a race to the finish line as inspiration for an Amazing Race-themed self-paced writing class.

Mechanics

I made the class more manageable by dividing it up into six “legs,” one for each skill set I needed to address: navigating and using Blackboard, the writing process, integrating and citing supporting quotations/summaries/paraphrases, research methods, annotating sources, and writing a research-based argumentative essay. Each leg consists of playlists that I created on Blendspace of resources on the skills needed to master the writing challenges for the leg and quizzes testing students’ ability to both recall tips and techniques addressed in the playlists and apply them to examples. Each leg culminates in a boss writing challenge that requires students to apply what they have learned throughout the leg.

I used Blackboard’s adaptive release feature to establish a mastery baseline of 60% for all quizzes and assignments and gave students unlimited attempts on each, so they must work at a quiz or writing assignment until they have earned at least 60% of the possible points before the next challenge is unlocked. Quizzes are auto-graded and I established a daily deadline for writing assignments so that any assignments completed by the daily deadline are graded the same day. Points earned on challenges are only indirectly related to a student’s final grade in the course, as that is determined by how many legs of the race they can finish before the last day. In this way, I effectively made the course self-paced: students can work on challenges as quickly as they like, as long as they have enough legs completed by the deadline to earn the final grade they desire.

I also decided to try out Blackboard’s new Achievements tool, which is basically a badging system tied to adaptive release. In order to encourage students to try to earn more than the bare minimum of points on challenges, I established an Achievement for earning at least 90% of the total possible points on each quiz and an Achievement (the Wordsmith badge) for earning at least 90% on any boss writing challenge. I also established an Experience Levels system and tied badges to leveling up, with each modeled after a “pass” from The Amazing Race: the Yield Pass allows students to preview a quiz of their choice, the Express Pass allows them to unlock the next challenge without earning the required 60% XP on their current challenge, and the Salvage Pass gives them 100 bonus XP to be applied to whichever challenges they wish (except for a boss challenge). And I created two other types of passes: the Fast Forward Pass allows a student to bypass a second draft of a writing assignment if they earn at least 80% of the total XP on their first draft, and the Detour Pass grants a student who earns at least 90% XP on their first research paper an alternative assignment that is more creative in nature during the boss leg of the race. I also threw in some easy-to-earn Achievements, like the Race Check-In badge, so that all students have a chance to earn at least a few badges.

I am also using a Blackboard tool developed by a colleague, Dr. David Thornton, called the Gamegogy Leaderboard, that displays a leaderboard based on selected columns from the Grade Book; this allows students a visual representation of where they stand in the class, points-wise, in comparison to everyone else. The student only sees their name and all other students are anonymous. You can add the Leaderboard block by selecting the “add course module” option on the course homepage and adding the Gamegogy Leaderboard. David also developed a Gamegogy Quest Path block that aligns with adaptive release rules to show a visual “map” of assignments, including which ones have been unlocked, which have been passed, and which remain locked. However, this tool is in beta testing and still has quite a few bugs that will hopefully be eliminated in the near future.

The Blackboard Gamegogy Leaderboard Tool
The Blackboard Gamegogy Leaderboard Tool

Dynamics

I still wanted to give students a sense of community, so I set up a discussion forum called the Water Cooler, which is an informal space for students to interact in whatever ways they wish/need to. There is only one required post: an introduction of themselves to the rest of the class that they have to complete as part of a Blackboard Scavenger Hunt that I use during the first leg to help them learn the ropes of Blackboard. I responded to each introduction in an effort to let students know that I am an active member of the class and genuinely interested in them and their success. I also created an Ask Mrs. Sasser a Question discussion board for questions that are not addressed on the syllabus or the FAQ page, with the promise that any question that receives a rating of at least three stars from peers will be added to the FAQ page. I am hoping that these small measures will give students a sense of empowerment within the class and alleviate any feelings of isolation or panic they might feel as the six weeks progress.

