Gameful Learning 101: Book 2

Death to Deadlines: Gamification and Other Subversive Thoughts on Formal Education


  1. Who This Book is For
  2. What This Book Covers
  3. How This Book is Structured
  4. What You Can Get Out of this Book
  5. What You Need to Use This Book
  6. Conventions

And So It Begins

If I were to re-design a fairly traditional course to have it fit in with current thinking in how people learn and how we should be teaching, how would I do it?

This seemingly simple question started me on a path that has resulted in some very fundamental shifts in thinking.

This book tells that story.

My Two Favorite Questions

A popular approach in teaching is what is being called “Teaching Out Loud”. The approach advocated by many of those who use the term is in many ways closer to “Teaching Boldly” (or “Teaching Loud”) than it is to Teaching out Loud. The idea is to advocate for the courage to try new things and to teach the ways students learn. While this is important, there is another approach that has received far less attention, but that is equally important, especially with adult learners. This approach is called the Teach Aloud Protocal (T.A.P.), and it draws inspiration from the “Think Aloud” idea in psychological and educational research. The basic idea is that the ‘subject’ says what they are thinking about as they complete a task. The goal is to learn about the thought processes the subject is using. Given that, “Teaching Aloud” should be about the teacher explaining their reasoning and thought processes while teaching. This essay will relate the author’s experiences with this approach and discuss some of the implications of adopting a Teach Aloud Protocol in higher education courses.

Death to Deadlines

It seems that almost all of the work we assign in Higher Ed has more or less strict deadlines attached - often with severe penalties for late submission, especially in the sciences. How many of us have stopped to ask ourselves why we do this? There are practical reasons for set deadlines to be sure, but are they always necessary? Are we short-changing our students by attaching strict deadlines to all the work we assign to them? What effect do hard deadlines have on more mature students or those who must juggle increasingly heavy workloads at school and at work while trying to complete a degree? Do late penalties act as a deterrent for lateness or do they discourage students from handing things in at all? Do late penalties encourage students to hand things in on time or penalize them for taking extra time to complete work? With increasing awareness about student mental health and the effect stress has on student performance, an examination of strict deadline policies reveals one place where we can better support student learning without compromising standards. While it can be argued that students need to learn to work within specific time frames, there are also times in life when no clear deadlines exist. We rarely seem to provide our students with opportunities to learn how to work when there are no deadlines. What happens when there are no hard deadlines in a course except the one at the end of term? The author has been experimenting with a variety of alternatives to strict deadlines for projects and assignments since 1998 and this essay will highlight some of the successes and failures. This essay examines a variety of ways in which flexible deadlines have been implemented and reports on how this has helped students succeed. Most students have reported that they appreciate flexibility when it comes to deadlines, but many also admit that such flexibility presents challenges for those who struggle with time management. Working with the students, these challenges can be addressed in a variety of ways.

On the Randomness of Grades

This essay will take a look at elements of our schedules, assignments, and tests that have a random factor, and the effect that could have on how students are assessed. While exams are becoming less popular in many fields, they are still commonplace in many science fields and other disciplines that have large class sizes. We have long felt confident that our “comprehensive” final exams provide a pedagogically sound assessment of student learning throughout the term, but is that really the case? For example, suppose we “cover” a 400-page textbook by assigning it as reading and then provide 30-odd lecture hours talking about the same topics. Our final exam consists of a 100-question multiple-choice exam. That means we have chosen 100 topics, likely addressing varying levels of granularity to use as our questions. Just how comprehensive is that? This essay will look at some visual representations of this approach and consider the implications that has for the ultimate grade a student gets.

5 Ways to Make Marking Easier

A key aspect of my gamified course design is that there be fast turn-around of assessment. It is not uncommon in more traditional courses for instructors to take one to two weeks to return assignments that have been submitted, sometimes even longer. This just doesn’t work in a gamified design. A typical university course is just 13-16 weeks long. Fast turn-around of marking is crucial for facilitating student choice. When students get assessments back fast:

  • They get the feedback they need to know what they should be focusing on in the course (while there’s still time to do something about it).
  • They have opportunities to fix what they did (and learn from their mistakes) and re-submit their work.
  • When they see their score increasing, even by small amounts, it encourages them to complete and submit more work.
  • Being able to see their score increasing steadily provides tangible evidence of their progress and underscores the idea that their progress through the course is under their control.

Efficient Marking That Doesn't Short-change Students

Given that a gamified design allows for students to submit many different items for assessment (some of which have multiple parts) as well as allowing for re-submission, AND given the importance of fast turn around in marking, it is crucial that there be an efficient way of marking that still provides students with meaningful feedback. This chapter looks at these things separately. Although they are related, I think it’s important to consider efficiency and the quality of the feedback separately to make sure both are adequately addressed. Although many instructors will claim that they mark everything in detail, most don’t. As we become more experienced, we also become better at scanning through assignments to find the key things we are looking for. It’s those key things that should end up in the assessment guide.

It All Adds Up

The typical allocation of grades in a course invariably involves breaking up the total marks possible into various portions: so much for assignments, so much for exams, and so-on (Assignments = 30%, Lab exercises = 10%; Midterm - 20%; Final = 40%). Students must do well on all parts to earn a top grade. If - for whatever reason - they mess up on any single component they may ruin their chances of getting an A, no matter how well they actually knew the material. This sort of grading is reductive and, by extension, punitive. This approach to grading creates an inherent risk for students, and in some cases can even work to discourage students from trying something innovative. Is this really the mechanism we want to use to encourage students to be innovative and demonstrate their mastery of the course objectives? No matter what we claim, many students start each semester imagining that they have all A's. With that perspective, anything they do that earns them less than an A is perceived as some kind of failure. Instructors often get students asking what's wrong with their B assignment, when in fact there's really nothing wrong with it – it just wasn't good enough to be an A. This often has the effect of discouraging innovation and creativity.

There is a way to maintain our standards of quality while still encouraging innovation and risk-taking. After all, learning is in large part about taking those risks and learning from our failures. Here we can learn from game design: in most games the cost of failure is that we must try again, but we are rarely, if ever told to give up. However, in most courses there comes a point when there is no longer anything a student can do to redeem him or herself. Her best option strategically is to give up (and withdraw). This is not necessary. Part of the lesson we can take away from gamification is that we can change the risk factor in course work by implementing cumulative, rather than punitive grading with an alternate approach. In a gamified design, students start the course with a score of ZERO. The chief difference between this and the traditional way of scoring is that everything they do adds to their score, and virtually nothing they do lowers it. This approach recognizes and rewards continuous progress rather than punishing students for their errors or for taking risks. If a student blows a test or an assignment, they simply earn fewer points. They can't ‘drop’ from an A to a C because they never had the A to begin with. If they try something that totally bombs, then they simply earn fewer points, but the only thing they actually lose is time. Regardless, they are guaranteed to always learn something. This essay will explain the rationale behind strictly cumulative grading, outline a strategy for implementing it, and reflect on the author’s experiences in the classes where this has been done.

Bona Fide Criterion-Referenced Assessment

Theory is nothing without practice.

I learn new things with each iteration of the course as I teach it. One of the things I’ve been giving a lot of thought to is the notion of criterion-referenced (CRA) or performance-based assessment (PBA). For me criterion-referenced assessment sounds a little broader in scope. Something that is performance based implies that students must actually do something whereas criterion-referenced includes more of those things we would normally categorize as higher-order thinking.

Here’s the smack on the side of your head. If we really intend to assess people according to described criteria and if we really want to let go of the simpler time-referenced assessment, then we should be willing to accept ALL relevant evidence created by our students, right?


It’s time to talk about the quests. Let me get this out of the way right at the start. It really isn’t necessary to call your learning tasks (or assignments) “quests” BUT when I did, I found that it actually allowed me to think more creatively about the work I asked my students to do than I had in a long time. I’ve always been pretty good at coming up with interesting assignments, but when I started looking at the assignments and other exercises as quests, it seemed that more possibilities opened up. When I play a video game there are all kinds of challenges – both big and small, and they all contribute to my score and progress in the game. That’s a useful concept.


End Notes