Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Overcoming Classroom Distraction & Passivity using Gamification, Part Three - 10 Essential Questions for Building Gamified Curricula

This is the last installment in a 3 part post on gamification and, more specifically, on a project I implemented in the last 6 weeks of this spring semester (go here and here to read the previous installments). The project was over Charles Dickens's Hard Times, and as the title of these entries suggests, I was challenged to make the book more engaging for an audience of teenagers that otherwise seemed anesthetized by the notion of exploring one of Victorian England's most popular writers. To put it simply, the word was out among the students: "Mr. Colley makes you read a boring book in 10th grade that's appropriately titled Hard Times." My response was to say challenge accepted! and before I knew it I was building the most elaborate gamified curriculum I had ever ventured to construct. This spring I had the chance to present my latest work at the annual ATLIS conference in LA where, upon reflection, I developed the following 10 essential questions to serve as practical steps for anyone who might attempt to build or design a gamified curriculum in any discipline or content area (not just English).

10 Essential Questions for Building Gamified Curricula

1. What is the Content and how will it be scaled for your gamified module? 

This question is a fairly straightforward one, but it's a good place to start: What is it that you want them to learn about in this unit? And how will that content build upon itself as students level up to more difficult challenges? In a literature course, the content could be a novel, a play, a school of literary thought (like Romanticism), a genre, a short story unit, or perhaps a grammar unit.  Recent examples for me were a unit on Shakespeare's Macbeth and one on Charles Dickens's Hard Times. How to scale the content in these kinds of cases is somewhat obvious; take the Dickens unit, for instance:

Level Zero - Historical, Intellectual, & Authorial Contexts (Dickens's life, the Industrial Revolution, Utilitarianism, the Labor Movement, Positivism, Social Darwinism, etc.)
Level One - Chapters 1-9, Book the First
Level Two - Chapters 10-16, Book the First
Level Three - Chapters 1-6, Book the Second
Level Four - Chapters 7-12, Book the Second
Level Five - All of Book the Third

The linear development of content according to a scaled system of levels (when reading a play or novel) can simply be mapped upon the development of the narrative of the text in question. Of course, a geometry or art history course might have to think more creatively about how to scale the content properly.

2. What are the Skills you want students to master in the gamified unit?

To me, this is the more important question when designing one's curriculum. No one questions the value of good content (such as a canonical work like Macbeth), for it serves as the rich and deeply-rooted terrain upon which students are inspired to cultivate the skills they need to be successful in life. But skills are what students need to be successful in life, so it's important to have a clear vision of what skills you want to target when doing something like gamification - especially when skeptical parents begin to ask questions about the purpose of your project.

When designing the Macbeth unit, Seth Burgess and I relied upon Bloom's Taxonomy as a guide for scaling the skills we wanted students to practice as they leveled up. With the Dickens unit, I thought less in terms of Bloom's hierarchy, and instead focused on more "English specific" skill sets. It looked something like this:

Level Zero - Students practiced research & documentation skills, contextualized authorial perspective, and practiced paragraph composition
Level One - Students practiced thesis & body paragraph composition, character & theme analysis, expanding vocabulary, and oral discussion (harkness style)
Level Two - Students practiced thesis & body paragraph composition, character & theme analysis, expanding vocabulary, and oral discussion (harkness style)
Level Three - Students practiced thesis & body paragraph composition, character & theme analysis, expanding vocabulary, and oral discussion (harkness style)
Level Four - Students practiced style analysis, developing character and theme analysis skills, developing thesis statement composition, and oral discussion (harkness style)
Level Five - Students constructed and composed argument (logos, pathos, ethos), Evaluating theme & character

As one can see, the nature of learning at Level Zero does not go much beyond rote memorization and basic comprehension. Levels 1-3, however, demand more critical thought and evaluation from the student, which Level Four builds upon. By the time they reach Level Five, the student is creating/constructing his or her perspective and meaning in response to Dickens's text.