Aesthetics

I used media from The Amazing Race that I found on the show’s Wikimedia article throughout the course, including the imagery for the Experience Level and other passes and Route Info cards that I placed at the start of each leg that summarize the skills addressed in the leg and the learning outcomes for the boss challenge. As students complete each leg, they get a Pit Stop card that lets them know they have successfully completed the leg and can move on to the next one. I also created a custom banner for the course shell using PicMonkey and used the same tool to create a finish line image for students who complete all six legs. And to provide students a flashy, visual reminder of how much time is left in the term, I used Flash Countdown Clock Generator to create a countdown clock for the last day of class and added it to the header of the homepage.

I carried the theme of The Amazing Race throughout the course as much as possible, selecting the History theme, which has compasses and other travel imagery, for the course shell and giving badges names that suggest the kinds of tasks that contestants in the show are often forced to undertake, such as Deep Source Diver for displaying mastery of research methods. And I gave the Experience Levels names such as Tourist and Native to accentuate the global travel aesthetic. I even renamed the course homepage Base Camp. My hope is that by immersing students in an atmosphere rich in imagery and language aligned with the theme of The Amazing Race, I can make what might otherwise be a daunting set of challenges a little more fun and perhaps even convince some students to imagine themselves in a similar competition in which I am presenting them with challenges and their goal is to overcome each challenge and make it to the finish line before time is up and, thus, earn the grand prize (in this case, an A for their transcript).

100% online courses are, I have found, the most challenging, for multiple reasons that have all been addressed in the plethora of books and journal articles that have been published over the past few years as online courses are becoming more and more popular with (but not necessarily beloved by) students and universities alike. There are the issues related to the students themselves and those related to lack of training and support for the instructors. And there are the issues related to technology and the lack of a truly effective LMS (although, I think we are finally getting close with the likes of Canvas). And there are all kinds of “best practices” that we can try and I am trying some of those this term, but there are also many that I cannot because of the limits of a short-term course. My goal is to make students as confident as possible and to allow them the freedom, and the challenge, of working at their own pace within a mastery-based learning environment that also encourages them to (role) play and have a little fun. I will be keeping notes and monitoring statistics and I will also ask students to complete a feedback survey at the end of the term and will report back the results once the class is over in June.

The race is, for better or worse, on . . .

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 4: Giving Students Meaningful Choices

A game is a series of meaningful choices

This post is a bonus post of sorts, since I only intended to write three posts in this series. But, as I was writing each, I was also designing the game that my fall FYC students will play and, as I was doing so, I began to really understand just how important having meaningful choices is in the games that I like to play. Even though I’ve been working to incorporate more and more games-based learning mechanics into my classes for a while now, I’m slowly building those mechanics one at a time (and also tweaking each iteration based on student feedback and my own feelings of whether my methodologies have been successes or failures). There are a lot of interconnected, interworking components to a good game and getting them all effectively integrated and tuned to one another is a difficult process. But as I move further along in that process, I’m realizing that choices, and the rules that constrain those choices, are really what drive a game and make some games more engaging than others (the more choices, the more engaging the game). So, I feel the need to revise my original argument in terms of the order of process for turning a class into a game to include giving students meaningful choices and making it second only to designing the experience. The key word in this step is meaningful. Far too often, teachers give students choices, assuming that choice alone equals autonomy (which, according to research, equals a higher likelihood of engagement). But are those choices truly meaningful? Of course, some choices can just be fun and I’ve tried to build some fun choices into my class, as well, but I’ve put considerable effort with this class into making sure my students have plenty of meaningful choices throughout the game.

