Learning Spaces As Making Spaces

Image courtesy of be you.
Image courtesy of be you.

The games-based learning MOOC is officially over, but for those of us who have chosen to pursue the Games-Based Learning Badge, the process of collating the work that we have done during the MOOC is still ongoing (you can see my portfolio, which includes blog posts related to the MOOC, some of my discussion forum responses, and my final project on my Storify page). This is not the first MOOC that I’ve taken, but it is certainly the best by far. Granted, I’ve only taken two, but the other, which I posted about last year, was so diametrically opposed to this one in terms of methodology and design that I can’t help but view the two that I have taken as existing at opposite ends of the MOOC spectrum: the worst kind of open online learning that MOOCs (far too often) represent and the best kind of open online learning that MOOCs can (far too rarely) realize.

There are several aspects of the GBL MOOC that, for me, made it so much better than my previous MOOC experience, among them the constructivist and connectivist pedagogical philosophies that underpinned every aspect of the MOOC’s design. An especially important outcome of the course was the fact that I came away not only having learned something new and connected with people with whom I can continue to share ideas and learning experiences, but that I also came away with a tangible piece of usable pedagogical work: the games-based learning project. For, as much as it was a space (or, rather spaces) in which to learn, share, hack, and play, the MOOC was also a space in which to make.

Over the past few semesters, I have found this philosophy of the classroom as makerspace bleeding over more and more into my own course designs and, most recently, into my presentation and workshop designs as well. In several of my classes, I have eschewed standardized or even open-ended final exams for student-designed projects and research slams. And my students have whole-heartedly embraced the change. So I’ve begun to consider how I might integrate making into the day-to-day learning, rather than just isolating it within the end-of-term project. While doing so will require sacrificing some of the directed learning time, based on the quality of work and level of engagement that my students have demonstrated in their final projects, it’s a sacrifice that I think will be worth it.

One option is the 20% Project. This method gives students 20% of their in-class time to work on a learning project that they choose and design themselves. I’m already doing something similar in my Graphic Novel class this term. Because we meet for 2 1/2 hours each day, I am allowing students 30 minutes of class time to work on their final projects. This gives them the opportunity to conference with me and to seek advice, ideas, and feedback from their peers. But the 20% Project is typically an ungraded, strictly learning-for-the-sake-of-learning-and-having-fun endeavor, so for future classes, I may have students choose between an ungraded 20% project and a formal final exam or an ungraded 20% project and a graded final project that takes the place of a formal final exam. I think it will be interesting to see how students respond to these options.

I’m also looking for ways to turn regular in-class activities into opportunities to make. This term, my Graphic Novel students spent the first two days of class reading and discussing Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Instead of traditional reading quizzes, I had them complete various drawing assignments that would demonstrate that they had read the assigned chapters and understood the concepts covered in them. For example, in order to demonstrate understanding of representation, I had students draw realistic, iconic, and symbolic representations of themselves. To demonstrate understanding of closure, I had them draw a two-panel comic that represented either a subject-to-subject, aspect-to-aspect, scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment, or action-to-action transition. The students are working in small groups to teach the graphic novels we are reading this term and I have left the design of each instructional session completely up to them. So far, each instructional team has integrated some type of maker activity into their lesson. The group teaching Watchmen had everyone create a multi-panel comic that might be written if superheroes were an everyday reality, and then held a competition for the best set of panels. The instructional team for V for Vendetta asked everyone to design their own political activist/vigilante mask. It’s evident from the fact that each instructional team has created some type of activity focused on making and the enthusiasm with which the class approaches their maker projects that students enjoy the challenge of making something that represents their individual talents, ideas, and knowledge.

Seeing the success of creating makerspaces for learning in the classroom has inspired me to reconsider how I design and deliver presentations and workshops. I have the opportunity this summer to lead two workshops for k12 teachers and  I am designing each to be not just a chance to learn about new methods and technologies, but to use what they learn to actually design a unit or an entire curriculum with help and feedback from each other. So, those attending my workshop on immersive role-play will be provided with an outline of the questions I used and the steps that I took to create a class based upon immersive role-play, and will have time during the workshop to brainstorm and refine their own immersive role-play unit.