3. How many levels will there be and what are the requirements for leveling up?

The second part of this question matters most, I think. How will you determine when students can "level up"? There's two basic ways to think about this: (1) students can level up based on how many XP points they've earned (for instance, one has to have 30 XP to move from Level 1 to Level 2) OR (2) students can level up based on completion of certain required assignments at each given level. Personally, I find it useful to make it more about mastering certain required assignments (while also leaving room for choice and autonomy) - that way one can make sure students are adequately practicing the skills targeted in question #2.

4. How long will the unit be (in terms of weeks) and will there be any due dates (besides the project end-date)?

Again, the more important thing to consider is the latter part of the question. Of course, it's crucial to make clear from the outset the exact amount of time students have to earn as many XP points as they can, but the more debatable question is whether there will be other due dates in the process for certain benchmark assignments. I'm of split camps on this one (see my previous discussion about the Procrastinating Achiever), but I will say this: One of the most important experiences for students in a gamified course is autonomy. For a lot of students, it's the first time that they have had to practice the softer skills of setting their deadlines, making their own priorities, and initiating the plan to see it through. The more you structure due dates, the less freedom students have to practice and develop these important skills.

5. What will be your XP point policy?

There's a few issues here to consider:
--The amount of XP points awarded needs to match (as best as possible) the level of challenge (as well as its time demands) for a given assignment. There's no better resource for determining the glitches (regarding this matter) than the students. If an assignment is not worth enough XP, students will let you know (because no one will opt to do that assignment); if it the challenge is worth too much, students will let you know (because everyone will want to do that assignment).
--How will you scale XP points in relation to final grading outcomes? How many points does a student need to earn to make the A+ and so forth? Is this realistic in relation to the answer to #4?

--For each individual assignment, will you allow partial XP earnings? (In other words, say an assignment is worth 20XP, and a student does a less-than-adequate job: Do you allow the student to earn half the points?) Personally, I think this diminishes the emphasis on iteration and mastery - which is one of the "game changing" elements of grading according to an XP system.
--Will you allow for points to be deducted from a student's score? I personally think that this too could have a negative impact by diminishing the emphasis on affirmation-based grading. One of the best things about gamification is the revaluation of the function of failure. Beckett said it best: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail better."

6. Do students have to finish the game or are there alternative paths for success?  

Do students need to "beat the game" or is it simply a matter of earning enough XP points? I think focusing on the latter is more effective. Not every student succeeds according to the same path, and allowing for students to achieve a superior score according to different means also opens opportunities for meaningful differentiation. I always offer smaller chances for earning XP in the form of "grind assignments" - which are more minor tasks that can be performed anytime, at any level, to earn extra amounts of XP.

The year I gamified our unit on Shakespeare's Macbeth, there was a "grind assignment" where students could translate 10 lines of Shakespeare's play into modern English to earn 1 additional XP point.  I remember one student started thinking very intently: I could tell by the strained facial expression he wore after I introduced the notion of "grind work." Eventually, he posed the question: "So you're telling me that if I translate this entire play into modern American English, I could automatically make an A?" He thought he'd found a loophole; I'd say he found his learning preference.

With the Dickens unit, I required students to at least make it to Level Four; otherwise, I didn't care how they earned the required amount of points. In fact, I have a feeling that some students didn't have to finish the novel to earn the superior score. Is that a bad thing?

7. What elements of structural and content gamification are you planning to implement?

This is a huge question - involving lots of considerations. (Please see the first post of this series for more explanation).:
Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic
Culture by Alexander Galloway

Structural Elements of Gamification (Non-Diegetic Elements):
-XP Grading
-Self Pacing
-Choice & Nonlinearity
-Leveling Up & Mastery
-Failure is never punitive

 Content Elements of Gamification (Diegetic Elements):
-Avatars/Role Playing
-Game Narrative
-Mapping the Journey (as a character)
-Badges/Diversification of Skills (e.g. Powers & Abilities)

And indeed, in some instances it will be difficult to demarcate the difference between diegetic and nondiegetic acts in a video game, for the process of good game continuity is to fuse these acts together as seamlessly as possible.