Difficulty Levels

As I mentioned in my post on designing experience systems, levels are one type of experience system and difficulty levels are one type of level. It may seem complicated and time-consuming (both on the front end and during the course of the game) to have multiple difficulty levels, but I’m hoping that it will pay off in the end by allowing more students to work within their zones of proximal development and, by extension, be more engaged with the work they’re doing. A difficulty level is a meaningful choice because the student must decide which difficulty level aligns with both their current and potential skill level; they need to both complete the quest and maximize their XP (experience points) potential. Because my game also affords “do overs” if a student fails to complete a quest successfully, the consequences of making the wrong choice are lowered a bit: if a student fails at one level, they can retry it at a lower difficulty level (unless, of course, they failed at the lowest difficulty level, in which case they just need to try harder). This does not necessarily detract from the meaningfulness of the choice, though, as the ideal scenario is to complete each quest successfully the first time, as repeating quests reduces the time a student has to complete the number of quests required for the final grade they desire (more on this in the next section). Each difficulty level also has a different number of possible XP, so which level a student chooses to complete also impacts how many XP they earn, which in turn affects their overall experience level and how quickly they will be able to level up (and earn the achievements and advantages that come with doing so). So this deters students from constantly picking the easiest level just so they can complete the quest the first time, since the achievements and advantages earned for leveling up allow the student to play the game smarter and earn higher levels of bonus XP (and, thus, reach subsequent experience levels sooner and earn even more achievements and advantages).

So, how does this look on the ground?

  • Each quest (except for the boss quest) has three difficulty levels: easy, intermediate, and advanced
  • Each difficulty level requires a different skill level and provides less or more of a challenge in terms of critical reading, thinking, and writing
  • The level of challenge for each difficulty level goes up with each subsequent quest, so that even students who work at the easiest level have to increasingly improve in targeted skills
  • Each difficulty level has a different number of total possible XP (this number goes up with each subsequent quest)
  • A student must complete a quest and earn at least 50% of the total possible XP for the quest plus at least 50% of the possible XP for the major writing assignment associated with the quest in order to proceed to the next quest

The challenge for me will be to monitor and process 25 students working at different difficulty levels and on different quests. I’ve addressed this by keeping the work schedule the same for everyone every day. For example, every other Tuesday will be in-class peer review, so it doesn’t matter which quest a student is currently working on or at what level they are doing so, everyone will be peer reviewing their peers’ drafts and getting their draft peer reviewed by their peers.

Which Quests in What Combination?

A second way that I am introducing meaningful choices into the game is by including bonus quests and side quests that students can combine with the major game quests in various ways. Bonus quests are fun, voluntary quests that students can complete for bonus XP that they can add to their current major quest. This is a convenient expedient for any student who starts the game late and needs to catch up or a student who did not earn enough XP on a quest to move on and doesn’t want to lose the time available for completing future major quests. Side quests are also voluntary, but are complex, multimedia, research-based quests that must be completed with a guild. The XP earned for completing a side quest are simply added to a student’s overall XP, but the real advantage of completing a side quest comes in the ability to substitute it for the major boss quest if a student either wishes to not complete the boss quest or runs out of time to do so and earn their desired grade, since the number and combination of quests determines a student’s final grade, as indicated below:

A = 6 Major Quests

B = 5 Major Quests + 1 Side Quest

C = 5 Major Quests or 4 Major Quests + 1 Side Quest

By setting the game quests up this way, I am giving the students more control over their final grade and over their learning (more on this in the next section). Often, students seem to give up on a class right at the finish line. While these students typically disappear, leaving me with no feedback on why they did so, I can only assume it’s because they feel that they are out of choices when it comes to their final grade in the class: either they’ve made so many mistakes along the way that there’s no way for them to pass or they don’t foresee themselves making the grade they desire (at my university, anything below a C in FYC goes on record as No Credit; the student has to retake the course, but it doesn’t impact their GPA). By providing students with options that allow them to tailor the course to their needs and interests and that allow them to recover from mistakes in terms of failures or wrong choices made along the way, I am hoping to keep more students engaged and encouraged so that they feel that they are truly and meaningfully in control and, therefore, are less likely to give up.

The Boss Quest

The last quest of the game is the boss quest. This quest doesn’t have difficulty levels since the student, in collaboration with their boss quest guild, determines their own difficulty level because they design it. The boss quest is also voluntary; once a student reaches the boss quest, I give them the option to walk away or use a side quest as a substitute. I don’t want to reveal much about the boss quest at this point in case any of my future students find and read my blog, but the boss level is a chance to not only synthesize and demonstrate the skills they’ve mastered during the course of the game, but it also allows them to take meaningful action in a community. What that action is, which community it impacts, and how the action is carried out will be completely up to the student’s guild and will involve a series of very meaningful choices because they have consequences beyond the classroom.

