I am fascinated by the question of how we can better help students stay engaged in the learning process. Last January (2011) I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for Dr. Barry Fishman’s class on Videogames and Learning. The class itself aims to consider our success at making videogames exciting and to see if we can repurpose some of those techniques to make learning in the traditional classroom more engaging. And we walk the talk – we run the class as a game, with 1.4 million points per student, assignments ‘unlocked’ via achievements, a variety of assignments available to students to select, and badges used to denote expertise in content areas and skills. The class was certainly engaging – but also confusing, as many students reported that they struggled to understand the grading system.
I had a number of ideas about how we might be able to develop an interface to help them, as did my fellow teaching assistant Scott Tsuchiyama. We approached Dr. Fishman with a plan to develop a tool to do just that, and spent all of last fall discussing how we would go about building this interface. In January I dove into learning Ruby on Rails, and by mid-February we had the first version of our grade visualizer and predictor tool up and running for the class.
At launch, students could login to their dashboard, see feedback, badges earned, and their total points for each assignment. They could also get a sense for how far through the class they were, and what else they needed to do to earn the grade they wanted.
But the visualizer itself wasn’t enough – it is primarily a feedback system, not a way for students to interact with and plan their course involvement. So we built a grade predictor tool that would take into account the grades a student had already earned, and help them determine where else in the course they could earn points to achieve the grade they wanted.
We broke the assignments down into the categories defined in the syllabus (Attendance, Reading Reactions, Boss Battles, Learning from Playing a Game, and Team Points), allowed students to mark which classes they would attend, which reading reactions they would do, and what grade they planned to earn on larger projects. They could feel the effect that earning an extra grade higher on their paper would have on their final course grade. They could realize that they had missed more points on their poster presentation than expected, and decide to do extra blog posts to make up for it. They could decide to fight harder to earn the 100,000 points awarded to the winning team. They could take control.
We also allowed students to revise almost every assignment in order to learn more from the exercise, and improve their grade. But there were exceptions – there is no way to make up attendance points (you are there, or you are not – no excuses!), and reading reactions had a fixed weekly deadline. I love the parallels that assignment revision has to gameplay – if someone is willing to take the time to ‘play’ something repeatedly, to learn it backwards and forwards, to go beyond where they might have even imagined themselves to end up at the beginning of their adventure, I find that remarkable. Gamers do this constantly, and it is a technique I really want to see applied to education.
We made it through the semester with only a few glitches. The feedback we are getting is really exciting – the interface made the grading scheme much clearer, and appears to have had a positive effect on motivation. In addition to the many features we planned to add from the beginning, we now have feedback from students regarding what worked and what did not. For instance, we know that our implementation of badges was superficial and we are trying to figure out how we can make them more meaningful. My gut instinct is that badges are only going to be worthwhile if you really have to earn them — if they represent something very specific, and it is clear that earning that marker is a sign of skill and excellence. How are we going to create that framework? We have a lot of brainstorming ahead!
The first big thing to tackle on the development side is abstracting our system so that any course can use it. To do this, we are looking at a variety of other courses to see how their assignments are structured and graded. After that we will be building a learning analytics tool that will allow instructors to see and interact with their course’s data. And then, I want to start considering the opportunities for nudges – how can we better recognize students in different situations (falling behind? not challenged enough? missing out on a particular element?) and provide tailored support to each and every one? It’s going to be a busy summer!