I’ve seen this kind of angle before – I think it has a lot of potential and deserves more attention.
One of the key lessons we can learn from a gaming approach is that it should really be OK to get things wrong and to try again. That is after all how most of us actually learn. Traditional school doesn’t really foster this approach. How many assignments allow for re-submission? How often do we provide multiple (and alternative) ways to earn marks?
Do we give the impression that everyone essentially starts off with an ‘A’ and then they LOSE marks by screwing up? I think the very notion that something is OUT OF X implies that if you get less than X you have LOST something. Notice that videogames often don’t give a ‘perfect score’ or maximum value. They may set a minimum needed to go on but you always get to keep trying till to get there.
It wouldn’t really be that hard to use a game model for assessment in a course. Here’s one who’s done it: The Escapist : News : Professor Abandons Grades for Experience Points.
There is a minimum level and number of points you must achieve to pass. Each task is assigned a number of points. We can offer points for attendance, for questions asked, and answered. Even if you needed, say, 100,000 points to pass, you can offer 10 points for something and people feel like they’re making progress. You offer more points to things that are more important and fewer to things that aren’t.
This offers a great deal of flexibility and based on my personal experiences with a bonus point system I used in my classes, students seem to view things differently when you use ‘points’ instead of grades or percentages – even though it ends up translating to the same thing. This seems to be true even when they know it is the same. When told that offering a bonus for doing something and taking off a mark for not doing it end up having the same impact on the overall grade, the student said, “Sure, but the first one feels better.”
I’ve used bonus points in my classes for years to encourage innovative approaches and embellishments to assignment solutions that were not called for or anticipated in the specifications. Bonus points were assessed separately form the regular assignment specifications as a way of encouraging students to enhance their solutions, but at the same time making it clear that these embellishments are not considered to be part of the normal requirements. This way students know that they are not penalized for not doing extra, and can be assured that they can still earn an ‘A’ on an assignment by doing a good job of the problem as specified. This is important.
This system was originally instituted as a means of justifying a shift into the next higher letter grade for students whose final percent put them close to a letter-grade cut-off. I translated bonus points to actual percentage points at a ratio of 10:1 (10 points = 1%), but with an upper limit such that students could only increase their final letter grade by one step. In other words, a student can raise his or her mark from a ‘B’ to a ‘B+’ by earning sufficient bonus points, but it is not possible to raise a mark from a B’ to an ‘A-‘. On a practical level, if a letter grade step spans a 5% spread, this means that the maximum number of bonus points that could be used to affect a grade is 49. Bonus points typically ranged from 2 to 10 points for any one embellishment. For example, suppose a programming assignment called for a Java implementation of a simple calculator that implements 4 basic operators (+, -, *, /) and arguments consisting of single-digit numbers. A 2-point bonus might be to allow for natural numbers rather than single digits, and a 10-point bonus might be to implement a fully-functional standard calculator.
This bonus point system had several very positive effects. First, students rarely try to argue to have their grade ‘bumped up’ if they find their final mark is near a letter grade cut-off at the end of term. If they have earned bonus points throughout the term then they have probably already been shifted up, and if they have not earned sufficient bonus points, they realize it will be difficult for them to make the case that they deserve the higher grade. Second, average students can achieve full marks on an assignment without doing ‘bonus’ work, while above-average and exceptional students can be offered additional challenges and then be rewarded for meeting them. In the classes I taught, about 90% of students earned at least some bonus points. Average bonus point scores ranged from 4 to 33, with class maximums ranging from 54 to a record 149 points. It is worth noting that the students who earn the highest bonus points are often those for whom the points will have the least effect, as most of them would have earned an ‘A’ in the class in any case. When asked, these students say that they use these points as a means of keeping score. Finally, most students report that they appreciate the open-endedness of this system, as they feel it gives them some control over their own work and encourages them to try things they might not otherwise try, knowing their efforts will be recognized.
I think there is a lot of psychology going on here that people are not examining. People like to keep score, and having to be explicit about the requirements you set for your students and how they can meet them has got to be a good thing. I suspect it is unlikely to become popular because too many teachers (at all levels) don’t *really* know what they want from their students. It is so much easier to set a typical test than to decide what they should be learning and figure out how to determine if they did that.