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

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Warning: Designing effective experience systems is not easy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Teaching Revision vs. Editing

image courtesy of Alex Pang http://flic.kr/p/8AJ566
image courtesy of Alex Pang http://flic.kr/p/8AJ566

My most recent post dealt with postmortems on student writing. In a related line of thinking, I have been considering more effective methods for teaching students the differences between revising and proofreading/editing a piece of writing. I often hear composition teachers express frustration with students because they insist on conflating editing with revision, despite the teacher’s best efforts to teach students the difference. It’s an issue that I have also struggled with and it is probably the one aspect of writing instruction to which I have yet to find a satisfactory solution. This term, I am teaching the first-semester course of my department’s First-Year Composition class. Since it is Spring, and this course is generally taken by students in the Fall term, the students in my class are taking the course out-of-sequence, meaning they have either failed the class once (or more times) before or were required to take our remedial writing class in the Fall. Both scenarios indicate that these students are, generally speaking, weaker writers than those who take the course in sequence in the Fall. Since weak compositions are, in my experience, more a reflection of lack of effort and revision/editing skills than lack of ability or writing proficiency, I decided to focus on teaching the students better revision/editing skills.

I decided to try to get to know more about the students in the class by having them write a literacy narrative as their first piece. I hoped that the literacy narrative would provide two things: some insights into the students’ experiences with and feelings about writing and a platform for explicitly teaching the writing process by requiring multiple drafts that focused on different writing processes.

The overwhelming majority of students chose to focus their literacy narrative on negative experiences with writing, either at the secondary level or at the college level. These experiences, while painful for the students to write about and, sometimes, for me to read about, were, I believe, cathartic for the students and extremely helpful in showing me, from the students’ perspectives, what methods do and do not work. One common factor among these negative experiences were feelings of inadequacy as a result of being singled out or overly criticized by their writing teachers. One student told a story of being unable to even begin writing an impromptu essay in their high school English class and feeling overwhelmed by being the only student in the class who was struggling to get started. They were then called on by the teacher to share their essay with the class and decided to improvise, despite not having a single word written down. When the teacher called the student out for not having written anything and speaking extemporaneously, the student broke down in tears and experienced what she termed “permanent writer’s block.” Another student wrote of their first college writing class, describing a grueling essay assembly line of in-class writing with no opportunities for revision after the pieces were graded. They elaborated on one incident in which the teacher marked off because the student had used “you” in their essay; in an effort to not make the same mistake, the student spent extra time on the next essay, making sure not to use “you,” only to receive deductions again for using “you.” When the student approached the instructor and pointed out that they had not used “you,” the teacher responded, “You implied it.” With experiences like these, it is easy to see why so many of our students see their composition classes as either a nightmarish torture chamber or a game filled with arbitrary rules, which they have no hopes of winning.

The thing is, most students did not write this openly or use these kinds of illustrative examples the first time they wrote their literacy narrative. Typically, most students submitted bare bones pieces, some no longer than a paragraph, full of vague and abstract generalities. Normally, I would spend the majority of my feedback addressing this lack of content and the need for examples and supporting details and use the minimal marking method to mark but not correct errors in grammar and mechanics. It would be up to the student to address these issues in a second draft that would, normally, be their final draft. The result is very rarely a second version that meets both the needs for more fully developed content and corrections in grammar and mechanics.

But this time, I did things differently. Students ended up submitting four versions of the literacy narrative. The first version was their rough draft. When reading and providing feedback on this draft, I focused only on content and organizational issues. The class completed a playlist on Blendspace that focuses on revision and we discussed and practiced some revision in  class with their initial drafts. For the second version of their narrative, I asked students to focus only on addressing the content/organizational issues pointed out in my feedback. Once they had submitted this second version, I marked grammar and mechanical errors and we repeated the same process as we did with revision, this time focusing on the proofreading/editing processes. Once students had submitted a third version that had been proofread/edited, I did a final read-through and addressed any additional issues with content or grammar/mechanics and they submitted their fourth and final version for a summative, holistic assessment.

I found that students did significantly better when it came to both revising and editing their narratives by following this method. What started out, for many, as a skeleton of an essay eventually blossomed into a fully realized piece that was fairly devoid of major errors in grammar/mechanics. In their self-assessments, many students mentioned the positive impact that multiple drafts had on the finished essay and how the process of writing the essay helped them in overcoming some of their fears about writing. I feel that the quality of the essays also proves that poor writing is not necessarily the product of lack of writing ability, but rather a lack of  understanding of the writing process and/or a lack of effort to produce a quality piece of writing, either through apathy, fear of failure and/or criticism, or low self-efficacy beliefs.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to repeat this multiple-draft process with the rest of the pieces that students will be asked to complete this term due to lack of time. My goal now is to figure out a way to make this multiple-draft process workable in the next iteration of the course because I feel the results, both in students’ responses/efforts and the quality of their pieces, are too extraordinary to ignore or neglect due to time constraints. My job as a writing instructor is to find a way to make what works doable. And that’s what I will do.

I would love to hear from those who have identified other methods for effectively teaching the revision and editing processes and those who have found a way to effectively integrate a multiple-draft process into their classes.

