Inside Higher Ed: Game for a better grade?

By Kaustuv Basu for Inside Higher Ed

May 21, 2012




The players have a set of choices as they go about pursuing their objectives. They may choose to go down different paths and to build confidence along the way.

This description could be applied to players in an online role-playing game – or to students in Mika LaVaque-Manty’s Introduction to Political Theory class at the University of Michigan.

LaVaque-Manty, an associate professor of political science, is letting students choose the kinds of assignments – be it posting on a class blog or commenting on blog posts, contributing to a group project or writing a conventional essay – on which they want to be graded for 60 per cent of their overall mark. Students not only choose two of three optional components, they also decide on how these components will be weighted. For example, a student could assign 40 per cent of the grade to blogging and 20 percent to a group project.

The rest of the grade is made up of what LaVaque-Manty calls “going through the motions” – attendance, participation in class discussions and keeping up with reading material.

Professors are constantly griping about grading, and some (like LaVaque-Manty) propose creative alternatives to traditional grading. About three years ago, Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor of English, attracted nationwide attention from educators after she proposed a grading plan based on a points system – students could do a certain amount of work for the class and aim for an A, or they could do less and aim for a B. Other students in the class would determine if the work was up to standard. LaVaque-Manty’s approach, like Davidson’s, gives students much more control than is the norm. But he remains the grader.

Some experts call his approach an example of “gamification”: the use of game-like elements to increase student motivation or engagement.

“It is the use of game mechanics to make courses more engaging,” said Matt Kaplan, managing director at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. “Students will have to think, ‘How do I learn in this class, or where should I spend my effort?’ And they have to do it very carefully,” he said. Because the course is self-regulated, students have to take responsibility in building the coursework. And they must establish explicit goals early on and then take steps to achieve them.

According to a paper on Gamification in Education by Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer of Teachers College, Columbia University, the use of these elements in classrooms can not only excite and motivate students, but it can also provide teachers with a way to help and reward students. “It can show them the ways that education can be a joyful experience, and the blurring of boundaries between informal and formal learning can inspire students to learn in lifewide, lifelong, and lifedeep ways,” the authors write.

On the flip side, Lee and Hammer caution that gamification can be a drain on teacher resources. And merely structuring a course like a game might not be enough to make it a game. “By making play mandatory, gamification might create rule-based experiences that feel just like school,” the authors say. “Instead of chocolate and peanut butter, such projects are more like chocolate-covered broccoli.”

LaVaque-Manty, who is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor – an award given to staff members who make an outstanding contribution to undergraduate education – tried this grading system last autumn. Buoyed by what he sees as increased student engagement, he will continue with it when he offers the political theory class again this autumn. The professor, who has been at the University of Michigan since 2001, said his goal is to increase student autonomy and get them thinking about the learning process. “I am trying to get them to exercise their own judgement,” he said. “At worst it is an intriguing idea; at best it is cool.”

The idea developed, LaVaque-Manty said, as he talked with graduate students and played around with ideas over the past few years. “More people liked it than not,” he said. “Whether students seem to like the grading scheme or not seemed to be the best predictor of how they would do in the class. How you grade can motivate students.”

Last autumn, 297 students took the introductory political theory class; 55 per cent of them were sophomores and the rest were freshmen. Some of the freshmen struggled with the idea of choosing their own grading components. “They are fresh out of high school, where they are used to being given marching orders. Suddenly they can choose and they are wondering how to do it,” LaVaque-Manty said. As a result, for the class that will be offered this autumn, students who do not choose the grading components will be given a default allocation.

Students did well in the assignments they weighted heavily, but they did not seem to make a major commitment to those that they assigned a lesser weight. The average grade in the class, which used to be B to B-plus, is now closer to A-minus, LaVaque-Manty said. And although there is no compelling evidence showing that the students learned more, the professor said that students told him that they learned more because of the way the class was structured.

Steve Dougherty, a student in the class last autumn, said he liked the class because “it allowed me to focus on the assignments I felt passionate about, could learn from, and on which I could do well”. Another student, Madeline Dunn, who nominated the professor for a provost’s teaching innovation prize, said: “This class pushed me to perform at the best of my abilities. I knew that at the end of the year I could not blame a poor grade on my learning styles clashing with the teacher, or any other excuse, for that matter.”

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