As I have written before, I see the desire to make as being a natural aspect of the hyper-digitalized  informationalism that characterizes our students’ everyday experiences:

Analogous to (digital) quilting bees, Maker Faires recognize and respond to several aspects of 21st century socioeconomics and the attendant cultural shifts: the need/desire to collaborate, co-op, share, create, and connect with each other and available resources in both new (digital) and old (humanist) ways. In a hyperdigitalized world, authenticity has become a scarce–or at least more difficult to locate–resource, so it seems only natural that people have begun to value the work of making something both beautiful and useful from raw materials.

When we turn learning spaces into opportunities to make, the dichotomy between digital and analog, virtual and real, hi-tech and low-tech no longer matter as much as we like to pretend they do. For students (and teachers), it’s not the tools that matter, it’s the opportunity to use those tools to create something new. What they create doesn’t necessarily have to be useful and it certainly doesn’t have to be graded or to “count” for something. It just has to be something that didn’t exist before. And would have never existed if you had not allowed them the space and the time to make it.

All Together Now: Some Further Uses for Google Docs in the Composition Classroom

photo credit: KatieTT via photo pin cc

It took me a long time to become a Google Docs convert. I played around with the app as a tool for collaboration in an upper-level course one term and it was a total disaster, mainly because students didn’t know how to use it (and neither did I, really) and we often ran into issues when students attempted to access documents that I had shared with them (I think this had much to do with Google Docs’ bugginess at the time). I subsequently used Docs only when needing to access a document that had been shared publicly, and in doing so, began to see the utility in creating certain documents in the app so that I could hyperlink to and even embed them on a class website or whatever social media tool the class happened to be using.

The collaborative magic of Google Docs did not really appeal to me until I was forced to use the app to collaboratively edit an article that I had submitted to Hybrid Pedagogy. After submitting the draft of the article, the editors, Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh, provided me with feedback via the commenting feature and then Pete and I used the in-document chat feature to discuss how best to integrate their ideas with mine. As I worked to revise the document, Pete (virtually) worked alongside me, serving as both sounding-board and devil’s advocate and providing me with synchronous feedback on my revisions. It was an eye-opening experience, not just because I was unaware of many of the tools available in Google Docs (such as the revision history feature and the chat tool), but because of how powerfully the act of collaboratively revising a piece of writing affected me. I had always wrote alone, in isolation, never with someone looking over my shoulder and certainly never engaging in a dialogue about my rhetorical choices (and possible alternatives) as I was making them.

If writing collaboratively had such an impact on my writing, I began to wonder what kind of impact it could have on my students’ writing. So I began to consider how I could use this powerful tool that I had been poo-pooing for years as a weapon against the isolation, anxiety, and despair that I so often see plaguing my First-Year Composition students.

I know that there’s been a lot written about the value and utility of Google Docs in the classroom, so I won’t bore you with a rehashing of what others have already so effectively said. ProfHacker has written quite a bit about the app and their post “GoogleDocs and Collaboration in the Classroom” is chock-full of links to various tips and useful ideas. Getting Smart’s “6 Powerful Google Docs Features to Support the Collaborative Writing Process” provides an excellent step-by-step guide to using Google Docs especially for collaborative writing. And for a basic overview of Google Docs’ features and potential uses, you can browse through this slideshow:

 

By no means have I explored the full potential of Google Docs. But I would like to share a few strategies that I’m trying out in my Basic English Skills class this term that seem to be having an especially powerful impact on  my students’ writing.

Daily Journals

I’ve always used journals in my literature and writing classes, whether they were reading journals, learning journals, or writers’ journals, because I believe that the most powerful thing we can teach our students is how to be more “meta.” But there are several problems with student journals. The main problem is accessibility because I honestly never enjoyed lugging around armfuls of composition books, 3-ring binders, and plastic folders (or whatever else students had handy to stuff their hastily-thrown-together-at-the-last-minute “daily” journal into). Which brings me to the other problem. Since it was logistically impossible to check journals every day, I would usually take them up three or four times a semester, which meant that students could very well wait until the last minute to write all of their journal entries (but ingeniously writing each entry in a different color ink to disguise their act of subterfuge). This also meant that students were without their journals for the few days in which it took me to read and record their entries.

