Viewpoint: Dear professors, think gameful

Monday, November 30, 2015 - 7:48pm

As a likely pre-health student in a science heavy major, I don’t get a lot of choices when it comes to academics. It’ll be helpful to take these, says my adviser. You’ll need to take these, say graduate schools. Within courses is even worse. Introductory science and math courses essentially operate on the pedagogical model of read this, attend this lecture, do this problem set, take this exam, rinse, repeat. The only real choice is how many hours of the day I want to spend with my head buried rereading a chapter or doing another problem set.

Hundreds of years of higher education have told us this is how it must be. College learning is supposed to be all about guided learning in how to teach ourselves. We all learn in our own unique ways, so it is up to us to figure out how to absorb the material. Exams exist to make sure we have learned the material we are supposed to have learned.

Common sense about how we actually learn dictates otherwise. As the old adage goes, you haven’t learned until you have failed. But the standard grading model of just totaling up points received and dividing it by points possible flies in the face of this. If you actually fail an assessment, there is no way to demonstrate in your grade that you have learned from your mistakes; that mark of failure will always have an enormous impact on that final calculation. Sure, practice exams and smaller assignments are designed to simulate that learning through failure, but they never come with the same type of directed feedback that accompanies an exam or essay grade.

There’s a different way to think about learning called gameful learning, and a project funded by the University’s Third Century Initiative, the Digital Education Initiative, the School of Education and the School of Information seeks to harness it. It seeks to expand the reach of gameful learning, a pedagogical model built on the principles that grades should be built from zero and not a ratio, and that learning should feature multiple paths to success, not just a single list of homework and exams. Gameful learning at the University is built on top of the learning management system Gradecraft, which features a grade predictor that lets students experiment with different options for success, and constantly gives them opportunities to reevaluate their chosen method.

This semester, I am taking a course that uses this model, Honors 240: The Games We Play. It does happen to have the added benefit of being a class about games graded as a game, but the gameful model certainly shows its stripes. Its gameful model empowers me to make choices about how I want to learn the material and lets me take risks that I might not otherwise take.

For example, as part of the course’s goal to apply the basic social science concepts we’re learning to real-world scenarios, I had the option to do any combination of developing my own empirical study of an issue on campus, analyzing one aspect of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard data or writing an essay trying to tie all of the individual concepts together. I decided to take a risk and spend a majority of my time analyzing data, and found some really interesting results that I would have never had seen if it was something I was forced to do along with other objectives. I also knew that even though I was taking a risk by focusing so much of my time on one project that could potentially lead to uninteresting results, or have it not be what my professor wanted, I could always try something new without risking a serious grade deduction. I would still have to work harder than if I didn’t fail the other assignment, but at least my grade might not suffer.

This type of choice in my learning was incredibly empowering. I felt so much more ownership over my work in the end because I felt like I chose to go down this path, and it wasn’t something someone was forcing me to do just to jump through some next proverbial hoop. While this model certainly can’t work in every educational circumstance, it is worth it for professors to think about adjusting the very model of their classrooms if they want their students to think the way the real world thinks.      

Jeremy Kaplan is an editorial board member.