Achievements

As I discussed in my last post, one of the achievements that students can earn for completing various quest-related tasks is either a green, purple, or blue potion, with each color potion related to a specific kind of task/skill. Students can combine these potions in order to unlock powers, which give them advantages in the game. Some colors are rarer or are harder to earn than others. Making decisions about how and when to combine potions gains meaning depending on the student’s current needs and possible future needs. Because students have to balance both expediency and planning ahead and because their choices are constrained by several factors, including which and how many of each color potion they currently have, which and how many of each potion may or may not be available immediately or later in the game, and the likelihood of them earning those potions, their choices take on a complexity that transcends the value of any individual potion and make managing their potions an exercise in critical thinking (but, hopefully, a fun one). Compare the complexity of these choices to some of the other kinds of “choices” that we often offer students and you’ll see why our students prefer the rigor and complexity of games to that of the classroom.

Fun Choices

As I mentioned, I’ve also tried to integrate some “fun” choices into the game. Games often use chance and the element of surprise to keep players engaged and on their toes. Easter eggs are one fun way to do this, but choices can also introduce chance and uncertainty. Since the game I’m developing for my FYC class is inspired by The Hobbit, I decided to introduce the kinds of chance occurrences and surprises that often happen to heroes during an epic journey. I did this by creating the Wheel of Destiny and the Cup of Fate. The Wheel of Destiny is a random name selector app that selects names via spinning a wheel much like the Wheel of Fortune wheel. The Cup of Fate is a red plastic Solo cup (hopefully, I can find a cup that fits in with the theme aesthetic before class starts) which contains various events and consequences related to those events. Once a week, I’ll spin the Wheel of Destiny and whichever student is selected will have to pull a slip from the Cup of Fate. Some events require the student to have demonstrated desirable behaviors and will reward them if they’ve done so. Other events, though, require the student or the student’s entire guild to make a choice. While the choices made do not necessarily have the ramifications of choosing a difficulty level or mixing potions to gain powers, they can change the dynamics of the student’s experiences in the class and, again, give them a level of meaningful control over their destiny in it. Again, I don’t want to reveal the events contained within the Cup of Fate, so I’ll outline this and other “secret” aspects of the game in a follow-up post once the fall semester is over.

These are a few examples of how you can integrate meaningful choices into the experiences that you design for your students. Remember that the key word is meaningful. Without truly meaningful consequences, choices are just an illusory autonomy. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t constrain those choices. Unconstrained choices are often paralyzing for students, especially those in introductory courses. And constraints are one way to make choices truly meaningful. But like the choices, the constraints must be meaningful. In my game, purple potions are rare because they require more effort. If I allowed students to progress to the next quest no matter how many (or few) XP they had earned, then difficulty levels and the quests themselves would have no real value. Rules are the defining characteristic of games. But it’s how games allow players to choose how to play in meaningful ways within those constraints that is the defining characteristic of a good game.

 

 

Teaching Revision vs. Editing

image courtesy of Alex Pang http://flic.kr/p/8AJ566
image courtesy of Alex Pang http://flic.kr/p/8AJ566

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.

 

Using Easter Eggs to Encourage and Reward Persistence and Curiosity

image via _Of Brass and Steam_
image via Of Brass and Steam

Among the many components of games that drive player engagement and motivation, the Easter egg is probably one of the most over-looked when it comes to integrating games-based learning and gamification into a classroom. An Easter egg is a hidden message, item, or prize embedded within the game that rewards players who are especially observant or who are willing to play harder or explore seemingly irrelevant aspects of the game environment. While Easter eggs began as a way for game designers to interject humor, randomness, or subliminal elements into games, gamers have come to expect Easter eggs and they are often an integral way for them to gain advantages in gameplay.