These are the reasons why I became an early adopter of student blogging. By having students blog instead of keeping analog journals, I could monitor their entries (and when they were doing them) without inconvenience to the students or myself. But students are sometimes hesitant about or resistant to making such informal, and often intimately personal, writing public. So, this term I have asked my Basic English Skills students to keep a daily journal (which can be on anything they wish to write about and functions to help them build their writing muscles) in Google Docs, which they’ve only shared with me. Besides alleviating any anxiety students might have felt about making their journals public, Google Docs allows me to easily monitor new entries (whenever a Doc is edited, the title turns bold) and to verify when students are completing their entries (by using the revision history feature). Aside from how much easier it now is to ask students to keep journals, I’m also enjoying reading their journals and learning more about their lives outside of the classroom (many of which are filled with challenges and struggles that often leave me in tears and/or feeling extremely blessed).

Writing in Teams

The sources that I referenced above have already pointed out the benefits of using Google Docs during the brainstorming and peer review processes. But I wanted to attempt to channel some of the power of those collaborative writing sessions that I shared with Pete Rorabaugh to help alleviate some of the angst that many of the students in a remedial writing class experience as they work their way through the entire writing process. So, I decided to have the students write in teams of three, with one team member serving as lead editor each week. The lead editor is in charge of each week’s blog post, which includes coming up with a focus question and locating 2-3 sources to help them answer their question, which they share with their team before the week’s first class meeting (I have had the teams indicate each week’s lead editor in a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that I am aware of which students are in charge each week).

But it gets really interesting when the teams come together in the week’s first class meeting. The lead editor creates a Google Doc, which they share with their team and me, and type in their focus question and a brief summary of how they plan to answer it. What follows is a 30-40 minute session in which the team discusses the question, the lead editor’s sources, and their plan for answering the question completely in writing in the Google Doc, observing a strict rule of silence (I adapted this activity from Lawrence Weinstein’s “Silent Dialogue” activity in Writing Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely). The purpose of this activity is to force the team to flesh out the lead editor’s ideas and to communicate all of their ideas in written form. This is beneficial for the lead editor because it provides them with sounding-boards and devil’s advocates and by the time they leave class, they have a much better grasp on what it is they want to say and how best to say it. It also benefits the other team members because it gives them more practice in expressing their ideas in writing. And it allows me to monitor the team’s work and provide my own feedback early in the writing process before the lead editor begins writing a draft that might be too ambitious in scope.

Aside from the pedagogical functions of the collaborate brainstorming session, the human factor becomes more obvious and explicit (a factor that, unfortunately, we as teachers often forget about). The docs lay bare the students’ hesitancies, their false starts, their doubts, their over-shootings, their assumptions, their candor, their egos, their camaraderie, and their humor. Here’s an example of one team’s silent dialogue session:

The next step in the process is for the lead editor to come to the next class meeting with a rough draft that they share with their team and me. The team then begins the process of revising, proofreading and editing, and designing the blog post. Again, I can use the revision history feature to monitor the transformation of the draft, verify that all team members are contributing, and provide feedback on the effectiveness of their work. All in all, this aspect of the collaborative writing model has been successful because of the synchronous access that Google Docs allows me to have to the students’ writing process, and I’m not sure that it would be as successful without it.

What I think I see as I read through the teams’ weekly brainstorming and collaborative writing sessions is a sense that they are not alone, that they have peers who are capable of helping them and who are invested in their writing as much as they are their own.

What a powerful thing for students to feel.

And while I can’t say with 100% certainty that the writing that is being produced would not have been as good if the students were not using Google Docs, I’m so confident that it is that I’ll be putting it to the test in my regular FYC classes next term.

 

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century Webinar

Paul Cadmus, Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from death in 1607 while watched by her father, 1939

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century 
Webinar 
August 14, 2012 
1:00 cst 

When several members of Jacksonville State University’s English department began to challenge traditionally held beliefs about undergraduate education, the anthology of Early American Literature, along with many other “norms,” came under close scrutiny for many reasons.

