Professors push for pedagogical shift in teaching through gameful learning

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 8:08pm

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Anjali Alangaden

As Political Science Prof. Mika LaVaque-Manty addressed the students on the first day of his class, “The Games We Play,” he said something that surprised many in attendance — that he expected most of the 200-person lecture hall to get an A as a final grade.

“The way that this course is designed means that you will have to work hard to do poorly,” LaVaque-Manty said.

LaVaque-Manty expects most students to get an A in his classes because he structures it using a method calling ‘gameful learning’ —a process by which a professor sets a point goal for a class, and students can earn points by completing assignments and projects chosen by themselves.

Students in classes structured this way walk in with a zero, without any points. They must earn the points by completing assignments and projects, and LaVaque-Manty says for his class, there are more than enough to earn an A.

This is fundamentally different from grading in most classes at the University, in which each student begins at the highest possible grade — a 100 percent — and steadily loses points with each assignment missed or wrong answer on an exam.

LaVaque-Manty’s course is part of a larger initiative by the University to encourage gameful learning, aided by a learning platform built around the concept, GradeCraft, that was developed at the School of Information five years ago.

“I think that it is very important in education today for students to develop their own autonomy and agency as learners,” LaVaque-Manty said,“When you are given the ability to choose the assignments that you want to complete, you develop better metacognitive skills, the skills of good learners.”

The start of gameful learning at UM

Instituting gameful learning in the classroom requires doing a number of things differently, and in many cases, that includes incorporating a new platform for students.

At UM, for most classes using gameful learning, that platform is GradeCraft, developed by School of Information Prof. Barry Fishman and Rackham student Caitlin Holman.

Fishman and Holman created the tool based on the self-determination theory, which emphasizes the importance of supporting students’ natural behavioral and academic tendencies through academic autonomy — students are encouraged to chart their own academic course based on their own interests, instead of a set, rigid curriculum.

Under this system, students are expected to choose assignments based on their own interests, motivating them to learn course materials.

Fishman said the University allows professors great discretion when it comes to designing and grading courses, which is what spurred him and other professors, such as LaVaque-Manty, to explore new methods like gameful learning.

At the heart of the gameful learning program is a push to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding certain subjects by boosting student confidence, Fishman said. He noted when students feel confident in their competence, not only does grade-based performance improve, but so do student attitudes toward learning.

“Students want to feel confident,” Fishman said. “Whatever level students start at, they should be able to try things that will be challenging, but things that they can accomplish.”

Fishman, LaVaque-Manty and other proponents of gameful learning argue the emphasis placed on grades in traditional learning environments makes attaining a high grade point average the end goal for too many people. Prioritizing grades, LaVaque-Manty said, prevents students from focusing on actually learning course material.

“In college, we view an 80 percent as failing to know the final 20 percent of class material,” LaVaque-Manty said. “Gameful learning is different. If you get 80 percent of the points, that’s not viewed as failing in a fifth of the material, it is looked at as having mastery over a lot of the new information.”

Fishman acknowledged that there has been some faculty resistance to the switch over concerns about gameful learning causing a lack of rigor, in which students choose the path of least resistance to achieve an A.

However, he noted that social scientific research has shown that a gameful approach to learning can strengthen student confidence. In a study he co-authored with Holman and then-Ph.D. candidate Stephen Aguilar called “Game-Inspired Design: Empirical Evidence in Support of Gameful Learning Environments,” Fishman found students generally held positive views of the reformed grading system, and these views resulted in greater confidence and perception of fairness.

He also said traditional learning and grading also have game-like elements, but re- emphasized his belief that the motivation to reach a particular grade, rather than to get the maximum educational value out of a particular course, creates a culture that encourages students to only act in ways that boost their GPAs.

“School is already a game,” Fishman said. “It just is a terrible game. However, there are things that University faculty can learn from well-designed games to make school into the kind of game where students behave like users of good games.  They tend to seek out challenges — they take on these challenges not in spite of its difficulty, but rather because it is hard.”

For students, failing safely

For students, GradeCraft’s positive reinforcement and the tool’s emphasis on points earned rather than points lost also aims to create a system in which individuals aren’t afraid to try out assignments they might be bad at.

