Rebecca Tarnopol: Beating the game of learning

Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 5:36pm

What would a course look like if students were able to choose how they earned their grades? Gameful learning, one of the biggest revolutions in pedagogy, seeks to address just that. At the University of Michigan, gameful learning comes in the form of GradeCraft, the brainchild of Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau professor of Learning Technologies in the School of Information and School of Education. The project is currently sponsored by the Digital Innovation Greenhouse. Since its conception, more than 2,000 students have enrolled in at least one of the 29 GradeCraft courses the University offers, and that number will only continue to grow.

What sets a GradeCraft course apart from most other courses is that most — if not all — assignments are optional, and students build their grades in the class from the bottom up, instead of starting with 100 percent and losing points along the way. GradeCraft is structured like a video game wherein students earn points by completing assignments, allowing them to “level up” one-third of a grade level once they reach specific point benchmarks.

Such a system intends to give students flexibility in a course, allowing them to capitalize on their strengths, to pursue assignments they find most interesting and to take risks without fear of destroying their grade. (After all, students can earn points, but they technically cannot have points taken away.) The end result is a course custom-made for each student, one where students leave feeling they have learned a lot and are proud of the work they’ve done.

This semester, I had the opportunity to take my first GradeCraft course, Honors 232: Deep Time: The Science of Origins. I was excited and curious about the freedom of choice the platform would provide in my studies. And with the semester nearing its close, I can safely say that while I like the philosophy behind GradeCraft, I believe it fell short of fulfilling such purpose in practice.

There are plenty of things I like about GradeCraft. Perhaps the thing I like about it most is that it gives me a lot of flexibility in my schedule, allowing me to plan my schedule for this course around exams and papers due in other courses and over material I’m most interested in. It also opens up plenty of opportunities for instructors to create unconventional assignments. In Deep Time, for example, I could earn points for attending talks and events related to course topics, which — especially as a first-year student — provided many fantastic opportunities to make the most of what Ann Arbor has to offer.  

But, as I mentioned before, gameful learning is not without its faults. One of the side effects of having a course structured like a video game is the inevitable “tutorial” that lasts an indefinite period of time at the beginning of the course. For 10 to 15 minutes each lecture and discussion period for the first few weeks of class, we’d discuss the logistics of the course: how to navigate the platform, where to turn assignments in, which assignments are open indefinitely and which ones have strict due dates. As a result, students lose quite a bit of time that could have been used to engage more deeply with the subject matter.

Coming into a class with a nontraditional platform, however, I expected this learning curve. From my experience, gameful learning’s tragic flaw lies in the defining feature of its design — its gameability. Whereas the platform seeks to foster deep, meaningful work, it isn’t hard for a student in a GradeCraft-based course to scrape up enough points to earn the grade they want in the course by merely doing surface-level work. In fact, I have found that gameful learning more or less encourages students to take the easy way out and do the minimal amount of work possible to earn the grade they want in the course.

Unfortunately, I feel these factors were present in my Deep Time course. As I look around the lecture hall, I notice very few students even take notes on the material covered in lecture. Students can easily skip assigned readings, but then be rewarded for showing up to the discussion section, unprepared for conversation. This cutting-corners mentality adversely affects the learning not only of the individual student, but of the class as a whole: Without a concerted effort around a common goal from all students in a gameful course, the richness of learning in that class quickly deteriorates.

This creates a gaping, pedagogical flaw in gameful courses: There is no guarantee that students learn new skills or even live up to the course expectations within the framework of a GradeCraft-based course without limiting the freedoms the platform brings to the table. Without a compulsory obligation like an exam or paper looming around the corner, there seems to be no incentive or for students (beyond genuine interest in the subject matter) to actually learn all of the material.

While I definitely can say I still learned quite a bit in this course, both GradeCraft and instructors’ and students’ interactions with the platform are most definitely still in beta. The platform has promise, but unfortunately students will have to miss out on some valuable learning in the process.

Rebecca Tarnopol can be reached at tarnopol@umich.edu