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

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Warning: Designing effective experience systems is not easy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 1: The Experience

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about games-based learning and gamification in the classroom at the 2nd Annual CoRE Academy at my university. My audience was a wonderful mix of PK20 teachers and, from the nods of approval during the presentation and comments, questions, and requests for more information I received afterwards, I think I convinced some of them. Because my workshop was only an hour long, I had to cram a lot of complex information in. Really, each aspect of gamification that I discussed could have benefited from its own workshop. But since that was not possible, I’ve decided to create a series of blog posts that address each in a bit more detail. You can view the entire presentation to get a preview of all of the components I’ll be addressing and how they all fit together.

Games are, first and foremost, experiences. I’ve argued before that no matter how many fancy bells and whistles a game has or how robust the rewards system, a game that does not immerse the player in an experience that intrigues them and that they enjoy being part of will not be played for very long, if at all. My son, who is an avid gamer, gives a new game about an hour of gameplay; if he’s not hooked within an hour, he’s done with the game, no matter how many points he’s managed to earn. And a game that is not being played ceases to be a game. Just as a student who is not learning is no longer a student; they are a body taking up space. Just as game experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting, learning experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting.

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Assassin’s Creed is a game that has successfully created an engaging experience for players.

So the first step to turning your class into a game is to create the experience. Ask yourself what kind of experience would both engage your students and mesh with your discipline or lesson topic. And then begin brainstorming what roles your students might play within that experience, what the aesthetics of that experience might be, what environment(s) it might incorporate, and what kinds of interactions with that environment and with other players and non-player characters (NPCs) your students might have. I just finished reading Dave Burgess’s inspiring book Teach Like a Pirate (which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches), and he had an entire chapter on how to draw inspiration from the world around you to fire up your creativity and your classes. One of Burgess’s tips is to use your hobbies as a source of inspiration and it really works. I tend to get my inspiration for the experiences I design for my students from literature, movies, and video games. You can mix things up to make it even more fun. My second semester FYC class played a game I called “Murderers and Mad(wo)men,” which combined elements of Sherlock Holmes and Call of Cthulhu, and the game I’m working on now combines elements of The Hobbit and World of Warcraft.

As you draw on and combine various inspirations, you can make note of the aesthetics that you might incorporate. “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” had a steampunk aesthetic, for example. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Lee Sheldon recommends reinforcing the game lore (the story and aesthetic) whenever and wherever possible. This includes class environments (both physical and virtual), materials, and presentations. The syllabus is a good place to start since it is typically the first class-related item the students come into contact with. When you orient your students to the class on the first day, try to immediately immerse them in the game aesthetic to really drive home both the “this is a game” and the “this is not a game” (TINAG) dichotomy. By not presenting the class in a traditional way, you send a clear signal that your class is different and that students will have to adjust their thinking about what to expect and how to behave in the class. They know how to play games, so by mimicking the kinds of alternate realities that games create, they’ll quickly pick up the cue that this is a game-like environment and they need to play a certain role within that environment. At the same time that you want to clue students into the game-like nature of the class, you also want to, like games, create a sense of immersion. The best games are those that immerse the player so effectively within the game environment and their role within that environment that they almost forget that they’re playing a game. So, if you want your students to experience what it’s like to be scientists working to solve an epidemic, when they walk into the classroom on the first day they should walk into a science lab. And throughout that first meeting, they should receive clues that orient them to why they’re in a science lab (they’re scientists), what’s going on outside of that lab (there’s an epidemic), and what they’re role in this environment is (solving the epidemic). You can communicate these things via the syllabus (perhaps it could a memo or a brief on the epidemic), your introduction of yourself and the course (perhaps you’re the head of the CDC and you’re orienting them to the Center’s policies and procedures and what your role will be during the crisis), and activities that you have them do (I’ll leave that to your imagination). Now, I’m not a science teacher, but I very quickly came up with this example and the ideas for how to present it to students because I like zombies and almost every zombie movie/TV show involves scientists trying to figure out what’s causing zombieism and how to cure it. My love of zombies provides me will all kinds of ideas about aesthetics for a game like this. As Dave Burgess points out, inspiration is all around us; we just have to start paying attention and thinking outside of the box.