Easter eggs can go a long way toward adding the kinds of randomness and immediate feedback that reward the brain during gameplay into a classroom. Also, like Experience Points, Easter eggs are additive rather than subtractive; in other words, rather than being punished for not finding them, students who find Easter eggs are rewarded for their effort. To integrate Easter eggs into my Spring FYC II role-play game, I’ve followed three steps:

  1. Identify which behaviors and habits of mind you want to encourage in students
  2. Identify rewards that will provide students advantages and help them to work/play smarter
  3. Identify creative ways to hide the rewards so that only students who exhibit those behaviors/habits of mind can find and activate them

For the first step, I identified several behaviors and habits of mind that I want to encourage in my freshman writers, including: completing all of the quizzes that test their familiarity with the writing and research processes; using the Writing Clinic to help improve their drafts; submitting work early; significantly revising and editing drafts; attending the voluntary writing workshops that will be held every other week; attending class; paying attention and taking notes during mini-lectures; and demonstrating curiosity and a willingness to explore aspects of the class that do not have an immediate and tangible impact on their final grade.

I identified several ways in which I can reward students for demonstrating these kinds of behavior. Bonus XP and cash were obvious methods, but I also wanted to add less tangible advantages that actively encourage students to demonstrate those behaviors regularly (as Daniel Pink’s research has revealed, explicit, tangible rewards often de-motivate rather than motivate people). So, I added a few other kinds of rewards, such as extra time to submit work, extra individualized attention from me during the boss level, and clues that need to be collected in order to solve puzzles.

I then began trying to match rewards to behaviors and identifying some methods for hiding the eggs. For example, I decided to reward the first student to submit each major assignment with a 12 hour extension on one future major assignment. And I decided to reward any student with perfect attendance at the beginning of the boss level by providing their guilds with special one-on-one conference time with me. Using the Writing Clinic and significantly revising/editing a draft will earn a player bonus XP, as will correctly answering recall questions at the end of mini-lectures (I’ll be hiding some Easter eggs in the mini-lectures, as well). In order to encourage students to attend all of the writing workshops, I decided that at each meeting I will give one clue to a book cipher (created using the required textbook for the course); students will need to collect and decipher all of the clues in order to win the prize, which is extra cash.

When it came to the quizzes, I really wanted to make them as much a part of the game lore as possible, so I decided to make them puzzles rather than traditional quizzes. I’m doing this by writing a short steampunk IF mystery using Inklewriter. The mystery places the students in the role of an investigator who must decode the cipher that has been used to translate a mysterious manuscript. In order to locate clues to how to decode the cipher, they must visit three people: Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Jules Verne. The visit with Babbage involves inputting data into his analytical engine and tests the students’ knowledge of internet research techniques. The visit with Lovelace involves using a stereoscope (it will really be their smartphones) to read secret messages in their writing handbook; this will involve augmented reality that I’ll create using Aurasma. The secret content will help them solve a puzzle regarding citing sources. Lastly, they’ll visit Verne and use their stereoscope once again to view hidden content on writing strategies and will have to survive a session of Socratic questioning from Verne in order to unlock the last part of the clue, which will be a photo of the door of the Writing Clinic and a message to locate the door and scan it with their stereoscope. The scan will reveal information about the Writing Clinic, including the bonus XP Easter egg. They’ll also receive XP for completing all of the puzzles.

I am hoping that, by integrating Easter eggs, I can provide students with incentives to engage more fully in the class that rely less on extrinsic rewards and more on what Nils Pihl terms instrumental rewards. In distinguishing between currency and tokens, Pihl makes a point that I think all those who are or are contemplating integrating GBL and/or gamification into their classes should heed:

The currency of a reward is why you’re engaged – it’s that feeling of mastery, or belonging, competition or discovery that makes the game enjoyable to you. It’s probably the reason you decided to play the game in the first place. A token, on the other hand, is a quantifiable representation of that currency.

An award does not have to be rewarding. What this teaches us is that points and badges or achievements will only feel rewarding if they represent a currency that we value.

We should not confuse XP with rewards. Yes, XP is an award for playing the game, but XP is not necessarily rewarding to our students, in the same way that the grades that we award them are not necessarily rewarding enough to engage them in the game of school. Easter eggs are variables that add a currency that relies less on tokens and more on the intangibles that make games so rewarding: competence, persistence, curiosity, and discovery.