Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Teacher's Reflection on Student Responses to Gamifying English Class for the First Time

On Feb. 19th, I blogged about gamifying my curriculum for the first time, and I was right in the middle of the unit. Along with Seth Burgess and his classes at Lausanne Collegiate School, we read William Shakespeare's Macbeth and used as the interface for receiving various options for assignments to earn "XP points" which opened access to more and more challenging levels. You can read more about the breakdown of the project here and here.

We finished the unit on March 6th right before students left for their spring break holiday, and last week, my students took a very detailed survey which measured their levels of enjoyment, satisfaction, and benefit as a result of this experience. I want to thank Seth Burgess for putting the survey together, and I look forward to sharing our experiences as co-presenters this summer at Lausanne Learning Institute in Memphis, TN.

I feel confident claiming that the experiment was a first time encounter for everyone involved at my school (The Oakridge School). I also think it's important to note that, due to snow days, there ended up being a slight shortage of time. No students, for instance, made it to the final 6th level, BUT plenty of participants earned an A+ with more than enough XP points (mainly due to optional "grind assignments"). Final grade distribution ranged from D to A+ (the Ds & Cs were a minority with most students scoring somewhere from a B+ to an A).

For the survey, students first had to rate their overall evaluation of the gamified curriculum on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = worst; 5 = neutral; 10 = best), and seventy students were surveyed. Surveys remained anonymous so students felt comfortable giving frank feedback (you can take a look at the entire survey here):

No one gave it a 10, but no one characterized it as the "worst" experience either - and I was pleased to see a high concentration of response around the 7 to 9 range of scores. Most students, I think, would want to do this again, and a large group of them (the 8s & 9s) preferred the game-based approach when compared to how curriculum was designed and delivered in previous units of study. I think the 13 students who rated anywhere from 5 to 3 were most likely the students whose "softer skills" of self-pacing and self-management still need some work. (I can't prove that, however, because surveys were anonymous - but more on the soft skills later...)

If you look at the survey linked above, you'll notice there were MANY categories that students could rate on a 1 to 5 scale, 1 meaning this was one of the "worst" experiences related to the project and 5 meaning that it was one of the "best." For this post, I did a quick data analysis of trends where I saw an overwhelming amount of 5s as well as where I saw an overwhelming amount of 1s. The graphs below represents the categories where there was the most consensus of positive and negative experiences:

Choice, Independence, & Motivation: What strikes me immediately about gamified curricula is that students respond most positively to the following: (1) they appreciated choice (2) they felt more motivated and (3) they liked having independence.  More than 50 times, students expressed their enthusiastic appreciation for having choice to do the assignments that interested them the most, and I think having this kind freedom and independence motivated them to level up and to achieve a sense of accomplishment. Watching students work independently on assignments they chose allowed me as teacher to get to know them better, simply put. It's humbling to admit it, but there were some students in my class that I did not know as well as I should at this point in the year. The gamified approach made this apparent and helped us build better relationships because the learning experience was so individualized, forcing the teacher to meet every student where she's at by addressing her specific learning track and keeping her accountable accordingly.

XP Grading, Mastery, & Accomplishment: Students loved the XP grading approach: more than ever, they felt like the grading process was transparent and fair. "I knew exactly what I needed to do to make an A," one student commented on the survey.  They also said that grading was not some spectre of stress which haunted them as they strived toward mastery; instead, failure only meant that one had to try again.  They really benefited, I think, from the emphasis on mastery because it created an authentic, need-to-know feedback loop that was helpful to the learning process. Many students did express a desire for there to be a public point board if we were to try this approach again. I had shied away from publicly displaying point levels out of concern for embarrassment for those who progressed more slowly. Still divided on that question...

Feedback & Evaluation: Gamification only works if the feedback loop matches the pace of the students' progress, which presents a challenge to an English/Language Arts teacher. I was overwhelmed by the demand for grading student essays and compositions (something that makes me wonder how one would sustain such an approach for an entire year), BUT the survey responses validated my efforts because students told me that they received more useful and more relevant feedback than that which was provided during previous curricular units. That was really satisfying for me (as well as for the students).

Students did give some "negative" feedback in certain, distinct areas, but the trends here were much more minimal:

The Overwhelming Factor: Students were overwhelmed by the experience. I want to acknowledge the tension/connection between being overwhelmed and having choice, freedom, and independence: it felt overwhelming because students had choice and because pacing was up to them. The curriculum measured/assessed their softer skills of self-management just as much as it addressed the traditional, academic skills of any given English class. Students complained about the time factor, and some of this was due to failing to take advantage of the ice days which disrupted the unit. As a result, there was an expressed concern that quantity was taking precedence over quality, which is why it was important for me to remain vigilant about expectations of mastery (which gets back to why I was overwhelmed...).

