University of Michigan Turns Courses Into Games

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“School is a game,” says Barry Fishman, University of Michigan professor of education and information. But unlike Monopoly or Taboo, Fishman believes the plays and strategies in higher education courses are often poorly designed. He and his colleagues at U-M’s Gameful Learning Lab are working together to incorporate essential elements of well-designed games into courses.

The lab has built an LMS called GradeCraft that allows faculty to structure and deliver courses like a game. “We take what we know about design principles for good games and apply those to the learning environment and make it more engaging so that students persist in the challenge of learning,” explains lab director Rachel Niemer.

The Gameful Learning Lab is one of three, large-scale labs supported under a new enterprise at the university called Academic Innovation, currently made up of 66 initiatives “charged with developing a culture of innovation in learning” that can bring about “personalized, engaged and lifelong” learning experiences.

Gameful Design

GradeCraft is an award-winning, game-oriented LMS designed to boost student engagement and motivation. Its development has roots that go back to well-known gameful-learning scholars and proponents Lee Sheldon, author of “The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game,” published in 2011, and James Paul Gee, author of “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy,” published in 2007.

“Our goal is really to help people think differently about teaching and learning,” Niemer says. “Our goal really is about selling the pedagogy and not selling the tool. The tool makes the pedagogy much easier.”

Gameful learning has a strong focus on students’ self-motivation. According to the GradeCraft site, gameful pedagogy is having students “make meaningful choices over what they are doing (autonomy), be challenged by a task but feel like they can succeed (competency), and feel connected to those around them (belongingness).”

GradeCraft supports gameful learning in a number of ways. Students earn points by completing a much wider variety of assignment and assessment pathways than what is typically seen in most higher education courses today. Their grades are determined by points accumulated. Students also have autonomy to choose what they want to do within that wide variety of assignments and assessments.

GradeCraft gives students freedom to fail by encouraging them to take risks and explore with no negative impact on their final grade. They also can see their progress via the GradeCraft dashboard’s Grade Predictor feature— graphical and tabulation interface that shows students how each assignment and assessment they autonomously pursue affects the number of points they attain.

GradeCraft is currently in a pilot phase that started during the 2011-2012 school year. More than 40 faculty members from eight higher education institutions and four K-12 schools are using the LMS. To date, it has been successfully implemented inside 82 courses with a grand total of 6,439 students.

Future plans include making the LMS more accessible to more faculty members early next year, with an official launch to make it commercially available to the public during the Fall 2017 semester.

Lessening Grade Anxiety

U-M Professor of Linguistics, English Languages and Literature Robin Queen has been using GradeCraft for several years in two courses she teaches that each have anywhere from 85 to 150 students. “I think of it as an assessment buffet, so I put out a bunch of things that students can do and then they decide what they want to do. They have multiple assignments and multiple assessments, but all of them are optional.”

She adds that her goal is to “give [students] the space to be able to focus on the joy of actually learning rather than worrying about a grade.” So, in her current Honors 230, Living with Animals Social Science Honors Core Course, with 85 students, Queen offers 15 optional activities that are associated with earning up to 150 points. Some activities are low-stakes, some are linked to evaluative assessments of their work, and one is entirely merit-based and influenced by their participation in the course.

The points for each activity are capped within the system. For example, students can earn a pre-determined amount of points for regularly participating in class; for writing a variety of short, medium or long scholarly reports; for participating in the class discussion board; for making observations on field trips; for summarizing and sharing their hand-written class notes since electronic devices are not allowed in her class; and more.

When Failure Is an Option

“I have seen students really focus on the material and engage with one another and not worry as much about a grade because if they fail something they can always make up the points from somewhere else,” Queen explains. “They can actually learn from failure, so there is really no cost to fail. They can use that as a learning mechanism rather than as something that is going to mess up their whole grade.”

“We say we have to create the freedom to fail,” Fishman adds. “We don’t want you to be a failure. We want you to fail productively. That is a key part of this.” Another key part is that, overall, a gameful course should basically be difficult to play, similar to many of the popular video games that students play for entertainment purposes. “This work is fundamentally about redesigning the principles of school so that it is a game that people want to play because it is hard. That is the opposite way that many students approach school. They are looking for the easy path, but the hard part is the good part.”

The Irony of Gameful Learning

While all the data from thousands of students in GradeCraft courses has not yet been fully sliced, diced and aggregated, some general reactions to gameful learning practices from student surveys suggest that students accustomed to earning straight As, in particular, often become very distressed when they are first introduced to this new kind of learning environment.

“Traditionally high-achieving students have some anxiety about taking a gameful course because they have mastered playing the traditional game,” Niemer says. “Many do come around and see the merits of this and really enjoy it, but there is definitely some anxiety for those super-achieving students about having to make choices.”

In the end, however, both Niemer and Fishman say more students earn better grades. “We tend to see many more students earn high grades in gameful courses and that hopefully has to do with learning, but it is also likely to be a function of gameful courses being more transparent,” Niemer says. “It is very clear to students what they need to do to earn high grades, and we encourage instructors to provide formative assessment feedback so that students can learn from their mistakes and go on to thrive.”

For example, Fishman teaches a 300-level course in Video Games & Learning with GradeCraft in which students earn points of their choosing segmented under three main categories: Grinding (class attendance, quizzes, blog posts, game reviews), Learning from Playing a Game (game critiques, posters), and Boss Battles (papers, presentations in film or a podcast, group design project). He claims that students do quite well in all of his gameful-oriented classes. “What happens in gameful classes is that almost everyone gets an A, and they do it because they work harder, and because I have given them the ability to control the outcome.”

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