 -Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

If you've never gamified a class before, I would focus on structural elements of gamification because that's where you really see the psychological shift with students in terms of their motivation, sense of autonomy, and willingness to take risks. Content gamification, however, really adds another element altogether in terms of engagement for the self-directed learner: They want to be a part of the world from which they're learning! (Please read the last post for reflections on why this is the case.)

8. How will you build both individual and collaborative challenges into the game?

One risk we all face when completely handing over the learning agenda to the student is that our classrooms lose a sense of community. When personalizing the learning to such an extreme degree do we lose a sense of learning-together-ness? How does one embed opportunities for communal discovery in a journey that is, for the most part, radically individualized? It's important, I think, to require students to master certain assignments in a way that requires them to enlist the help of their peers. Otherwise, the experience can be a bit isolating.

9. How will one's daily classroom culture & agenda be structured?

Some of what I outline here answers the question posed in #8. One of the great things about gamification (when it's done well) is how it transforms one's class such that student demand for learning becomes the agenda-setter for the day's mode of action. What I mean is that each student is "grinding" away at their unique path for learning and discovery, and they come to you with the demands of the moment, thereby exposing a kind of teachableness that makes them more receptive than they ever would have been in the traditional, lecture-based scenario. But how do we maintain a community as a classroom? Here's a basic outline of a given week in my class:

Monday: 15 min. debrief with the class to see if there were questions, concerns, or frustrations (whether it be about the curricular content or the structure of the unit's project) followed by 30 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room.
Tuesday: 45 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room.
Wednesday: Harkness Discussion Day - certain discussion days were optional, whereas others were mandatory (depending on the week). Students could earn extra XP points for participating. If students opted out, they could work on other tasks related to the project.
Thursday: 45 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room.
Friday: 30 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room, followed by a 15 min. debrief with the class to see if there were questions, concerns, or frustrations (whether it be about the curricular content or the structure of the unit's project).

*Note: During, self-directed work times, students could also opt to go read in the library (because the room could get pretty busy and active with so much going on).

10. How will you maintain a quick and fluid feedback loop?

This is a question I pose more to the liberal arts teachers: the history, English, and other humanities teachers who spend most of their time grading compositions and other demonstrations of student learning that require more than marking letters from a multiple choice assessment. How do you make the feedback more constant and fluid? For a unit like the ones I describe, it has to be short-form writing assessments that make clear what skills the grader will be assessing when evaluating the assignment. Otherwise, one will get too bogged down, which ruins the momentum of the game experience.


If you can answer the above 10 questions, then you are ready to implement a curriculum that will motivate, engage, and inspire your students with subject matter that otherwise could be construed as too dull or too challenging to entice the 21st century teenager. The question comes back to the following: What do you want your students to be able to do? Most likely the answer aligns well with the skills targeted by gamified, learning experience. Try it. Experiment. And report back. I'd love to hear about people's experiences.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Overcoming Classroom Distraction & Passivity using Gamification, Part Two - Practice

Overcoming Classroom Distraction & Passivity using Gamification: Part Two, Practice

In the last post, I shared some "theory" about why I believe gamification to be an effective method for designing and delivering curriculum, and here I hope to outline its practice. Did it work in my learning lab? For the most part, I think so. Do we know why? Well, that's the point of blogs like these, namely to map out some pathway for reflection and understanding. But it's always important to remember that both theory and practice are "decalcomaniac" processes, or what Deleuze and Guattari would describe as a process that “forms through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction” (A Thousand Plateaus 20). It's only when we think of theory and practice as rigid that we risk restricting our efforts to the trappings of the above conundrum. 

Adventures in Coketown: A Nonlinear Learning Journey based on Charles Dickens's Hard Times - The Details of the Game

For a 6 week module on Charles Dickens's Hard Times, I introduced my students to a gamified version of the unit, involving 6 levels (Levels Zero to Five), involving heavy elements of both structural and content gamification (see last post for a discussion of structural/content gamification). The rules were as follows:
  • Grading will be different: You do not start with 100% average; instead, everyone begins with ZERO XP points.
  • There are no due dates for particular assignments; instead, you have 6 weeks to earn as many XP points as you can.
  • There are 5 levels, and you have access to level one. Earn XP points to level up and beat the game.
  • Each assignment is worth a certain amount of XP points. To earn the points, you must master the assignment (no mistakes); there is no partial credit. You may try to master an assignment as many times as it takes. Failure simply means try again.
  • There is no 1 way to earn an A; one simply needs to earn enough XP points at the end of the 6 week unit.
  • There are smaller, "grind" assignments that you may complete anytime to earn more points
  • Each level also has certain required assignments that must be completed to make it to the next level.

My students had never been exposed to a curriculum designed in this way, and for some, it was frustrating at first. No due dates!? But what do you want me to work on first?!? Other students, however, were invigorated. You mean I can choose what I want to study and when?!? Can I do all the options?? Yes, I had some learners who were inspired to do more work than what was required, while other students had a really hard time mustering the initial motivation to even get started. So one thing was certain: gamification amplified and made evident each student's distinct learning personality and preference, as well as their strengths and weaknesses when it came to "softer skills."

So what did the structure of a given week look like? After all, students had to make their own priorities, deadlines, and decisions about what direction to take the project and at what pace. Consequently, most of the week's agenda was in their hands, and it looked something like this:

Monday: 15 min. debrief with the class to see if there were questions, concerns, or frustrations (whether it be about the curricular content or the structure of the unit's project) followed by 30 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room.
Tuesday: 45 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room.
Wednesday: Harkness Discussion Day - certain discussion days were optional, whereas others were mandatory (depending on the week). Students could earn extra XP points for participating. If students opted out, they could work on other tasks related to the project. 
Thursday: 45 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room.
Friday: 30 mins. of student-directed work (which could be individual or collaborative, depending on the selected assignment) while I rotated the room, followed by a 15 min. debrief with the class to see if there were questions, concerns, or frustrations (whether it be about the curricular content or the structure of the unit's project).

*Note: During, self-directed work times, students could also opt to go read in the library (because the room could get pretty busy and active with so much going on).

A brief description of the levels of the game: 

Students started on Level Zero, which you can explore with the following link: 

Game Homepage:

On the game homepage, students were introduced to the premise of the game narrative:

You are a French sociologist who recently graduated from the Ă‰cole Polytechnique where you studied under the famous Positivist, August Comte. Your career's research thus far focused on one important question: What is the secret to human happiness? And you've been researching societies in the northern region of France where there has been a tremendous amount of social change due to the developments of the Industrial Revolution. However, you soon find out that your former professor has mysteriously disappeared, and you suspect that it has something to do with the secret war that's been spreading across Europe, battling for the hearts and minds of all citizens, namely the war between the Friends of Fancy and the Philosophes of Fact. Finally, the conflict arrives at your front doorstep in Nancy, France when you receive a cryptic telegram asking you to travel to Coketown in northern England to help "a friend in need." Of course, you agree to go as it will afford you the chance to study England's industrial transformation as well as opportunities to meet the likes of Friedrich Engels and John Stuart Mill. Thus begins your journey called "Adventures in Coketown."

The idea was to make the student a part of the world that Dickens's characters lived in - to have students interact with both fictional personalities and important historical figures from that period such that they had to confront (in a more personal way) the issues being explored and wrestled with by both the common folk and prominent authors of the era. Therefore, their first task was to research one of the following topics before departing from their imaginary home in Nancy, France:

1. Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, and Jeremy Bentham
2. Sociology, Positivism, and August Comte
3. Industrial Revolution, Manchester, and Friedrich Engels
4. Social Darwinism, Thomas Malthus, and Herbert Spencer 

Students then began their journey by arriving in Roubaix France...