With the GLO Bible as an early model, a team of approximately 30 collaborators began to construct an electronic, media rich anthology combining primary texts of pre-Civil War American Literature from the traditional canon with art, criticism, scholarly commentary, and contemporary audio and video to enhance student centered and challenge based learning.

This ongoing project involves faculty from English and other humanities departments at JSU and other colleges and universities, computer science faculty and other IT experts, broad- based student involvement, and a K-20 consortium.

During this free webinar, the JSU team (Jennifer Foster, Rodney Bailey, and Gena Christopher) will share its vision for the E-thology, a glimpse into this work in progress, and an invitation to become an active participant in what has evolved into much more than an ebook. We will also welcome your questions and comments.

To register for this event, contact Gena Christopher at genac@jsu.edu.

On the Virtues of Not Being an Expert

“[H]e who makes the programme is the god.” –Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears

“Expert, text-pert, / . . . Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” –Lennon-McCartney, “I Am the Walrus”

In Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, he fictionalizes the building of Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine, including the dramatic moment when the machine produces it’s first calculations. The moment is a disappointment to the workers who had spent months meticulously hand-crafting the parts for the machine because they think it miscalculates 102 + 2, not realizing that Cruikshank (Babbage’s fictional namesake) had written a new law regarding the product of 102 and 2:

[A]s a result of a decision beyond your knowledge . . . [y]ou saw two plus 102 equals 171. In nature this is what we call a miracle and I, who predicted it, would be called a prophet.

Cruikshank, as engineer of the programme, possesses a god-like power: he can determine facts and rewrite Truth. He can subvert others’ knowledge and expectations.

In many ways, teachers share this god-like position. We are the writers of programmes, i.e., curriculum, courses, and lessons. We determine what needs to be known and how it is known. Our knowledge and expectations take precedence over the knowledge and expectations of our students. In our role as expert, we determine the Truth as our students come to know it.

The all-knowing, all-seeing power of a god is also a monstrous weakness, for it renders him incapable of seeing things from others’ points of view. He cannot empathize with mortals’ short-sightedness, their fear and confusion when confronted with the unfamiliar or the uncertain, their lack of knowledge about things the god finds wholly knowable and intimately familiar.

Similarly, teachers often forget what it is like to be a student–to be unfamiliar with and intimidated by a subject; methods for reading, writing, and thinking about that subject; or even by the expert teaching the subject. Maryellen Weimer articulates this insufficiency in her blog post “A Failure to Communicate”:

Faculty, intimately familiar with the content, see how all the details fit, relate and become the big beautiful picture they know, study and love. What some have lost is the ability to see how the picture looks to others who are looking at it for the first time. How could those perfectly obvious concepts be missed?

Far too often, especially in the humanities, when we position ourselves as experts, we do so in terms of our ability to critically analyze a text–whether it be a piece of literature, an historical event, a sociological phenomenon, an archeological artifact, or a film/painting/photograph/musical composition. We attempt to guide our students towards an understanding and analysis as profound and articulate as our own, ignoring, dismissing, or, at best, humoring their initial, inexpert responses to the text. We push them to look beyond the obvious and the aesthetic, to recognize the symbolic, the implicit, the transcendent; in other words, we want them to value and recognize those aspects of the text that we and other experts think are the most important.

And in teaching students to read and interpret a text or understand a mathematical or scientific concept, we often use language that is as bewildering to them as the semantic bantering that takes place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the incomprehensible nonsense of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” In the latter, John Lennon ingeniously uses “linguistic chaos” to voice an ironic critique of the practice of textual analysis:

“Expert, textpert…” (the latter another probabl[e] portmanteau) deflects the attempts of folks (like me!) to explain what’s happening in the song. However, within the song’s context, these experts are more of those sneering, snide establishment folks, caught in the same trap as the desperate singer (“like pigs in a sty”) but unwilling to admit that there’s something real and fearsome to bewail. “…the joker laughs at you”, the lyrics tell us, but in “IATW” pronouns usually refer to us *all*, not just the second person singular.

In fact, legend has it that much of the song was guided by Lennon’s knowledge that a teacher at his former primary school was having his students analyze The Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon’s semantic hacking is both a commentary on the pedantic nature of school(ing) and an attempt to resist such pedantry. It’s his (unsuccessful) attempt to have his music accepted and enjoyed at face value, in much the same way that our students wish to accept our course content.