Frustration & Confusion: Students did express in considerable volume that they felt higher levels of frustration and confusion at times. Again, I think there's some tension between the frustration factor and the demands for students to achieve mastery within a limited time frame (and to do so according to their self-paced initiative). This was a new experience for them, and never before had soft skills been demanded so directly. Understandably, that was overwhelming. In terms of confusion, I do think some of that was me: this was my first attempt to launch a gamified unit in an English class, and I learned a lot about how to articulate expectations and procedures as clearly and effectively as possible, meaning I'd hope there would be less confusion next time due to better execution.

Analyzing Shakespearean Language & Style: When examining the "negative" graph above, I think it's revealing that most things students perceived as negative were factors related to self-management, working with others, or self-pacing (in other words, "soft skills"), but one area of feedback that related to the harder skills of English was language and style analysis. Students overwhelmingly felt confident about their knowledge of content, structure, theme, and character development, but they consistently voiced concern about the need for more teacher guidance when analyzing Shakespeare's language and style. Rhetorical & style analysis of difficult literature unavoidably requires considerable teacher intervention and direction, and my execution of a student-directed, gamified curriculum allowed for less time for such matters. Is this a problem? I don't think so, for the survey provided me with feedback, which makes clear that style analysis (and related skills) needs to be prioritized in our next unit. Now, if I gamified my whole year's curriculum, I would need to rethink this, BUT I want to point out the obvious: gamification may not address all skills but it does target softer ones that students sometimes never have the opportunity to practice getting better at. However, I do also want to stress here that students wanted more teacher guidance and intervention, meaning there needs to be a balance between student & teacher directedness.

Other Observations:

Collaborative Work vs. Solo Work: There were options at various levels to do assignments which required group work as well as ones which remained "solo" in nature. The graphs show something interesting here: there is a clear split between the independent solo worker (and what they love about gamification) and the collaborative group worker (as well as what they love about the experience). I don't think that the divide here is a problem, however; instead, it's proof that students have different learning styles, and the fact that both groups of learners had positive things to say about the unit only demonstrates more clearly the benefits of the gamified approach.

The Soft Skills Gap: As stated above, final project grade distribution ranged from D to A+ (big gap!). I am very convinced that the D students were the ones with the poorest "soft skills" and the As were students with excellent self-management skills. There were some 'A+' students who scored in the B range (demonstrating in my opinion that they were the 'A student' who knows how to function in the traditional schooling system but falls short more readily when self-management is a factor), and there were some 'B students' who scored in the A to A+ range (demonstrating they were students who are motivated when choice, freedom, and pacing were in their hands). Unlike the divide above, this is a gap I'd like to bridge. My worry is this: the gamified unit pointed out for certain students that they have a deficiency when it comes to soft skills, but did those students improve their skills by way of the experience? Not sure yet.

These are my observations now that I've had time to reflect. One might ask: would I do this again? My answer, without hesitation, is an emphatic YES! and the majority of my students would agree. Would I use the gamified approach all year? I don't think so, but with practice, perhaps my attitude would change. Please leave thoughts, questions, observations. This is a conversation that has really just begun for me, so feel free to join!


  1. Kudos, first of all, on trying something new and trying it so publicly. It doesn't surprise me that students responded so positively to Choice, Independence, & Motivation. Your remarks here have inspired me to think about getting to those positive payoffs earlier and more often in my year--with gamification, with a choose-your-reading unit, with anything. You seem to have built a tremendous amount of trust in your classroom. Your students were eager enough to complete optional "grind assignments" but self-reflecting enough to admit A+ grind points didn’t produce, in their own opinions, an exemplary command of Shakespeare's language and style. Maybe next time you make the entry experience points a kind of scavenger hunt for literary terms and their effects (soliloquy, foil, metaphor, anaphora, irony, litotes, etc.). Thanks again for sharing your work with Seth and your Oakridge students!

  2. Thanks Joel! I love the scavenger hunt idea! I think style analysis intimidates my sophomores more than most other activities, and this being their first experience with a more student-directed, choice-based approach, it made them feel uneasy. They wanted more teacher guidance here, but with the right kind of assignments (such as the one you mentioned) and more practice with self-directed learning, students may have a different, more positive reaction to this category of inquiry. Thanks Joel!

  3. This is such a rich reflective post .. I need to come back and digest more of it ... but the survey data is intriguing information and it does seem like some "choice" in the matter made a difference -- maybe more than the gamification aspect itself, right?

    1. Thanks Kevin for the comment! Choice was the most positive part of the experience, for sure, but I do think that leveling up, as well as measuring accomplishment by way of XP points, was key to igniting motivation and interest as well. When I first heard about gamification (in the form I implemented) I immediately thought "Oh, this just a creative way to provide options for differentiated learning." After going through this experience, however, I discovered that gamification means redesigning one's grading process for purposes of creating more trust, fairness, and transparency. In fact, so many students also commented that, for the first time, they weren't afraid of failure. Choice was key but so were these other factors, and the game-based approach made such a learning culture possible.