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.

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