But such ideas rarely guide teachers as we create our courses. We are much more concerned with establishing ourselves as the text-perts. Being anything less is an uncomfortable and discomfiting proposition; it hints at lack of control. But what is the worst that can happen if we enter the classroom as something less than omniscient?

This is a question that currently preoccupies me as I plan a course on graphic novels, something that I have never taught before nor am I an expert in. In fact, I am currently very much in the role of student of the graphic novel. I only just “discovered” them about a year ago, and, while I was immediately and inexorably enthralled with the genre, I quickly discovered that my training and expertise in reading traditional texts had not provided me with the skills needed to fully understand and appreciate graphic novels. And so I have embarked upon a self-education in graphic novels, first by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and now by reading every graphic novel and comic that I can afford to get my hands on. Initially, I had planned to incorporate a third phase in which I read as many scholarly articles, books, and blog posts on the genre as I could before the class starts next summer. But I have begun to reconsider this part of my education. I hesitate to read the numerous scholarly sources that I have discovered because I wonder just how much they may cloud my initial unadulterated awe at the understated aesthetic power of Alison Bechdal’s Fun Home or the pristinely bittersweet humor of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I could very well become an expert, at least from my students’ perspective, on the graphic novel and teach the course as such, exerting, in the process, control, power, and influence. Or I could enter the classroom at the same novice-level position as my students, affording me a better ability to read the course’s texts through their eyes and to learn to interpret and analyze those texts alongside them, not with the language of the academy, but with honest unsophistication.

There’s equal power in not knowing and discovering for the very first time as there is in knowing from a distance. It’s this distance that I think needs to be re-evaluated. In graduate school, my professors had an easy answer to the anxieties that plague novice teachers: just stay one step ahead of your students and you’ll be okay (read: in control). But what if we were right in step with our students? Or even one step behind? Many educators have advocated for the students to become the teachers (although I suspect that some do so with the expectation that, ultimately, they’ll still have their finger on the automaton’s trigger). But far fewer are advocating for teachers to become the students. In traditional schooling, the teacher stays behind the curtain–remotely extolling facts as gifts and manipulating Truth. It’s the students’ role to discover the right path and overcome the obstacles along the way. But as our role as experts comes under pressure from the Internet and canned digital content and massive open online courses, there is a need to re-discover what it is that makes a classroom so special. It’s not the wizard behind the curtain. It’s the collective journey towards knowledge, the obstacles that problematize our progress, and the discoveries about Truth, as humans have defined it, made along the way.

It’s time we dispensed with the curtain and admitted that we’re really just students, too.

Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game

photo credit: davidfg via photo pin cc

In a recent post, I outlined some ideas that I have about integrating principles of game design into the FYC course. As I pointed out, I’m not all-out gung-ho about the idea of the gamification of education. It turns out that many of my reservations about this latest trend in reforming education are shared by game designers themselves. In her post “Everything Is Game Design,” game designer Elizabeth Sampat makes clear that the assumption that any group of practitioners can co-opt and apply the extremely complex and abstract principles at play in a successfully engaging (to some) game to any other domain is over-reaching:

Gamification” assumes all games share the same mechanics, which means everything that’s gamified is basically the same shitty game. Using badges and leaderboards and offering toothless points for clearly-commercial activities isn’t a magic formula that will engage anyone at any time. Demographics are different, behavior is different . . .

These are the same issues with gamifying the classroom that keep me from wholly embracing the concept. For one, the whole point of a game is that it is . . . well, a game. Games are voluntary. As soon as you force someone to join in a game, it stops being a game for them. It becomes a compulsory activity devoid of intrinsic value and all of the extrinsic rewards you can throw at them, while perhaps artificially increasing their motivation to play the game, cannot turn it back into a game, unless it’s in the negative sense. Even when we gamify a class, we’re still making the learning that takes place within that game compulsory and effectively negating any positive characteristics of gaming that we are attempting to channel. And, as Sampat points out, the characteristics that make any game engaging cannot be standardized. What works for one gamer doesn’t work for another. So, in many ways, game designers face the same kinds of issues and challenges that educators face.

