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.

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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.

 

Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion

Headless-1

Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.

Roles

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.

Guilds

While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.

Quests

The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.

Feedback

There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.

Endgame

How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.

Design

Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

I Give Up! I’m Finally Going to Gamify My FYC Class

And I’m kind of excited about it. Okay. I’m ecstatic. I’m like a hardcore gamer two minutes before the midnight release of the latest Call of Duty.

If you’re a regular reader, you know from one of my past posts that I’ve been avoiding the gamification bandwagon. So, what, you may ask, inspired the change of heart? The only way that I can describe it is as a perfect storm.

First, there is the phenomenal success of my current second-semester FYC course, which is utilizing immersive role play and Second Life as ways to engage in critical analysis of the texts in our literature reader. I plan to go into more detail in a future post about what exactly we’re doing, how, and how successful it has been in terms of engagement and improvement of critical thinking/writing skills. While immersive role play is a major aspect of many games, I’m using it more for its emphasis on taking on the viewpoint of a particular role than for the play component of doing so. The fun that students are having as they adopt their roles, though, cannot be ignored, especially now that the semester is coming to a close and students are finally comfortable with their personas and taking risks with their interpretations of our texts and how they choose to communicate those interpretations in material media.

Students roleplaying in Second Life.
Students roleplaying in Second Life.

Secondly, I’ve been playing more games myself lately. I’m not really a gamer (at least I wouldn’t describe myself as such, especially in comparison to some of my students and my son). I do occasionally play one of the Lego franchise games with my son and I’m game (pardon the pun) for anything that involves Harry Potter (we even have a wizard’s chess set). But I recently experienced a personal loss and I’ve found games to be a way to keep my mind occupied, relieve some of the stress, and escape from the real world for a little while. I personally prefer puzzles, and the hidden object games for the iPad are ideal for me because they combine puzzle solving with literary or historical settings (like my current favorite Blackwood and Bell, set in Victorian England). The more I play, the more I begin to personally experience the level of engagement, immersion, and motivation that I regularly observe in my son when he’s playing his favorite PS3 games. Blackwood and Bell keeps me engaged because I can earn “money” for solving puzzles and I use that money to purchase items to add to my little plot of Victorian London. I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time rearranging my buildings, decorations, and exhibits and trying to work out strategies that will allow me to level up and expand my landholdings without compromising the design of my “yard” (I, personally, care more for authenticity in my design than leveling up and simply throwing everything on my yard, and some of the anachronistic designs of other players’ yards drives me nuts).

My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It's a work-in-progress.
My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It’s a work-in-progress.

Next, I’ve recently discovered and become intrigued by interactive fiction (IF). I always enjoyed reading “choose your own adventure” books as a child, but because I was not a gamer growing up, I had never heard of or played IF. I discovered it after reading several recent articles on some free tools that have recently been developed that make writing IF easier for those without coding experience (“Make Games in the Classroom with Inform 7,” “Choose Your Own Classroom Adventure with Inklewriter,” “Interactive Fiction Game Design,” “Creating Interactive Text with Twin,” and Kevin Hodgson’s series of blog posts on IF). The concept of IF caught my attention, not from a player’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective and the potential that I immediately felt it held for teaching FYC students about viewpoint, authorial choice, and reader engagement. Because it makes the reader, or player, the central, active component of the text, it places direct focus on two writing concepts that I’ve always struggled with communicating to students effectively: the primacy of the audience and the need to have a purpose for everything you do as an author.

Lastly, all of these things solidified into a single idea when my university announced that next Fall’s freshman read would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I was familiar with a few of the stories from the book and especially liked “How to Tell a True War Story” because of the pressures it puts on viewpoint, the author as authority, the reader as passive/active agent, fiction/truth, space/time, and the linear nature of the traditional plot development. I immediately recognized that IF would be a perfect way for students to engage with the book, as it, too, places pressure on these same aspects of storytelling.

But IF is not an easy concept, either as a player or writer. I recognized that I could not just throw students in the deep end of IF and expect them to swim. Around the time I was considering how to couple O’Brien’s book with IF, I was reading Jane McGonigall’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as a way to prepare for the second iteration of my immersive role play course this summer and, in the course of talking with a colleague in the computer science department about that class, was lent a copy of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a GameThese books, along with some articles I had been reading on IF (which I’ll discuss and link to in my next post), helped the gears to slowly begin clicking into place. As I continued to sketch out ideas, I began to get more and more excited by the prospect of turning my FYC class into a game; but not just any game. An IF game.

I plan to post about the details and the steps I went through to develop them in subsequent posts, so this post will simply be a summary of my plans.

Where to start?

Since I plan to ask students to write a piece of IF as the capstone project for the class, it only seemed right that I try my hand at it first. In this sense, being unfamiliar with IF was an advantage, since my students are likely to be as well, so I am able to experience the process as they will and thus I will be taking detailed notes as I work my way through it. But I’m a busy person and don’t necessarily have time to write just for the fun of it (as much as I’d like to). So, I decided that the best way to make the time I spend writing my first piece of IF useful would be to make the IF my syllabus for the course, so that they will actually have to play the IF in order to navigate the course. This will kill two birds with one stone: not only will I be gaining experience with writing IF, but it will also immerse the students in IF as they play their way through the course, thus allowing them to see what IF can do and to experience it as a player, so they will be more mindful of the player’s needs as they write their own piece.