Roubaix, France (Level Zero):

In Roubaix, students started to define more distinctly the unique route of their journey because students had a choice to stop in Roubaix and study the Industrial Revolution, before departing for England from the next stop in Calais, France; OR students could move on more quickly to Dunkerque, France where they would be required to study Charles Dickens's life (instead of the Industrial Revolution) while eventually traveling to Dover, England. The idea with all these options for research was to have students earn different "badges" (because, later, they would be asked to collaborate with each other based on their different areas of expertise).

You can explore the two routes in more detail if interested:  

Route A (Calais):
Enroute to England via Calais, France (Level Zero):
Welcome to Dover, England (Level Zero):
The Dickens Dossier (Dover, England - Level Zero):

Route B (Dunkerque):
Enroute to England via Dunkurque (Level Zero):
Boz’s Documents (“En Route” - Level Zero):

Destination for Both Routes:
Welcome to Dover, England (Level Zero):
Enroute to Coketown via South Eastern Railway (Level Zero):

After students earned at least 30XP, they could arrive in Coketown, and in their emails, they were sent a link congratulating them and granting them access to Level One of the game. This is where they began their intensive reading of the novel, with the chunks of chapters corresponding to the scaled levels in the following way:

Level One: Chapters 1-9 of Book the First
Level Two: Chapters 10-16 of Book the First
Level Three: Chapters 1-6 of the Book the Second
Level Four: Chapters 7-12 of the Book the Second
Level Five:  All of the Book the Third

In addition to Level One, students were granted access to what was called the Grind Assignment page. "Grind assignments" were smaller tasks that could be done anytime at any level to earn smaller amounts of extra XP points (think of it as analogous to spending your time defeating the easy villains in a video game to earn more points before fighting the more challenging opponents like "the final boss" of a given level). Grind assignments also provided opportunities for students with various learning styles to find the tasks that motivated them the most, and it opened opportunities for alternative paths to success (as one didn't necessarily have to "beat the game" to get the superior score; they just had to earn enough XP points by the end of the 6 weeks).

Levels One through Three, for the most part, looked very similar in terms of types of assignments; of course, the game narrative (along with the novel's plot) continued to change and develop as one leveled up through the first 3 stages.

Here's a look at Level One:

Welcome to Coketown (Level One):
“Congress of Conspirators” (Level One):

On Levels One through Three, there was a recurring pattern in terms of required assignments:

1. Vocabulary Assignment (based on words from the relevant chunk of chapters)
2. A choice to complete and master one of the following: (a) a researched history report on something related to the setting (b) 2 character analyses on main characters from the novel (c) multiple short form theme analysis compositions. (If a student decides to do (a) at Level One, then she must do either (b) or (c) at the next level and so forth...)
3. An online quote identification quiz based on that Level's chunks of chapters. I used classmarker (which was way too expensive) to embed automated quizzes with a randomized question base. Students had to get a perfect score before getting the link to the next level, but they could try as many time as they'd like (However, you had to take the quiz in my presence, and if you failed 3 times, then you had to wait 24 hours). 

If interested, you can explore the details of Levels Two & Three as well:

Level Two of Adventures in Coketown:

Level Three of Adventures in Coketown:

At Levels Four & Five, as the game narrative continues to develop along with the novel, the nature of assignments begins to change. At Level Four, for instance, students are asked to research the definitions of literary terms and devices for purposes of composing a style analysis paper. Students (in the role of their avatar, the French sociologue) also begin to interact directly with characters from Dickens's novel as well as with historical figures like Dickens himself, Mary Shelley, Auguste Comte, and others.

By Level Five, the narrative conspiracy involving your missing professor (Auguste Comte) concludes along with the novel, and students are asked to make an argument to radicals on either side of the war between Fact and Fancy for purposes of trying to convince them to temper their extremism in the name of some defined "middle path." At this stage, students are composing arguments while practicing empathy (for certain characters) in the process of deconstructing the major themes of Dickens's novel.