Another point that I think has been largely overlooked in this debate is that, for the large majority of students (if not all), school is already a game. We have goals (behavioral or learning objectives), challenges (in-class activities, homework, exams, and standardized tests), and rewards (grades). We’ve got levels (grade levels based on age in K12 and hours-earned status in college) and leaderboards (A/B honor roll in K12 and President’s and Dean’s lists in college). And we have clearly defined roles (teacher as locus of power and expertise, student as powerless and largely silent novitiate). Some students figure out pretty early how to play the game. In college, these are the students whose identity is inextricably intertwined with their grades. “But I’m an ‘A student,'” they insist when faced with anything other than. Other students learn early on how to game the game. These are the students who know how to manipulate the system and those in charge of it and can often be just as successful at winning the game as their overachieving counterparts. But some students never learn how to play the game according to our rules. Others don’t want to play it because they see it for what it is.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re already playing games with our students. And it’s a numbers game. Play the game according to our rules and we’ll reward you with a high GPA and a diploma, with the promise that these things are the badges you need in order to level up to the American Dream. This kind of game is both irrelevant and counterproductive in a culture that is becoming increasingly participatory, rather than competitive, in nature (just read Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis to get an idea of how important cooperation and collaboration is becoming for those graduating into the current economy). While many educators are fighting to reform the standardized, hierarchical forms of assessment that have been in place since the industrialization of education, until they are successful at effecting a wholesale paradigm shift and not just applying a false facade and calling it reform, we are forced (much like our students) to try to figure out ways to hack the game. As Sampet argues:

Finding the reward structures and the rules that are already in place, and figuring out how to make them more effective, is the key to making life better for everyone— not adding an additional layer of uninspiring mechanics that push us to engage with mechanics that already suck.

Just as games are not one-size-fits-all, assessment shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, neither in terms of standardized criteria applied to all students nor evaluative formats used for all courses/disciplines. Just as each course has its own unique set of learning objectives, each course should have a different method for assessing how students go about achieving those objectives. I think it important to explore various assessment methods in an effort to find which is the most effective for a particular course. For example, I have found that a portfolio method is exceptionally well-suited for my composition courses, as it allows for the abstract nature of the writing process and the subjectiveness that characterizes the act of evaluating and valuing a piece of writing. But in trying to incorporate a portfolio system into my speech courses (both an introductory oral communication class and an advanced argumentation and debate class), I have had less success, though for different reasons (perhaps due to the differences among the students: freshman and upper level secondary-education majors, respectively). As much as the portfolio method places value on each student’s individual learning needs, goals, and achievements, within the current grades-based system, students in certain courses need to be able to visualize their learning at both a qualitative and quantitative level. So, what are the alternatives?

Peer Assessment
One option that is gaining ground is peer assessment. Cathy Davidson has successfully explored this method in her “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” class (read “How to Crowdsource Grading” for her description of the process and the thought-provoking debate that followed and “How to Crowdsource Grading: A Report Card” for an overview of her students’ responses to the method). Many MOOCs utilize peer assessment out of necessity. According to Debbie Morrison, within the MOOC environment, peer assessment results in an enhanced learning experience for the student, as grading their peers’ work requires a deeper engagement with course content.

I’ve utilized peer assessment in both of my speech classes to varying degrees and with varying levels of success. In my introductory speech class, the students work together at the beginning of the term to develop a checklist for an effective speech (I don’t use rubrics because, in my experience, they become just another hierarchical form of grading that allows students to retain many of the gaming habits they adopted in K12). They do this by watching several speeches on YouTube and creating individual lists of do’s and don’ts, which we then collate into a master list. For each speech, students are evaluated by five randomly selected anonymous peers, who use the checklist to assess the speech. The students are also filmed and they must use both the video and their peers’ checklists to compose an assessment of their speech that they post to an e-portfolio, along with all artifacts associated with the speech (outlines, bibliographies, slideshows, photos of visual aids, the video of the speech, etc.). For this particular class, I have found that a combination of self and peer assessment has been much more effective than a solely self-based assessment (which tended to be superficial) or even an instructor-based assessment (in which students received only one assessment, as opposed to five, and tended to focus more on improving their “grade” than becoming a more effective speaker). With the peer assessment method, students’ speeches are being evaluated by their audience and their focus becomes oriented towards improving their audience’s response to subsequent speeches.

I have tried this kind of peer assessment in my debate class with far less success. For one, the class is much smaller, and consists, for the most part, of a cohort of sophomore and junior-level secondary education majors. These students tend to be very cliquish and ironically conservative in terms of the practices they expect in the class; they tend to be “A-gamers” obsessed with acing the course and uncomfortable with the level of abstractness and improvisation involved in debate. As a result, they tend to assess their peers over-generously and resist critiquing one another (one class even admitted to giving each other positive assessments across the board because they didn’t want to “hurt someone’s grade”). They look to me as the expert, so their portfolio reflections tend to be focused on flattering me and the course and highlighting aspects of their performances from my point of view (“If I were the instructor, I would give this speech a [insert grade here]”). Despite my best efforts, these students are resistant to assessment formats that are not instructor-based. So what’s a disruptive pedagogue to do?

Contract Grading
While I was at first dismissive of contract grading based on the distaste I harbor for the artificially hierarchical nature of any type of grades-based assessment (and the name’s implications of a kind of capitalistic supply and demand relationship between student and teacher), I have become less dismissive of the method in terms of its ability to bridge the gap between my students’ need for a quantitative value to be placed on their learning and my own objective of encouraging them to recognize and become complicit in the qualitative value of that learning.

For one, I’m hoping that it will eliminate the specter of grades that haunts the course by directly addressing the students’ anxiety regarding their status in a course that has no exams or other easily quantifiable activities. Students will decide what grade they wish to work towards and will have a specific, objective set of criteria that they must achieve in order to earn that grade (yes, I know this sounds just like a syllabus with a traditional grading schema, but contract grading makes the implicit aspects of the traditional schema explicit and, in many ways, mimics the game design principle of starting at zero and gaining points as you go). Once the question of grades is out of the way, perhaps the students will be more willing to focus on learning and improving.

Secondly, contract grading requires student input in regards to the challenges that must be met in order to level-up (yes, I know I’m wading back into gaming territory, but, as I’ve argued, our goal should be figuring out what works for a particular course and cohort of students rather than a wholesale dismissal or acceptance of any one method or theory). Often, in order to earn an A or a B, students must complete additional learning tasks, sometimes choosing between several options, which they can be invited to develop. This aspect of contract grading is the one that I find most promising in terms of encouraging student investment in the learning environment. While I have long preached to students that, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” contract grading makes student-centered initiative an explicitly integral component of the course.

Thirdly, contract grading will allow me to both address the students’ insistence that I fulfill the role of expert assessor and my wish for them to fulfill the role of deliberate and reflective practitioner. Different grades require different levels of mastery, so students who contract for a certain grade must revise and/or re-attempt assignments that don’t demonstrate mastery. While my debate students can’t re-do a live debate, they can complete a video re-enactment that improves upon their live performance or record a play-by-play self-critique using Voice Thread or screencasting software. In addition, some of the optional assignments can require peer or self-assessment or other types of reflective learning practices.

While I’m not completely comfortable with contract grading (just as I am not completely comfortable with gamification), I also recognize that other assessment methods are not working for my upperclassman and, as a result, are interfering with my efforts to push them beyond a superficial engagement with their learning in the course. I believe firmly that we must recognize our students’ needs, values, and histories; but we can’t pick and choose which of those we take into consideration when designing their learning environments. Sampet makes a point that I think is important for us to keep in mind in the process:

The core principle to remember is that game design is everywhere. Instead of trying to stick a crappy, half-formed game onto real life, the real challenge— the one that’s tough, the one that will bring the greatest results— is to fix the bad game design that’s all around us.

Students won’t be open to assessment that values quality over quantity or process over product until we recognize that our current assessment paradigm is a badly designed game that needs to be torn down and redesigned. Sampet suggests two questions to ask when considering whether or not something is badly designed:

  • What’s supposed to be the goal here?
  • Is this experience set up to help or hinder my ability to reach that goal?
I’m game.
Resources on Contract Grading
These are the sources that I consulted to help me to better understand the possibilities afforded by contract grading: