Gamifying a Short-Term Online First-Year Composition Course


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


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

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

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

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

The Blackboard Gamegogy Leaderboard Tool
The Blackboard Gamegogy Leaderboard Tool


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


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

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

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

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

Building a Better Blogging Assignment Redux

photo credit: Mike Licht, via photo pin cc

One of the sessions at last week’s THATCamp dealt with the issue of designing a better model of student blogging. You can view my Storify of the session here.

I thought that I would add some of my own ideas and discuss how I address some of the issues raised during the session (since, unfortunately, I couldn’t be there).

As noted on the session’s Google Doc, a major problem with requiring students to blog is that the large majority of them are unfamiliar with blogs, so we need to identify effective methods for acculturating them to the genre. Since I’m an advocate of immersive learning, I’ve found that many students begin to “get” blogging by spending a good deal of time actually doing it. But I’ve developed a few orientation assignments that help them get off to a good start.

  • Require students to locate, deconstruct, assess, and subscribe to blogs on topics that interest them: As homework during the first week of class, I have students locate several blogs on a topic that they’re interested in. They pick the best three and subscribe to them. While exploring blogs on their topic, they create a list of criteria for an effective blog. We use a class meeting to collate their criteria into a master list that they can then use as a checklist for their own blogs. Next term I’m planning to expand this assignment by having students work together to deconstruct a blog.
  • Teach them how to comment: This is something that I still struggle with. I provide students with several resources on commenting, including those mentioned at the session; nonetheless, many of them provide largely superficial comments. Next term I plan to have students read and assess comments on the blogs they’ve subscribed to and add their own comments. Similarly to the assignment above, students will work together to establish criteria for effective commenting.

A second, and equally important issue, is the logistics of blog management, both for yourself and the students: controlling pacing (so that you don’t have to deal with an influx of posts and comments at the last minute), encouraging engagement with the blogs (both their own and their peers’), and assessing the blogs.

  • Establish submission guidelines (and stick to them): I establish strict deadlines for post submissions and stick to them from the very first post. I generally make the deadline the night before class in the case of totally face-to-face courses. For my hybrid courses, the deadline is on the day that we do not meet. Either way, I set the deadline for a time well before I and other students need to access the blogs.
  • Encourage engagement with peers’ blogs: I require that students subscribe to each others’ blogs and read and comment on a certain number of them each week. I’ve tried to encourage more depth to their comments by staggering the due dates for posts and comments (generally they have 12-24 hours after the blog post deadline to read and respond to peers’ posts). I’ve had even better success this past term with combining this with rotating students’ roles between posters and readers/commenters. This allows them to fully focus on and engage in their role. This method requires reducing the number and frequency of posts for each student, but I think that the pay-off will be worth it, especially by placing as much emphasis on their comments on others’ blogs as on their own blog posts (which means that I’ll have to invest more time into assessing their comments somehow).
  • Make the blogs an integral component of the course: I try to immerse students in their blogs as much as possible because I’ve found that the more they blog, the better bloggers they become. I now require that all of their writing be done on their blog and I ask them to blog and comment on blogs as frequently as possible (at least once a week). I think that it’s a major mistake to have students blog but then not integrate the blogs into the classroom interactions in some way; this encourages students to view the blogs as secondary to the other class work. In my literature courses, the students’ blogs become the fulcrum for the class discussions. I encourage students to pick the most thought-provoking for us to look at together in class. In my FYC courses, I pick one model post each week for us to critique as a class, asking students to assess the post in small groups, looking for reasons why I selected the post as being a good model. Since the class uses Google+ as a virtual learning space, I also “plus 1” those posts that are especially thought-provoking, well written, and/or visually appealing (I encourage students to do this, as well); this provides students with almost instantaneous feedback and encourages those who might not have read and/or commented on the posts to do so. This also results in a type of gamification of the blogs, as some students begin to work to earn “plus 1’s” from me and their peers. Next term, I plan to also encourage students to use other social media to promote and “like” their peers’ posts.
  • Involve students in the assessment of their blogs: In a previous post, I outlined how I require students to self-assess their writing. I have been happy with the way I’ve asked students to create a portfolio of their blog posts to submit to me at the end of term, rather than assigning a grade to each individual blog post (I’ve tried to eliminate traditional grades as much as possible in my classes). Normally, I have students do this via a final assessment form that they fill in and submit to me via email, hyperlinking to specific posts that they want to include in their assessment, and discussing in detail why they selected them and how they demonstrate what they’ve learned about writing. But I’m considering remixing Mark Sample’s idea of a blog audit; I think that making their reflections public on their blogs will encourage an even deeper consideration of who they are as writers and what they’ve done as bloggers over the course of the term, mirroring the way that many bloggers use their blogs as reflective spaces. I also like his idea of having students revisit and revise some of their old posts, which is something I used to encourage students to do with their writing before I switched to blogs, and would like to re-incorporate into their portfolio creation.
  • Utilize formative and peer assessment: This is still something that I’m tweaking. So far, I’ve found my method for providing formative assessment effective (and students have indicated the same). What I haven’t been able to integrate as effectively is peer assessment. I would love to use a badge system, like Mozilla’s Open Badges, but I haven’t had the time to figure out the best way to do so (or if it’s even possible, since I don’t know how to code or if it’s necessary to know how to do so to use the program, two issues I’m hoping to remedy soon). In the meantime, I’ll encourage the use of readily available social media feedback systems such as Facebook’s “like” and Google’s “plus 1” buttons.

A third issue that seems to have been prevalent during the session is that of how to allow for disruption and alternatives within the blogging domain.

  • Allow/encourage alternative uses for blogs: Since I require that students publish all of their writings for the class to their blog, this means that sometimes their blog posts contain nontraditional material (although I always try to help students understand that, with the advent of photoblogs, vlogs, and podcasting, there is no longer such a thing as traditional blog content). For example, this term I’m requiring my FYC students to use Storify to create their annotated bibliographies and then embed their stories into their blogs for comment by me and their peers. Last term, my students participated in DS 106, which meant that their blogs became populated with memes, mashups, animated gifs, and sound clouds.
  • Disrupt the digital environment: Interestingly enough, as participants were discussing Mills Kelly’s ideas about disruptive pedagogies and then subsequently considering ways to disrupt student blogging, I was blogging about Paul Fyfe’s theory of teaching naked and considering how to disrupt the digital environments within which I ask my students to work. One idea that I blogged about that serendipitously showed up on the blogging session Google Doc is that of requiring students to engage with and use their blog posts in non-digital ways. I think that this is an aspect of student blogging that needs more attention and I hope that a conversation can develop around it.

These are just a few of the blogging methods that I have found effective and, as indicated, I’m still working at improving some of them. I encourage those who require their students to blog or who are thinking of doing so to help continue the conversation here, on my Storify of the THATCamp session, on Mark Sample’s THATCamp blog post, or on Twitter (use the #thatcamp hashtag).