Postmortems in the Composition Classroom

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt

I recently ran across an article on grading writing that began by quoting a tweet from a fellow Composition teacher that equated grading a final piece of writing with performing an autopsy on a dead body. I have desperately tried to find the article, but to no avail (if you know the article I’m thinking of or recognize the tweet being referenced, please let me know so that I may give the authors credit).  What puzzled me was that this analogy was meant to have a negative connotation (at least that’s how I read it). I by no means support a summative assessment-only form of grading. I, too, emphasize the process of writing and provide formative assessments that seek to help students to internalize the importance of thoughtful revision and careful proofreading before submitting a “final” version of a piece of writing. And, at one point, I too viewed that final version as a relic to be archived with all of the other finished pieces the student accumulated during the term. But several things have changed for me during the past few semesters: 1) I’ve switched to having students blog instead of submitting traditional word-processed essays; 2) I’ve switched to a portfolio system that allows students to select which pieces they wish to be formally graded, allowing them to revise and edit those pieces before adding them to their portfolio; and 3) I read Lauren Griffin’s “An Open Letter to Writing Instructors from a Motived Student,” which included the following eye-opening (for me) observation:

In many courses, I felt like an overworked employee at an essay factory, producing ten to twelve mediocre and forgettable papers — ones that teachers accepted as final drafts that were, in actuality, first drafts. . . . I wish that all of my instructors had challenged me to produce portfolios with five or six mind-blowing papers instead of valuing quantity over quality.

Griffen, in effect, sums up the kind of traditional method for organizing the First-Year Composition course that I had been told to use as an adjunct and everything wrong with that method: a focus on quantity over quality.

These three things have altered the way I view both the student’s writing process and their writing products, in that I now value both as equally important. For one thing, blogging allows students to view their writing as something alive; they see their readers respond to it and, often, realize that their own views of it change as a result.  Since their blog posts are living things, they can be revised and edited after they’ve been published; much like a garden, a blog needs regular maintenance, from pruning dead links to “growing” or expanding upon a previous post. Secondly, as Griffin argues, the portfolio system encourages writing students to make conscientious changes to pieces. As students read through their work in order to select which pieces to include, they often recognize weaknesses in earlier pieces because they see them in juxtaposition with later pieces. Hence, they begin to recognize their own growth and learning.

I have tried various methods for providing both formative and summative assessments of student writing, including utilizing both anonymous peer review for rough drafts and anonymous peer evaluation of finished products. This past semester, I had great success with having students submit a rough draft to me for feedback and then allowing them to evaluate each others’ finished product (these evaluations were not grade-based and had no impact on the student’s grade). The reason why I made this change was because I have realized that, especially for first-semester composition students, peer review is not as effective as I would like it to be. Even in anonymous, guided peer review, students have difficulty providing constructive criticism on someone else’s draft. Emotions are often involved, either on the reviewer’s end (“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”) or on the reviewee’s end (“One person said this and another said that, and I’m not sure whose advice to take”). While I think college students need to develop the ability to take criticism, writing is already emotionally fraught for them and the added emotions of peer review seem to make the writing process more, not less, difficult for many students. So, I decided to forego peer review and have students submit their drafts to me for review. While this did require quite a bit of time on my part, I think it paid off in dividends in the students’ final posts. I was able to direct their energies much more effectively than their peers could. I stuck with the minimal marking method and focused on asking questions about the students’ ideas and suggesting areas that needed further development or that seemed off-track. Students responded very enthusiastically to this method and, for the first time ever, I saw students really focusing on revising their writing (rather than the kind of minimalist adding on and editing that often passes for revision with most first-year composition students).

Unlike peer review, students seem particularly adept at evaluating final pieces. I am often amazed at how accurately their evaluations reflect the very things I would have pointed out in my own summative evaluation. I am not sure why this is the case and why they cannot do the same with peer review of rough drafts, but I decided to capitalize on it; since I was investing so much extra time and energy into reading and providing feedback on rough drafts, I completely handed summative assessments over to the students. I did perform a quick read-through of final posts in order to see how much effort the student had put into revising and editing the original draft and I did read through the summative feedback to ensure that student evaluations were accurate. Again, this system was very effective, as it removed the burden of summative assessment off of my shoulders (so that I could focus on helping with the writing process), it gave students multiple assessments of their final product, students were much more honest with each other about weaknesses in their writing, and they genuinely valued their peers’ evaluations and integrated them into their revisions and edits for their portfolio.

Next semester, I would like to add a few more layers of feedback to each piece of writing. I am considering, for example, adding a peer review session back into the process, after my own review of their drafts, to encourage a multiple-draft process. I am hoping that I can model effective feedback methods and encourage students to apply them to their own reviews. I would also like to focus more on the finished product and to integrate a postmortem of that product. I already have students write a reflection on each piece that takes their peers’ summative evaluations into consideration and establishes goals for the next piece of writing. But I would like to encourage students to autopsy their products in a much more explicit way after their emotional attachment to the piece has cooled a bit. While some may view the idea of an autopsy negatively, I see value in the process for FYC students.

Let us consider what, exactly, an autopsy is. It is, foremost, a thorough examination that seeks to determine the cause of death. But an autopsy often reveals much more than the cause of death, including diseases or injuries, both past and recent, that are not directly related to the death but that tell us more about the subject’s life and their relative health. But pathologists are not the only ones who perform autopsies. Game developers also perform postmortems. These postmortems seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in the game and to brainstorm how to improve it in future iterations. I think that having students work in groups to perform postmortems on the pieces they select for their portfolios would be an ideal way to encourage them to both value their final products and consider what they could do to add more life to each to make it an even stronger piece of writing. More than a pathologist, I’d like to encourage my students to become like Victor Frankenstein, seeking to collect the best pieces they can find in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts and imbuing it with life. But, rather than being afraid of and rejecting their creature like Frankenstein, I want them to thoroughly examine it and come to love it, both for its strengths and its faults.

 

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 . . .