Mar 13

Gamification Alternative to Grading?

Nosey NoseOne thing that’s really cool about Twitter is that you’re allowed to be nosey. People know that anyone who follows them can read what they’re tweeting. Now that may be obvious to everyone but I tend to by shy even online. I know, it’s weird to me too. It’s way easier for me to lurk than to jump in on conversations. Last night I read a part of a conversation and I jumped in. That’s what you’re supposed to do on Twitter but I still feel like I’m butting in. Oh well, maybe I’ll get over that someday or someone will tell me to butt out and I’ll go deeper into my shyness. 🙂

What drew me into this conversation was the comments on gamification and badges. Here’s the snippet of conversation that I saw and what I added to it.

Now I’m not going to say that I feel strongly one way or the other about gamification or badges but I am trying them out with my students. I don’t have enough data yet to convince me that gamification is good or bad for kids and the same goes of badges. I’m a gamer and I know how powerfully motivating gaming is to me so I thought I’d offer that in some small way to my students.

I’ve been reflecting on grades and going gradeless since reading For the Love of Learning by Joe Bower. After reading how he went gradeless I started following and learning from other educators who were trying alternate forms of feedback and reporting grade-like information. I had been trying different forms of traditional grading for long enough that I was able to take the leap and make a huge change. I went gradeless. Report cards for my students showed only a P for Pass. The real information on how they were doing in my class came from their work samples, their blog, and conversations I would have with them or with their parents.

I tried standards-based grading. Easy Grade Pro, a grading program I’d been using for years, came out with a new version that included standards-based grading so I tried it. Both going gradeless and using standards-based grading worked very well for many students. Worked okay for others, meaning that their behaviors didn’t really change much, and didn’t work for some. As one mom told me, her daughter had figured out the system and it was working for her so they didn’t want to change it. I really don’t know of any of my families that uses the standards-based grades. For them the work their kid is doing is more important then the standards, I guess. So I haven’t had much feedback on my standards-based report cards one way or the other but I’m wondering if that’s because no one is reading them?

As satisfying as it was for me and many of my students to go gradeless I still wasn’t reaching all of them so I wanted more. I began to read about gamification and wondered if removing all extrinsic motivation wasn’t the answer for all kids. I mean, yes, I want to help and/or encourage kids to be intrinsically motivated to learn but the reality is that I teach certain topics and I teach in a setting where all my students are learning those same topics that I have selected. If I truly wanted to have intrinsically motivated kids I’d let them learn what they want, what they are passionate about. Believe me, I’ve thought of that but as with many in our profession I have a Science standardized test that all my 8th graders have to take each May and if I don’t do my part to teach them Science I put my beloved career in danger.

The truth then becomes that not all of my 135 students love or even like Science. Not all of my students are intrinsically motivated to learn Science. So by removing grades and making failure okay I’ve given some of my students an easy out. Do no work but learn something, anything, and he’s promised us that we won’t fail. I’ve lived up to that. If you’re in my class participating and learning something, you’ll get a pass. If mom and dad look at your work though, they’ll see what you’ve done and how much, or little you’re actually doing/learning. I leave it up to each family to determine how much Science their child learns. If the parents know that their child is doing very little in my class and they don’t work out a way for their child to do more, I’m pretty powerless. Sure, I can do my best to encourage the child when he’s in my classroom. I can bring in technology, cool labs, and have them create cool products to show their learning but in the end it’s up to each child how much he or she will do (and for the record, most of my students are doing fine, great even, just not all of them).

Here’s how I wrap my brain around this. I know exercise is good for me. I got as heavy as 215lbs. That put me in the obese BMI. My blood pressure was high as well as my cholesterol. Heart attack was in my future. But did I exercise? No. And just like when we make the mistake of asking kids why they aren’t working I couldn’t tell you why I wasn’t exercising. I mean, not really. When my back goes out or when my knees go out, I have an excuse. But they’d heal. And I’d still sit on my butt. So I tried the Wii Biggest Loser. I dropped 15lbs and was working out! I pushed myself a bit too hard and my back went out again. My chiropractor worked with me and it took me a couple of months to heal. That was all the excuse I needed. I didn’t workout again for almost two years. But at least I kept my weight around 200lbs, give or take, and I didn’t balloon back up to 215. At my height 200lbs still put me in the overweight BMI, real close to obese.