But turning the syllabus into IF that the students must “play” will only work if students buy into it. Again, immersion, engagement, and motivation are all vital to encouraging this buy-in. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Sheldon points out that the more we can incorporate the game into the course, the better our chances of encouraging students to become immersed in the game. So, I decided to make the entire course a game that students would navigate and play via IF.

Theme

One the central principles of game design is theme and theme consistency. Since our focus text is about the Vietnam War, the game’s theme became apparent early on. The hard work was deciding how to adapt that theme to the FYC class and the students’ IF project.

Scenario

With this in mind, I developed the following scenario:

It is the near-future. Instead of weapons, wars are fought with words. America is on the brink of a second Vietnam War. In order to prevent this, a small contingent of military leaders and diplomats have developed the idea of an elite new force of writers who will use IF to invoke empathy and, hopefully, avert the war. The students have been recruited into this elite special operatives force. As recruits, they will go through some basic training before embarking on a series of missions that are all part of Operation “War Story.”

The game

I’ll go into more detail about the game itself in a subsequent post. Basically, I’ve divided the term up into missions, with each mission containing several assignments culminating in a boss level, which will range from a diagnostic writing assignment (at the end of “basic training”) to an annotated bibliography (at the end of the research, or “gathering intel,” mission) to a review of a piece of IF (covert surveillance) to completing their own piece of IF (endgame). Players must complete the boss level before they can proceed to the next mission. As they complete assignments, they earn XP (experience points) and as they accumulate XP, they rank up from recruit to private to private first class, etc. Their rank at the end of the term will be converted into a special operative status, with those displaying distinctive service earning an A, veterans earning a B, rookies earning a C, and those who’ve gone MIA (equivalent to a D) or AWOL (equivalent to an F) earning an NC.

In developing the game via IF, I’ve been able to integrate puzzles (quizzes), if/then scenarios (if you score a certain percentage on the quiz, you unlock a useful object), and objects (such as keys, tactical upgrades, and supplies that will help them complete the missions). I’m using AXMA, a non-open source (but still free) version of Twine, and it also allows me to integrate images, hyperlinks, videos, music, and sound effects into the game. I’m trying to incorporate suspense (a security breach, a mysterious package left by a late-night stranger, a phone ringing insistently) at strategic moments, such as midterm, to keep the interest level up and change up the pace of the course.

A final (for now) word about IF

The aspect of IF that I did not really consider at first, but which is becoming more and more interesting to me, is the level of reading literacy it promotes and requires. Most FYC course objectives include reading skills, but there is often so much work to be done to get students’ writing skills up to par, that reading gets short shrift. I recognize that reading and writing skills go hand in hand, but rarely do I have enough time to address reading to the same depth and degree as I do writing. Integrating IF as the syllabus for the course and requiring that students read several examples of IF pieces and then write their own IF, and all of the emphasis that process places on the reader and the reading, will allow me to focus as much on the reading process as the writing.

As I mentioned, I’ll be posting more in-depth posts that will address my use of IF and how I’ve turned the course into a game. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who have integrated IF into classes or who have gamified their classes (or both).

And if you’d like to start reading some IF, I highly recommend Muggle Studies.

Tomorrow Never Knows: Theory into Praxis in the Composition Class

photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc
photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc

In my last post I looked backward at some of the radical pedagogical practices that worked for my students and me this past term. In this post I look forward to the some of the radical pedagogical theories I’m putting into practice.

In my recent Hybrid Pedagogy post “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” I outline a radical (for me and my department) new theory of First-Year Composition.

My recent post here, “Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition,” outlined how I initially planned to put that theory into praxis.

My most recent vision for the organic, rhizomatic FYC course can be found in the syllabus that I created for my FYC 1 class using
Thinglink.

I also recently blogged about my ideas regarding incorporating immersive role-play into the second-semester FYC course I’ll be teaching this term. Those initial questions and ideas coalesced into an experimental class that I hope will both engage the students and encourage them to adopt some of the practices and beliefs inherent in my new theory of the rhizomatic FYC class. As I point out to students:

In many ways, role-play gaming has a lot in common with writing. Just like dedicated gamers become immersed in the game, good writers become immersed in their writing and research. As Colby & Colby point out:

Immersion occurs because gamers learn as they play: solving puzzles, learning strategies, and meeting the challenges of the game while staying within the constraints of the game world.

Replace, if you will, the words “gamers” and “game” with “writers” and “writing” and you’ll have an accurate description of the act of writing. Gamers don’t listen to lectures on how to play the game; they learn to play the game by playing it, making mistakes, learning from their mistakes, trying again, and sharing tricks and cheats with fellow players. Similarly, as Joseph Epstein argues, “[W]riting cannot be taught, though it can be learned.” No writer ever learned to write by listening to someone lecture about how to write. Instead, they immerse themselves in the role of writer, learning how to listen, think, take notes, research, and write like a writer by trying, failing, learning from their failures, trying again, and studying other writers. Andrea Lunsford has argued that all writing is performance. If so, then writing is just another kind of role-playing game.

I am both alive with hope and plagued by doubt.

How will students respond to these classes? Will they revel in the open-endedness, the autonomy, the experimentation? Or will they balk and resist?

What risks am I taking by putting theory into praxis? It’s a scary prospect, considering how important many stakeholders (including myself) view the FYC class to be.

Drew Loewe recently tweeted:

Am I just tinkering with FYC and ignoring the underlying problems? What underlying problems does my theory ignore? How can my praxis address them?

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner