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.

 

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.

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

Headless-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roles

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

Guilds

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

Quests

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

Boss Level

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

Feedback

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

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

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

Endgame

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

Design

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

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

Embracing the Messiness: Lessons from a 21st Century Classroom

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of presenting at a workshop for regional 7-12th grade teachers. The workshop was sponsored by CoRE, which stands for Collaborative Regional Education, a program my university is developing that will create a partnership between it and regional P-12 schools, other universities, and national organizations and businesses (including Apple) with the goal of improving students’ college- and work-readiness. I was asked to share my experiences with integrating Challenge-Based Learning into my classes.

Because my audience was teachers from all disciplines, all secondary grades, and school systems that run the socioeconomic gamut, I chose to focus on some of the core (pardon the pun) lessons I learned from my experiences, rather than trying to preach or push any one particular method or technology. You can view the presentation slideshow with my notes at HaikuDeck.

 

It doesn’t do too much good to learn something if we then don’t apply it. Here’s a few ways I’m integrating the lessons I highlighted in my talk into my classes this semester:

Trust your students

This semester, my FYC I students have taken over the responsibility of providing both formative feedback and summative assessments for each others’ work. I’m also allowing them free reign when it comes to their blogs, both in terms of subject matter and genres/modes.

My FYC II students are currently busy roleplaying in Second Life (sometimes with me there, sometimes not) and writing the course’s secondary textbook–a guide to roleplaying the roles they are taking on.

My Survey of English Literature students are responsible for teaching each other (and me) about the texts and authors we’re studying this term. They’re also collaboratively writing the final exam.

I’ve pretty much made all of my classes student-centered and given them the responsibility to both guide the entire class’s learning and their own.

De-stigmatize failure

This term, all of my classes are using contract grading. The criteria for each potential grade are directly tied to how much the student wishes to participate and how hard they are willing to work. Want to go full tilt and then some? Contract for an A. Determined to do everything I ask? Contract for a B. Want to pick and choose between learning opportunities? Contract for a C. Both of my composition classes and my speech and debate classes are all using portfolios to demonstrate their work, rather than letter grades on individual performances. The only failure students experience is their failure to live up to the responsibilities and goals they decide to take on.

Peer models

I’m putting extra emphasis on having students identify peers whom they can use as models and indicate  exemplary work using social media (by giving the work a +1, liking it on Facebook, or sharing it with others via Twitter or other sm) and, more explicitly, through nominating them for an A in the course.

Students as co-teachers

As I mentioned, my English literature students are serving as experts on the texts and authors we’re studying this semester. The history major is doing an excellent job of filling us in on the political, cultural, and socioeconomic events that took place and how they might bear on what we’re reading. The women’s studies student is giving us insight into women’s issues of the times and how various texts were responding to them. Others have shared connections between our readings and current texts (such as music by Sublime and Regina Spektor) and issues (such as women in the military).

And it seems like every day a student or two will school me on technology or a new interpretation of a short story I’ve read a hundred times or what the world is like for them and how different their lives and college experiences are from my own. But rather than making me feel even more ignorant of or alienated from them, it brings me closer to understanding and sympathizing with them. And makes it easier to communicate with and guide them. And teach them.

Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:


Gaming the First-Year Composition Course

In my last post, I addressed the idea of disrupting the First-Year Composition course. One of those disruptive pedagogies that I’ve been monitoring for some time is gamification. I don’t like jumping on any pedagogical bandwagon until I’ve had some time to observe it from afar for a while and reflect on how it fits within my own teaching philosophy and practices. I’ve been doing so with the concept of gamification for almost two years now and up until recently was still uncertain about how I felt about it and how it would benefit my FYC students, if at all. This post is my attempt to clarify some of my initial conclusions on how game theory might be used to help make the FYC experience more engaging for students.

[Disclaimer: This post will not seek to debate gamification’s merits and/or deficiencies. I have mixed feelings about the application of gaming to teaching, some of which I will address in this post. It’s also important to differentiate gamification from game-based learning–the direct use of games and game creation within the classroom. I’m more concerned with how we can use the philosophy of game design to guide our pedagogical practices.]

For me, my own ideas about how gaming philosophy can be integrated into the FYC course were solidified as I watched this TEDx Talk by Paul Anderson, in which he outlines why and how he gamified his science classes:

Recently, this same video was the focus of a post by Adam Renfro on the Getting Smart blog. The post does an excellent job of breaking down and explaining the elements of gamification and how they can be applied to any class. As I read the post, I became increasingly aware of how much I am already applying the principles of gamification to my FYC classes. But the post and video inspired me to consider other aspects of my course that could be gamified to create a more immersive and disruptive experience, so I sat down with pen and paper and, using the outline Renfro provides in his post, did some brainstorming. Here’s what I came up with:

The Story
For me, the story is always supplied by a course theme. One semester it was how education is used as political currency and the lengths that people will go to to get an education; another semester it was the freshman year experience; next semester it will be the purposes, strengths, and shortcomings of universities in the 21st century. I use the course theme to help me select the nonfiction books that we read together as a class and to provide a focus for the students’ self-selected reading, but the students write the “story” themselves, choosing which of the infinite plot lines within our theme they wish to pick up and develop in their writing (in much the same way that “choose your own adventure” books work).

Clear Goals
As Renfro points out, in gaming, goals are concise, specific, and clear (no behavioral objective jargon or Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to muddy up what needs to be done or why). While I’ll still have to use the course objectives provided by my department as written (for some esoteric and, more than likely, bureaucratic reason), I’ll spend some time explaining those goals in plainer language on the course website and I’ll certainly begin to utilize the kinds of clear goals used in gaming when designing the assignments and tasks for the course. [As a rather disturbing anecdote, one semester I asked my students to re-write the course objectives from the syllabus in their own words and explain what the objectives meant in terms of what they needed to learn to do; not a single student could do so, even after looking up all of the unfamiliar words in a dictionary.]

Challenges
The most obvious challenges to establish in an FYC course are the writing assignments. For my students that means creating and maintaining a blog where they publish all of their writing for the class (the “story” they choose to tell about our theme) and reading and commenting on their peers’ blog posts. It will also mean using the skills they develop over the course of the term to solve a relevant problem for our university and its goal to become a 21st century learning environment (I’ve addressed this in a previous post).

Reading, as Anderson acknowledges in his TEDx Talk, is also a challenge for many students. Next term, my students will crowdsource the reading of our class book by collectively annotating it using Google Docs. This challenge works in tandem with two other challenges that I will establish: improving their digital literacy skills (they’ll be annotating Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart) and building a Collaborative Learning Network. Part of the students’ objective in annotating the book is to create their own challenges for integrating the skills discussed in the book into the class. This type of self-authored challenge opportunity is one aspect of gaming that is becoming more popular (my 9 year-old son, who is an avid Lego architect and gamer, revels in games that require him to build his own gaming environments).

Image courtesy of Technorati

Competition
For me, this is one of more problematic aspects of game theory in terms of its pedagogical applications. I recognize that competition can be healthy, I’m just not convinced that the classroom is a context within which that is the case. If students decide, on their own, to compete with their peers to achieve a certain number of “likes,” “+1’s,” or shares, then that is fine, but I’m not comfortable creating forced competition.

Defining the Roles
Since my FYC classes are hybrid, I require that students create an avatar to use in all of our virtual learning environments. I’ve streamlined this as much as possible by using all Google apps for our virtual class work. Students create a Google account during the first week of class and complete a Google profile page with an image of their choosing. They use Blogger for their blogs, Google+ for virtual interaction, and Google Docs for collaborative writing, so their interactions are automatically associated with their avatar. For their first blog post they select a skill or passion to share with their peers as way of introduction. This assignment usually reveals some gurus and go-to’s for various aspects of the course (this term, for instance, I had a tech geek, a journalism major, and a cheerleader, all skills highly valued in an FYC course for various reasons). I encourage students to seek out peers who posses the domain skills that they are in need of if I’m not available or skilled enough to help them, and I encourage students to use their individual skills and personality traits to build and support a collaborative community in both the physical and virtual learning environments.

Equipment
Rather than relying solely on a writing handbook, I’ve begun compiling videos, handouts, and web pages that I can direct students to when they need additional guidance. Last term I experimented with not using a handbook at all and, instead, created a wiki of writing resources. For each writing concept, I tried to provide as many different varieties of resources as possible: at least one video; a concise overview or outline of the concept; a longer, more detailed web page; at least one source that provided examples; and a PDF handout or graphic that they could print out and keep handy. Many students responded enthusiastically to this method and the resources themselves and I received overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the wiki when I polled students on the most effective aspects of the course. This term, I plan to organize these materials into different lessons on Mentor Mob and invite students to add to them (as Renfro points out, the challenge is increased for the students when you allow them to create and use their own equipment).

Scaffolding
Renfro warns that giving all course materials out at once is confusing for some students. This, of course, runs counter to what many consider “best practice” in hybrid and online teaching, which holds that everything should be front-loaded so that your expectations and the course requirements are clear and students have access to the materials so that they can work ahead if they wish. In my experience this has had two results: for weaker students, it is overwhelming and they tend to take an “if I ignore it, it will go away” approach to accessing and reading materials; for stronger students with type-A personalities, this creates anxiety as they constantly try to stay ahead of the game and often miss out on what’s happening in the moment. Next term, rather than uploading all of the writing assignments to a static page on the class’s WordPress site, I plan to post assignments to the blog as I feel they need to be on students’ radars; this has the added advantage of providing a central location for students to post questions and comments on the assignment and for me to answer them.

Badges
Right now, I’m still observing and reflecting on the badge system. Students are already familiar with social media’s voting systems, so I will encourage them to use the existing systems to promote and reward each others’ work.

Level Up
I already provide a kind of leveling up system via students’ self-assessments of their work and the formative feedback that I provide on these assessments (see my post on deliberate practice). I ask students to identify the weaknesses in a piece of writing and to work on improving those areas in their subsequent pieces. Once the student feels that they have developed those areas sufficiently, then they must identify new areas to address, essentially leveling up to a new set of criteria. At this point I haven’t established a hierarchy of levels because I am mainly concerned with getting students engaged with the act of writing and I don’t want to discourage their own assessment of their writing by imposing my own rules about which weaknesses to tackle first. While I might value sentence construction more than paragraph organization, for example, the student might find it less daunting to better their paragraph organization than their sentence constructions. (I’ve found that students generally know their weaknesses and have a good sense of which ones can easily be corrected with some resources and a little more effort and which ones will require intensive, and likely frustratingly difficult, work). I’m not sure if I want to enforce a hierarchy of levels or continue allowing the student to determine at what level they wish to work at any given time. The ability to select different levels of difficulty may be a more important gaming principle to apply to the FYC course than scaffolding of skills.

Leader-boards
Because this aspect of gaming is directly tied to competition, it’s problematic for me and I’m not willing to advocate it.

Flipping for Individualization
Like gamification, flipping the classroom is a hotly debated pedagogical disruption right now. I’m not so much interested in debating it here as thinking about what aspects of it make sense and can be used effectively. English teachers have basically been flipping our classes since time began, so it’s a moot point for FYC, as far as I’m concerned. The aspects of the flipped class that I think teachers of writing need to pay attention to is how it allows students to work at their own pace and how it allows us to individualize their instructional needs. I’ve already discussed how I encourage students to work at self-selected levels by assessing their writing, setting goals for improvement, then monitoring their progress with the help of my formative feedback. When this type of self-paced goal-setting is combined with access to a variety of resources that you have gathered or created and made available using a wiki or a tool like Mentor Mob, this gives the student the power to shape the course to meet their individual learning needs. Students don’t waste time on skills they already posses, they don’t have to spend a week on a skill if they only need a day, and they can spend two weeks (or three or four) on a skill that they couldn’t master in one.

Failing
I’ve already addressed failure in a previous post. I truly believe that one of the most effective ways to eliminate students’ fear of failure is by doing away with grades. Until then, the portfolio system is the next best thing in terms of removing both anxieties surrounding individual assignments and the overarching stigma of failure. For each piece of formal writing, my students receive formative feedback from me but no grade. I encourage them to view each piece of writing as deliberate writing practice, the same kind of practice that gamers are free to enjoy without anxiety or stigma if they fail to level up. At the end of the term, the students select which pieces of writing they want me to use to determine their grade for the course and provide me with detailed input on why they selected each piece and what they think it demonstrates about their writing abilities. If at any point a student is uncertain of where they stand in terms of their progress in the course, I will discuss their concerns, but try to steer clear of situating the discussion within the context of grades or points.

Walkthroughs and Cheat Codes
Two aspects of gaming not mentioned by Renfro are walkthroughs and cheat codes. Walkthroughs demonstrate step-by-step instructions for navigating a game environment, while cheat codes are glitches that allow players to cheat the game by accessing hidden objects, shortcuts, or locked characters. Both are deployed to make the game easier or to give the player an advantage over the game. One way that I’ve been experimenting with walkthroughs this term is by using one of the students’ pieces as a model for effective writing, then conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the piece with me recording our discussion and marking up the text using the Show Me iPad app; once I post the link to the video of our walkthrough, students can revisit and watch it if they feel the need to do so. Another possible way of encouraging the use of walkthroughs and cheat codes in the FYC course is the use of peer instruction. As outlined in the Harvard Magazine article “Twilight of the Lecture” and demonstrated in this video, peer instruction harnesses the collective brainpower of small groups:

By identifying muddy points and misconceptions, then allowing students to discuss and work them out in small groups, peer instruction applies the same methods used by gamers as they crowdsource to share tactics and problem-solve how to game the game.

These are some ways that I think gamification can be applied to the FYC course. Below are a few resources that have helped me to better understand gamification and the pedagogical implications it holds. I’ve tried to provide a balance between the pros and cons of gamification; however, this is by no means an exhaustive list and I welcome any additions you can make to it or any thoughts/experiences that you wish to share about how the principles of game design should or should not be applied to the FYC classroom.

“What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning” by Jessie Chuang

“How to Hack into the Joy of Gaming” by Susan Lucille Davis

“Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?” by Joey J. Lee & Jessica Hammer

“Jury Out on Zamzee, Other Forms of ‘Gamification'” by James Temple

“Kathy Sierra on Gamification in Education” by Larry Ferlazzo

“My Practical Criticism of Gamification: Why Not Do Better?” by Ishai Barnoy

“Gamification: Bring Game Mechanics into Non-Gaming Environments” by Adam Renfro