Game-like Engagement

A New York Times Magazine article titled “Games Theory” (September 19, 2010) mentioned some interesting points:

– “going to school can and should be more like playing a game, which is to say it could be made more participatory, more immersive and also, well, fun.”

– One way to “make school more relevant and engaging” to those who find it boring and are therefore at risk of dropping out is “to stop looking so critically at the way children use media and to start exploring how that energy might best be harnessed to help drive them academically”

– Games provide “‘failure-based learning,’ in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary.” Students will “Fail until they win.”

– “Failure in an academic environment is depressing. Failure in a video game is pleasant. It’s completely aspirational.”

– “When it comes to capturing and keeping the attention of children, game designers appear to be getting something right that schools, in many cases, are getting wrong.”

– “A good game can provide a learner with knowledge and also experience solving problems using that knowledge.”

– “If I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me  a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

– “Students don’t receive grades but rather achieve levels of expertise, denoted on their report cards as ‘pre-novice’, ‘novice’, ‘apprentice’, ‘senior’ and ‘master’.”

Game-like grading

The quotes above reinforce my interest in standards based grading approaches that let the student “fail until they win”, while recognizing progress along the way.  Every gamer plays expecting to, in time, win. Yet, only a percentage of the students I have worked with really seem to expect to “win” in a class – instead they often seem resigned to only getting close, no matter how much effort they might expend.

Our typical academic grading systems seem to merge two goals that are often separate in games:
– identifying who has mastered something (levelling up in a game)
– identifying who is most proficient at mastering something  (fastest times, highest points etc. for a level)
An “A” in a course typically indicates that a student is both a master of the material itself and proficient at mastering the material (they mastered it in the short time available). A “B” could mean that a student has either not quite mastered the material, or is not proficient at mastering the material, or perhaps both.

Would student motivation improve if courses “graded” only mastery, and left aptitude to be addressed by teacher comments? While I think colleges and businesses often perceive grades as highly correlated with aptitude, surely aptitude is so multi-faceted that a grade alone cannot really describe it (does the student “get” everything instantly, do they work at it very diligently, are they brilliant at some things and struggle with others, etc.). If we leave aptitude out of the grade, then we might no longer expect a bell-shaped curve for grades in a course – since everyone would be expected to “master” the material.

Students could then learn by failing repeatedly and be rewarded for eventual success – but only if we restructured our courses a bit to introduce all material well before the end of the course, then give students ample time (and activities) to master it before the due date for grades.

Failure and homework

Failure at something I care about is emotionally acceptable if it:
– can be fixed soon, and
– has no long term consequence

On the other hand, if failure is going to be publicized widely, or stay on my permanent record, or make me an object of derision among peers, then failure is not acceptable.

I have told many students over the years that “B is a good grade!”, as I was told when I was in school, yet it goes on their permanent record and they could well see it as a “failure” to master a course. For a generation of students who have grown up with video games, is anything other than “leveling up” repeatedly until the game has been finished (or “mastered”) emotionally acceptable to them? Is our grading scheme turning them away from the subjects we wish them to master?

If we grade the correctness of homework, and we grade the correctness of quizzes, and we grade the quality of group work, and we grade the correctness of projects, and we grade the correctness of tests – then average all the grades in some way – we are grading a combination of aptitude and mastery. Students have very little room to “practice”, to fail repeatedly on their way to mastery.  Isn’t that supposed to be the purpose of homework? Does a “graded homework” policy partially defeat the purpose of homework?

If a student’s first drawing in an art class is terrible, does it doom the student to a less than stellar grade in drawing? Or do most art classes  instead “critique” the student’s work, and give the student many more opportunities to eventually create a work that is worthy of adding to their portfolio?

Engagement despite failure

Why is it that someone who has failed repeatedly at a game remains engaged? My guess is that this happens because:

– There is no cost to failure.  Usually, nobody else is watching and they can always try again. In the end, they are competing mostly against themselves initially, and don’t start to even think about competing against others until a degree of confidence has been acquired.

– There are constant small rewards. You score more points than ever before; you collect more bonuses than ever before; you unlock more regions in the game than you had before, etc. Even while failing to “level up”, you are nevertheless receiving much positive feedback for accomplishing things you had never accomplished before.

– Multiple senses are engaged. There is music, there is text, there are images, and there are goals/concepts – all at once. It is a complex environment – the kind our brains are wired to make sense of. There are puzzles to figure out – things are not always easy: the timing has to be juuuust right, the sequence of buttons must be correct, you have to start from exactly the right spot, etc.

– It can be social, or solo. You don’t have to play the game with your friends if you don’t wish to. Some days you do, some days you don’t. Some people brag about their accomplishments, some don’t. Your choice. But when people run into insurmountable problems, they turn to their friends for advice. Some turn to friends instantly, while others prefer to try to figure it out for themselves for a bit first.

Surely all of the above have already been implemented in one or more ways in classrooms around the world. However, I wonder how many teachers have figured out a way to implement them all concurrently in a subject, or for a given curriculum. I haven’t.

7/15/11 Update: Perhaps teachers have indeed been choosing to let grades emphasize mastery over aptitude over the past several decades, as evidenced by the grade inflation curves shown in this The Atlantic Wire article. Even if this were the case, I still believe that too many math classes over-emphasize procedural mastery and under-emphasize conceptual mastery.

10/4/11 Update: Dan Meyer wrote a wonderful description of how the game Angry Birds provides an example for a classroom approach/process that is likely to be more engaging and effective for all students. You may also be interested in a summary of James Paul Gee’s 36 Learning Principles, or his book.

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.

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