Once you’ve decided on the experience and the environments and aesthetics of that experience, you can begin outlining what role students will play. My students have taken on roles such as war correspondents (or at least armchair versions); cold case detectives; psychologists; attorneys, witnesses, and jury members for a cyberstalking trial; and members of an ancient Greek senate, just to name a few. For a more detailed discussion of how I’ve used role-play in my class, you can read my article “Alter Egos, Avatars, and Analytical Writing: Immersive Role-Playing in the Composition Classroom” in Virtual Education Journal. The goal is to have students play an integral part in driving the story the experience tells. They must become the main characters and it must be clear that without action on their part, the story does not get told. As I mentioned, I’m currently designing a game for my first-semester FYC loosely based on The Hobbit. The students are reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so I decided to use the story of the hero’s journey as a basis for the game. It’s a story that they’re all familiar with since it’s an integral part of our culture, from comics to movies and novels to video games. I’ve re-contextualized the process of learning to write college-level essays into a journey that students must take through a perilous realm. They don’t know much about the journey or how they’ll reach their destination (college-level writing proficiency) when they first start out because, as their guide The Vagabond explains, their destiny is in their own hands. If they don’t complete each quest that they are presented with, they will go astray, lose time and perhaps their way, and risk never reaching their goal. Through the compositions that are the last part of each quest, they tell the story of the game–what they discovered during that quest. In the example of the epidemic outlined above, if the students don’t work to solve the riddle of the epidemic and figure out a way to stop it, then the epidemic continues and the story of how we defeated the zombies (or whatever the disease is) never gets told. We assume that everyone becomes a zombie, but we’ll never truly know. If students want to know the ending to the story, they’re more likely to take part in it. And the best way to make them want to know the ending is to have the experience centered around a conflict. Conflict is the driving force of games and overcoming the challenges that the conflict presents is what motivates people to play games. We can’t all be heroic in real life, but games give us an opportunity to defeat seemingly undefeatable foes and become virtual heroes (and the bragging rights of winning a difficult game makes us heroes in real life, too). In order to motivate your students to take on the challenge that the conflict presents, the conflict shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult. You can help to make sure that you’re creating a zone of proximal development in the experience you create by using experience systems, which I’ll address in my next blog post.

It’s also important to carefully consider what kinds of interactions student will have with each other and NPCs. There are two main kinds of interactions that drive gameplay: competition and cooperation. In terms of competition, there are three types: player versus player, player versus game, and player versus self. I prefer to focus students on competing with themselves, as this promotes goal-setting and self-assessment, two critical skills for 21st century learners. But some of our students truly thrive off of competition with others or with systems and you can address those kinds of players with things like leaderboards, character classes, and achievements. The best games actually incorporate all three types of competition so that all player types are being targeted. I’ll provide an example of how you could integrate all three into our zombie epidemic example in a bit.

But first, I need to address cooperation. Games use several different methods for encouraging cooperation among players. One method is by allowing or forcing players to work in guilds, which are small groups that must work cooperatively to complete quests or quest-related tasks. Another is by tying some achievements (which I’ll cover in my next post) to working cooperatively. And finally, some games allow players to trade/barter resources. All of these are excellent methods for promoting cooperation among students. I integrate guilds into all of my games, though I also allow for individual play, recognizing that, for some students, working cooperatively is a challenge and/or de-motivating. For example, in the game I’m currently designing, players will have a writing guild, which will meet for informal idea-design discussions during the pre-writing phase and to provide feedback on drafts during the drafting phase. The guild is a support system to help aid students on their journey, but it’s up to the student to do the work necessary to take part in that journey and their experience level is based solely on their level of gameplay, not their guild’s. I do plan to encourage quality guild work via achievements and uncertainty (which I’ll address in my third and final installment). But, I’ve found that the best way to motivate students to work together effectively is via cooperative competition; that is, having guilds compete against other guilds. I have found that this method increases intrinsic motivation and the quality of the cooperation among group members. When using cooperative competition, I would recommend rewarding the winners with achievements, rather than points, since achievements tend to be more intrinsically-oriented than points and you don’t want to risk decreasing the naturally-occurring desire to win with an extrinsic reward. For an example of how I’ve used cooperative competition and the amazing level of engagement it inspired, see my post “Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts.” To give you an idea of how all of this might work on-the-ground, let’s use our zombie epidemic scenario. You’ll want to encourage students to compete with the game, of course (ending the epidemic before time runs out),  and with themselves (via experience systems), and perhaps even with other students (via a leaderboard). You could also have students work together in guilds to encourage cooperation. Perhaps each guild is responsible for a specific aspect of investigating and ending the epidemic and they must not only cooperate within their guild but with the other guilds, as well. Or perhaps each guild is trying to end the epidemic and the challenge is to either be the first to do so or the guild to come up with the most effective solution (if you want to present a challenge in which quality is more important than efficiency). There are various possibilities for how to structure both competition and cooperation and the best games involve as many of those possibilities as makes sense within the context of the experience.