You can explore the final Levels by using the following links:

Level Four of Adventures in Coketown:
Level Four - “2nd Congress of Conspirators”:
Route A, part one - Friends of Fancy:
Route A, part two - Sisterhood of Shelley:
Route B, part one - Philosophes of Fact:
Route B, part two - Brotherhood of Boole:

Reflections (in no particular order):

1. Gamer Types (a.k.a. Learning Personalities and Preferences): Knowing "what type of gamer" a student is can be very helpful for understanding what motivates or engages the learner in question. I strongly recommend having students take the Bartle Test - a series of questions designed to determine how much a person matches 4 personality types within the ecosystem of the world of gaming:

-Explorer: this type wants to explore every corner of a game's worldhood; they are in no hurry to "beat the game" because they want to explore everything
-Achiever: this type wants to beat the game faster and more effectively; the quickest way is best way for this gamer
-Socializer: this type wants to use the game platform as a way to connect and share experiences with others
-Killer: this type thrives off of competing against and defeating other players more so than "playing against the computer"

It's good to know the student's proclivities when it comes to the above categories. Explorers and Killers, for instance, can be very helpful with finding the game's "glitches," whereas Socializers make good leaders for collaborative assignments. Achievers just want to know exactly what they have to do to get the necessary points to finish the game; sometimes it's best just to get out of their way.

2. Sandbox or no sandbox privileges? One question that came up quickly was whether students could have sandbox privileges to go backwards in the game for purposes of completing more assignments at earlier levels for extra XP points (as opposed to moving forward to the game's highest, and most challenging, levels).

Pros: Explorers would have the opportunity to discover every element of the game experience, thereby broadening their learning all the more.
Cons: Achievers would remain at the lowest levels, earning points with "low hanging fruit," while not having to read very much of the actual novel.

Solution? Students had "to choose a path" and make it to at least Level Four before sandbox privileges would be granted by the Gamemaster (which was me). Honestly, I didn't care if they finished the novel, as long they read enough to have had a sustained, in-depth experience with a difficult, canonical text while practicing skills like those outlined above.

3. The Procrastinating Achiever: I work at a school where students are pretty driven by their GPA; it's a high achieving environment, and students often have many responsibilities in athletics and extracurricular activities as well as in other classes. As a result, some students (who are concerned about their grades) procrastinated (because they have a lot on their plate, and this unit had no due dates). Consequently, some of them became "last minute Achievers" who were trying to move through the game at a rapid pace in the last 3 weeks. As a result, I found it challenging to fight the tendency some students to sacrifice quality for quantity (especially at the end).

Possible solution for next year? Although there will be no due dates for specific assignments, perhaps there will be mandatory "checkpoints" such that students must be at Level Three by week X. I'm still thinking this one through...

4. Grade Distribution & the Soft Skills Gap:

75% of the students made As
10% of the students made Bs
10% of the students made Cs
5% of the students made Ds
0% of the students made Fs

What's going on with the bottom 15%, namely the ones who made Cs and Ds? Is gamification just not for them? Perhaps one could make that case (and I'm open-minded to it), but I think there's room for a contrary interpretation.  What the above distribution exposes, in my opinion, is what I call "the Soft Skills gap": some students have never practiced the skills of setting their own deadlines and prioritizing what should be done first. And some of those are typically "A students" when it comes to traditional schooling. I would make the case that the bottom 15% needed this experience to happen now and not in college, for instance. That's why it's important to build in an opportunity for reflection at the end of the unit (in my case students had to write essays that assessed their performance by outlining what they did well as well as what they needed to improve upon for next time).


I have one more post planned for this series which I intend to upload next week. The title of Part Three will be "12 Essential Questions for Building a Gamified Curricula in any Discipline." Hopefully it will serve as a helpful guide for anyone who'd like to explore the benefits of gamifying class for the upcoming school year.

In the meantime, reach out to me at or leave a comment here.

"Coketown's Interminable Serpents of Smoke" by Brad Greer, Class of 2019