At the 2017 e-Cornucopia: Teaching with Technology Conference held at Oakland University, the keynote speaker, Dr. Barry J. Fishman of University of Michigan, presented the pedagogical approach called “Gameful Learning,” used primarily to enhance learner engagement.

In essence, students make choices about their assignments in a way they would in the setting of a game (hence the name). The University of Michigan “Gameful Learning Lab” describe a “gameful” design to include:

  1. increased autonomy (students making choices about when and what type of work they want to complete to demonstrate their learning),
  2. the freedom to fail (allowing students to take risks and explore without fear that their grade will suffer),
  3. competency (challenge with the tasks, yet feel like they can succeed), and
  4. belongingness (feel connected to those around them).

The degree of choice is up to the instructor – as I see it, it has to fit with the specifics of every course, as well as the personality and teaching style of an instructor. There can be complete choice on all assignments, or some required and some choices.

We begin by flipping the frame from an assessment system where everyone starts with 100%, because that is a lose-as-you-go scheme, where each new grade decreases a student’s class average (the current normative model for grading systems), to a 0-based, earn-up model, where each assessment increases the student’s cumulative points and represents his/her progress towards mastery. Then we build a series of optional assessment pathways so that students have autonomy over how to engage with course content. These can take a variety of forms – sometimes the content lends itself to students developing deep personalized specializations, as an offshoot of the core content studied collectively. At other times it means students complete different forms of assessment around the same content – with some choosing to take an exam, while others might write an essay or do a group project (Holman & Fishman, 2017).

I implemented the approach in my teaching of the course JRN 4100 Convergence Journalism in Fall 2017.

I decided to gives some choice to students. I required some assignments of all students, and gave choices on attempting:

  • two of three out-of-class larger assignments,
  • five of seven lab in-class exercises, and
  • four of five quizzes.

I also approached attendance and participation as points earned per class period, instead of a number of points to begin the class from and lose points as class is missed or participation incomplete. In my reading of “gameful learning,” I chose to set up the gradebook as a simple sum of assignments; in other words, any and all points a student earn throughout the semester add up towards a final grade.

Compared to the Fall 2016 semester, students’ average grade in the class increased by .29 points.

In trying the “gameful learning” approach, I was concerned that students would attempt all assignments, labs, and quizzes (the types of assignments that had choice embedded) – and therefore I was concerned about grade inflation. However, of the 15 students in the class:

  • only two students completed all three out-of-class assignments,
  • only one student completed all seven possible in-class labs and only two other students completed six of the seven labs, and
  • seven students completed all quizzes.

Additional observations:

  • The quizzes in general are harder evaluation assignments for the students in my classes; even the students that attempted all available quizzes did not earn full marks (125 available points).
  • One of the students completing all out-of-class assignments only completed three labs. His final grade in the class was 3.9.
  • One student completed all assignments except one lab. Her final grade in the class was 4.0.

Despite my concerns at the outset of the course about grade inflation, I was compelled to experiment with the approach by Fishman’s explanation of learning and grading:

[G]ameful learning is not about making school easy… or even fun. This is about designing environments where students are encouraged to focus less on their final grades, and more on the craft of learning; where they are motivated to face down the very real struggles of mastering challenging new material, but persist day after day and are able to see progress; where they take responsibility for their learning, and make self-aware choices regarding how they can best learn and be assessed on their development of content mastery. We know from psychological research that this mode of self-driven, creative, resilient drive to progress, termed “intrinsic motivation,” is best supported when individuals feel like they have meaningful control over their work (autonomy), are facing challenging but doable work (competency), and feel connected to the people around them (belongingness) (Holman & Fishman, 2017).

During the last week of classes, I asked students to provide feedback about the grading system; what worked, what to keep next time, what to change; also, what they themselves would do differently in taking this course. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive; there were no negative comments:

  • Keep the system. It was great.
  • Don’t change anything.
  • It was so helpful to have choices. I would tell future students, though, to do the assignments from the beginning, because they get harder as you get through the semester.
  • I wish we could do this in all classes.
  • I paid attention to when I had assignments due in other classes, and chose what to do in this class based on that. It really helped with not being overloaded.

To conclude, the final grade average was higher in this course. At the same time, I have become convinced that students thought more intentionally about the course content and what assignments they wanted to complete; that students read the syllabus more than in other courses; that they understood the increasing challenge of the course as the semester unfolded; and that they interacted overall with classmates, me as their instructor, and the course content more than in other courses.

In my view, the “gameful” grading approach worked very well; if nothing else, students earned higher grades because they wanted to – and that is a teaching success to me.

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