Instead of giving out grades in a class, give out experience points

If you watched (or didn’t) the preceding video by Jesse Schell you might have caught one throw away idea mentioned that really intrigued me: Eliminate grades and instead adopt a system modeled more like experience points in a game. The idea he mentions I believe came from a Professor Lee Sheldon. Here’s the link to his course, Gaming the Classroom.

In my teaching at Brandeis, deciding how to handle grading is one of the trickier problems to solve. While my experience teaching so far is quite limited I have come to believe you need to be aware that your students’ expectations about what ‘counts’ towards the grade will heavily influence their behavior.

Whether you like it our not that which they feel will help their grade they will do more of and less of the latter. Yeah I would say that they are sincerely there to learn and do their best given all the circumstances. But it’s human nature: when it’s 2am and they need to decide whether to tackle the final homework, go to sleep or go to a party, you can bet that somewhere in the back of their mind is the impact they believe it will have on the grade.

So, what might this new scheme look like?

  • All activities that occur during the term can potentially gain a student experience points. Start simple:

    • Show up on time: 1 point
    • Show up on time for a week stretch: 5 points
    • Ask a question: 1 point
    • Answer a question: 1 point

  • Homeworks can give you points too:

    • Hand in your homework on time: 3 points. down to 2, 1 and 0 if it’s late by 1, 2 or 3 days
    • Quality of the homework can gain you between 0 and 10 points

  • Let’s say that your course has an element of team work

    • Every week, each member of a team gets 5 points that they can award to one or more teammates for contributing to the project
    • For every team delivery that’s on time, each member of the team gets 2 points

  • Each student’s total points is posted electronically every day on a leader board
  • A student or a team can ‘level up’ by making a certain number of points
  • Each level comes with certain privileges
  • And at the end of the term, your ‘grade’ is a simple, predefined formula based on your points

How is this different from what I did before?

  • It’s more granular. Each small event becomes converted into a standardized fungible unit, a point
  • It’s granular chronologically too. You know day to day how you are scoring
  • It’s more fun and introduces an element of competition, prestige and pride into the experience
  • It’s public yet doesn’t reveal too much.

It does have problems though:

  • The student who is not doing well is publicly exposed. This is probably a bad idea, and, it might even be unethical or illegal.
  • You need to be very careful about how you set up the points because, referring back to my original point, it will modify behavior and you will ‘get exactly what you are paying for’ which might not actually be what you want.

Anyway, it was an inspired idea. Not sure if it’s practical but it does make me think…


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