LSA junior Mayura Balakrishnan said GradeCraft’s system of positively awarding points for assignments has been especially empowering for her, adding that she thought it encourages students to take on new challenges. Balakrishnan, who has already taken a class using GradeCraft, is currently enrolled in “The Games We Play.”

Those enrolled in “The Games We Play” are not required to follow a set list of assignments to receive an A in the class — instead, they must earn eight out of 10 “badges,” or areas of competency in different skills related to the course.

Once a student earns 8 badges, he or she is free to pursue higher-level assignments in areas of particular interest. The course culminates in a final project that further hones in on the skill or concept the student identified as their favorite.

“I think it's nice because we can try the different assignments and if we don't like them we don't have to continue on that path,” Balakrishnan said. “If someone wanted to try to learn (the program) R, or try making their own survey, they could. It’s not even just the GradeCraft system. All the early assignments are generally small.”

Because of the early exposure to many different skills, such as performing data analysis using the program R, or creating a survey, LaVaque-Manty said students in his class acquired the foundation needed to try different challenges.

“In my class, I want to encourage risk taking,” LaVaque-Manty said. “If you do well and develop an interest in that skill or concept, then great, but if you do poorly, then you at least earned points that you didn’t have beforehand.”

For example, he added, a student in his class with little to no coding experience does not have to fear failing the assignment that introduces R because of the numerous opportunities available to compensate and earn points elsewhere during the semester. This is what Fishman and LaVaque-Manty both refer to as “failing safely.”

“When students try new things, there is always a risk that they will get discouraged if they do not do as well as they would like,” LaVaque-Manty said. “But I think that if it is coupled with the right kind of message, the message of failing safely, and the chance of making up things, then we might encourage people to try new and difficult things.”

An expanding platform

GradeCraft, and the success of the gameful learning initiative, has also garnered attention from both the University administration, and off-campus. At UM, the Office of Academic Innovation has established the Gameful Learning Lab to support GradeCraft’s efforts.

James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation, said there has been growing institutional support for the method.

“Once GradeCraft began to take off, we established the Gameful Learning Lab through my office, the Office of Academic Innovation,” Hilton said. “We, along with the GradeCraft team, have helped expand and manage the program.”

The most recent statistics show that the concept is in use in a not insignificant number of UM classes, though nowhere close to full implementation across campus. Currently, there are 6,439 total students that use GradeCraft in their classes, 5,698 of whom attend the University, according to Fishman. In total, at the University, there are 58 classes taught by 27 faculty members that use GradeCraft across seven schools and 19 programs.

The University also recently awarded a $1.88 million grant award through the provost’s Third Century Initiative to be used for Gameful Assessment, which Hilton noted will be a significant help to the GradeCraft team as they look to expand and potentially license the technology.

The GradeCraft technology has already had success expanding off-campus — currently,  11 other institutions, both in and outside of the United States, are using GradeCraft in a number of their classes. These institutions include The Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Arizona and the University of Haifa in Israel. In addition to colleges and universities, four K-12 schools in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands have adopted the platform for classes.

Students like Balakrishnan, who enjoyed their experiences in gameful courses, may also have more opportunities to enroll in other GradeCraft classes at the University of Michigan as the platform expands — and Balakrishnan, for her part, said she would like to take advantage of that opportunity.

“If I have time in my schedule, I would take other GradeCraft classes,” she said. “That's most of the reason I took this class.”

Looking to the future, Fishman said he envisions all new students will soon take at least one gameful learning course during their time at the University, adding that he hopes individual departments will also adopt GradeCraft.

“Whether GradeCraft is adopted by individual professors, by department or even for course sequences, we hope to see our technology being used by more faculty and impacting thousands of new learners,” Fishman said.

LaVaque-Manty echoed Fishman’s sentiments, saying he would caution interested faculty not to view this change solely as a technological one, but rather as a holistic, pedagogical one.

“While the technology behind gameful learning is great and I encourage all faculty to use it, gameful learning really isn’t about the technology,” Lavaque-Manty said. “It’s about pedagogy. The technology was developed in response to the need for a new grade management system. But it is mostly about how professors teach, and that is what makes the most difference.”