Lastly, I want to address interactions with NPCs. NPCs are often part of games and I’ve been trying to integrate them more fully into the experiences that I create for my students. You are obviously an important NPC and you’ll need to decide what your role will be in the game and how you will interact with the players. Are you a boss, a guide, an enemy, a colleague, an unknown entity? You can also add fictional NPCs into your game via physical or virtual communications (text-based, audio, or video). So far, I have two virtual NPCs in the game I’m currently designing. Professor Percival is their teacher during the first two quests; he provides them with instruction in the writing process, sends them on virtual scavenger hunts to help test and hone their technical skills, teaches them how to be active readers, and provides feedback on their first writing assignment. Once they graduate from the professor’s apprenticeship, they meet The Vagabond, who is their guide on the journey through the perilous realm. Players in the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game received regular correspondence from an NPC who was a colleague who needed to consult with them on especially perplexing cases. If you’re teaching history, you could have historical figures become NPCs in your game. You can also have live NPCs in your game. Guest speakers and colleagues are two options. For example, in designing the zombie epidemic game, perhaps you could convince an epidemiologist to do a Skype interview with your class, only position it as part of the game: as director of the CDC, you’ve arranged for a conference call with an expert who has experience with a similar outbreak. If the expert/speaker/colleague is especially receptive, you might even be able to convince them to play the part and help reinforce game immersion.

The experience is the most important and motivating aspect of a game. Nothing else should take precedence. It’s vitally important to create an experience that hooks students immediately. Give careful consideration to where and how you’ll place the rabbit hole and the bait that you’ll use to lure them in. We often try to create these kinds of hooks for students: a thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information to pique their curiosity and get them listening. But getting them interested is only a tiny portion of the challenge. Keeping them engaged and curious is equally important. If we follow that thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information with a 45-minute lecture, we’ve lost an opportunity to truly engage students and motivate them to begin thinking about and acting on their interest. Following up that awesome first-day introduction to the zombie apocalypse with homework that includes reading 50 pages from a textbook sends a specific message: the orientation was just a superficial trick you used to get their attention. The icing might have been delicious, but the cake is going to be stale and tasteless. If you want students to stay interested, you’ve got to make the entire class an experience that is intellectually and aesthetically stimulating and in which they are the key ingredient.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to create an immersive experience for your students. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them and I’ll try to answer them. And if you’re interested in all of the other ingredients necessary to make that experience rewarding and fun, the next two posts in the series will be appearing soon.

And if you’re interested in the CoRE program, I encourage you to watch this video.

 

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.

Experience Points in the Classroom: Back to the Drawing Board

help_how_leveling_up

One aspect of gamification that I decided to try to integrate into my Fall classes is that of Experience Points (XP), which involves using the same kind of points system that games use to help players feel rewarded for completing certain tasks and to allow them to advance to different levels of experience, providing them with a goal to attain (the highest level) and a visual measurement of their progress toward that goal. I’ll be honest, I don’t think that I integrated XP into my classes very effectively. I will outline how I integrated XP, which aspects of that integration were mistakes, and how I plan to do it better next semester.

Method

First, I determined the maximum amount of XP that a student could earn simply for doing all of the required assignments in the course. Using this as my baseline, I assigned XP to each assignment, with the difficulty of the assignment determining how many XP it would be worth. I also determined which assignments would receive XP based upon completion and which would receive a variable amount of XP based upon quality of work and effort. I created a spreadsheet for students that listed each assignment and the number of XP that could be earned for completing them and included the possible XP earned on the instructions for each assignment.

Next, again using my max. XP as my baseline, I created five levels, with each level corresponding to a letter grade on the 4.0 grade point scale. I gave each level a name that related to our course theme and included a list of the levels and the XP needed to achieve each on the syllabus.