Then I found the Zombies, Run app, which is like a game and I tried it. I was up and about again. Combining that with my UP band I can track calories burned and consumed each day and with that I dropped another 18lbs. I’m now at 181.7lbs and I can’t remember that last time I was that low. I found something that worked for me and it was an extrinsic motivation. Gaming. Something about the story, and having to run away from Zombies, makes me want to get up and get on my treadmill and makes me want to get out and walk. Soon, I plan to be jogging. I’m even signing up for a 5K run (yes, it’s a 5K with zombies). My goal is to be able to run the whole 5K by the time it comes to Seattle in August.

I’ve never been intrinsically motivated to exercise even though my life depends on it. My goal is to continue exercising and keep my weight down, even if I injure myself again, and I have the tools to do it. So why wouldn’t I offer similar tools to help those students who aren’t, and may never, be intrinsically motivated to learn Science? If gamifying my curriculum and offering badges gets more of my students learning and doing Science, then I’m going to continue using it.

So I’m not entirely convinced that gamification is worse than or even as harmful as traditional grading. There’s a lot I like about it. And I wasn’t happy with it when I first started. I added points on a project my 6th graders are working on now to see if it helps me keep track of their learning. I’ve had badges available but some kids don’t get them and I don’t push it. Those that do put the badges on their blog are free to do so to show which standards they’ve showed that they understand. It’s a form of standards-based grading. So the point I was making in the Twitter conversation I butted into was that I will try different forms of grading, non-grading, standards-based grading, portfolio, giving feedback, gamification, and even badges if it will help a kid learn and do Science.

If there’s anything I’ve learned for sure is that there is no one golden bullet in education. Or at least I have not found one way that will help all my students learn. Even going grade-less hasn’t worked. But then again, I haven’t tried letting kids learn what they are passionate about. And I don’t quite know how to do that. (I have read about schools that have a passion day and I did put that bug into the teachers’ ears at my school so we’ll see.)

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  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post. I enjoyed reading, but my one comment is that gamification does not just have to rely on extrinsic motivation. It’s only when you limit it to points, levels, badges, etc. that it’s all extrinsic. Instead, like Zombies Run, use a storyline to get students intrinsically motivated in something they care about. Good gamification is built on solid motivation theory, such as self-determination theory, ARCS model, or Malone and Lepper’s model. It’s much more difficult to do good gamification, but doing it with just extrinsic motivational techniques won’t last long with students.

  2. Hi Randall,

    You are so right! Thanks for bringing that up. I would love to be able to do that and make my content and curriculum more engaging. I’m not very skilled at storytelling, it doesn’t come easy to me, so taking my existing curriculum and content and creating a good storyline would take a lot of time. Then after that it would still take years to tweak. Unfortunately, the best I can do right now is to include the extrinsic motivators, the badges and experience points. Those kids who are motivated to learn Science will do well no matter what because they find the content interesting regardless of the badges and XP. Those who aren’t so motivated by Science, or school, are finding the gaming style interesting enough to do more than they did before so I’m taking what I’m getting. I know it doesn’t last in the long run but when I have kids for 180 50-minutes periods a year I do what I can to maximize our time together. That is why I could on those who have created great storylines to go with content I already teach. Because I just can’t do it on my own.

  3. Hi Alfonso,

    I think you just eloquently echoed the views of almost all teachers who are new to gamification (or any new educational technology, for that matter). Good gamification, just as with good lesson planning, takes considerable time and effort, which most teachers cannot afford to spend, esp. in these days of teaching and testing so many content standards. Still, the reward can be so great for a gamified educational lesson/unit/course that it’s often worth the time and effort to at least explore if there are some better game mechanics and principles that are easier to implement than adding a storyline (which actually doesn’t have to be too time consuming if it’s just a simple one). So, for example, maybe you could divide the class up into “guilds” whose members help each other out as they compete against the other guilds on science projects. This would be intrinsically motivating because it would provide opportunities for challenge, control, competition, cooperation, and recognition (see Malone and Keller motivation model here:, in addition to making the learning more meaningful (to support your guild). This is just an example, but as you go along, you’ll probably think of other gaming ideas that you can use that are intrinsically motivating to students. As a pioneer in this area of gamification in education, thank you for taking the initiative to make learning more engaging, meaningful, and fun. Looking forward to your future posts!


    P.S. I am currently developing a Gamification In Education course and wonder if I could have your permission to quote your previous reply as an example of time resources limiting the willingness of teachers to adopt gamification strategies.

  4. Thanks for the ideas and the link, Randall. I am new at this and have a lot to learn about gamification and game mechanics. Playing games doesn’t make you a game mechanics expert, but it does help you learn about game mechanics. 🙂

    And yes, you have permission to use my comment regarding time resources.

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