Since I needed an easy way to keep track of XP and to allow students to visually monitor their progress and current level, I decided to use Blackboard’s grade book tool, even though I loathe Blackboard. The most important determining factor for me for using Blackboard was the fact that a colleague who is also interested in games-based learning had created a leaderboard block that can be placed on the homepage of a class’s Blackboard course shell that is tied to the number of points a student has in their Total column in the grade book tool. 

I decided that I did not necessarily want to tie participation XP because I have found that by designating a certain number of comments to make on their peers’ bog posts, I encourage students to see participation and commenting as a hoop to jump through and they will resort to focusing on quantity rather than quality. So, I developed a holistic rubric for participation and made the participation grade 1/3 of a student’s final grade, with their level making up another 1/3, and their final portfolio finishing out their grade. 

Where I went wrong

Firstly, I believe it was a mistake to allow students to see how many XP each assignment was worth. In reality, a player doesn’t begin a game with a spreadsheet of actions and how many points they’ll earn for completing them. A player doesn’t know how many XP they will earn for completing a task or puzzle until it’s completed; this increases the element of uncertainty that, according to Tom Chatfield, is one of the ways in which games reward the brain. This uncertainty motivates players to complete as many tasks and puzzles as they can because they never know what kinds of rewards each will provide. 

Also, while students responded very positively to the leaderboard and found it to be a motivating factor, the fact that their XP were recorded in Blackboard’s grade book meant that, rather then receiving 50 XP for an assignment, for example, a student would receive 50/70 (or whatever amount the maximum number of XP available and earned), transforming XP into a grade. Rather than feeling rewarded for earning 50 XP on an assignment, students began to focus on the fact that they didn’t earn the maximum amount of XP and would often want to talk with me about their “grade” on an assignment. Because XP were situated within a context that students identify as relating to grades and because Blackboard required me to enter a total number of possible points for each assignment, thereby redirecting students’ focus towards the points they didn’t earn, by the middle of the semester the novelty of XP and the leaderboard had quickly worn off and students saw themselves as being at the mercy of their XP rather than seeing themselves as on a quest to earn as many XP as possible.

I believe that this feeling was reinforced by the fact that I had aligned levels with a letter grade, which may have devalued the game for those students who began to fall behind in XP. I cannot be certain that these students gave up because they viewed all of their effort as directly related to a certain grade or if they were already among those students who, statistically, are predetermined to disengage and/or disappear. 

What I’ll do differently next time

For one, I will not advertise the number of XP that can/will be earned for completing assignments and tasks. While I will keep the method I used for determining XP and levels, I will increase the uncertainty for students by keeping that information a secret that will need to be discovered through effort. Levels will remain aligned with XP, but will not aligned with a letter grade.

I will also not use Blackboard to track XP and levels. Instead, I will use Google Drive’s spreadsheet tool to create a system for tracking each student’s XP and create a leaderboard chart based on the column for their total XP. Because XP and levels will no longer be tied to grades, I can give students access to the chart and embed the leaderboard on the class website (I will have students create an alias in order to maintain anonymity). 

I also plan to hide more Easter eggs throughout the game in the form of bonus XP as a way of rewarding desired behavior, such as using the Writing Clinic and significantly revising and/or editing their drafts before publishing them. I’ll let students know that these opportunities exist, but they’ll have to work to figure out which behaviors they’ll be rewarded for.

Because their XP and level will no longer be aligned with a grade, I will need some way to determine how these aspects of a student’s gameplay impact their final grade in the course. I’ve decided that rather than imposing a weighted system for each major component of student behavior, I will use the portfolios that students complete at the end of the semester as a way for students to summarize and evaluate their gameplay, looking at XP and level, participation, and their progress as a writer in order to determine what character class they feel they fall into. Each character class will represent certain attributes and will be aligned with a level of gameplay. While I won’t explicitly link their character class to a grade, I will ask students to argue for the grade that they feel they deserve in the course based on the evidence they use to assign themselves to a character class.

Gamification involves trial and error, just as any instructional method does. While I am dissatisfied with the fact that my FYC students began to focus on grades to an extent that I have been able to avoid for the past few years with a switch to a portfolio assessment system, I still believe that using XP and levels can have a positive impact on student motivation. It is especially helpful to those students who have difficulty transitioning away from a focus on grades and who need a way to visualize their progress and standing in the course. I hope that by integrating the changes outlined above, I can use XP and levels more effectively.

Have you had success integrating XP and levels into your classes? If so, I’d appreciate you sharing your experiences and/or techniques with me and my readers.