On Student Motivation (and on making content matter through gamification)

So as not to bury the lead: gamification motivates more naturally than does the boring, standard approach to content.

For those who see my posts and think, TLDR, you may be interested in homing in on the bold-faced ideas, which I think are the most practical thoughts or bits of advice I can manage.

One of the key elements of my classroom meta-game is that nothing in the game is tied directly to student grades. If a student works hard on a project and gets a 15/19 on scoring, they might get the full 10 game points available for all of the work I’ve seen them put into the assignment. Similarly, if they breeze through something, don’t include everything they know, and manage to score perfectly, I might ding them in-game and give them only 7 of 10 available points. I warn students in advance that the game scoring is more subjective and open for personal efforts to lead to victories.

This policy and attendant warning have two benefits (at least): (1) student arguments about points have not yet been a concern in about forty game days;  and (2) a student who knows that she’s weaker than expectation on a certain topic still has a secondary reason to work hard on the project tied to that topic.

The student who doubts his ability to earn a high score might think, “I am having a tough time with this Mediterranean map, and I may not score perfectly, but I’m going to come to office hours to talk about it and practice some studying strategies. That way, I can get extra game points for my hard work.” A kid who thinks this way will eventually have higher marks anyhow, since my marks are tied only to skill measurement. I’ve just found an alternative avenue to get her there, and it takes the focus at least somewhat off the grade alone.

(Other teachers have other ways, many of which are straight-up awesome, and this post isn’t about those great ways of garnering enthusiasm.)

When I tell people that the game points aren’t tied to grades at all,  they often ask, “So, if there’s no grade tied to the game, why do the students care about it?” (Usually this comes up in conversation when I’m explaining it to people who are worried that I’m a crazy person who is forcing kids to play a game to earn grades, just adding another layer of potential confusion into a class that might already be challenging for students. I do sometimes find myself telling parents about the policy so they can get some relief about not quite understanding how the game works, as they most definitely want to know for certain how grades work.)

My reply to people who worry about the game not being tied to grades is usually that we should be asking the same question about typical classroom content. Why should students care about anything we teach? Not every student is motivated strictly by grades. A teacher who never asks these sorts of questions, if that teacher has an engaged classroom, is hitting the mark by luck alone. We have to question ourselves on these points.

A student who isn’t motivated by a mere grade marking in elementary school isn’t confused or misguided – they’re actually being more rational than someone who makes a lot out of mere grades. The person who makes a lot out of grades probably has an internal link between the grades and something else of value, even if the “something else” is unseen to the outside observer. For most students though, if we don’t make the material matter, we can’t reasonably expect them to care about it for a stipulated reason like, “Your grades do matter, even when they really don’t seem to.” That’s just not believable.

There’s a long argument we can offer to explain why grades in, say, the sixth grade, do matter – and it’s an argument I believe, personally – but by the time we get to sentence number two, the kid has [quite reasonably] tuned out.

So we have to make the material matter (and this in itself is not a new idea). We can explain why the material matters, but those reasons may not appeal to every student. We can come up with a principled approach that we detail at the beginning of the year and then refer back to regularly and explicitly with the students – “I teach skills. Each unit is about practicing certain skills…  these are the skills we’re working on in this unit/assignment/project…“ and so on. That can work, and it might be something we use in our classrooms.

But the material has to matter, one way or another, and it’s our job as teachers to make it matter. A student who sees through a teacher pretending that there’s value in something that has no apparent value is insightful – not a bad apple.

So why do the students who are not already motivated by grades alone seem to care about the game?

Well, I’ve hinted at one reason above: the game has progress markers that come more regularly, are rewarded differently, and aren’t tied to the emotional component that grades might stand for, for that student. There are other reasons, besides, that people generally are motivated by games and game elements. It’s why 150 million Americans play video games, and why humans since the Lydians before even Herodotus’ day played games of various kinds.

So people are motivated by games. Hey! Kids are people.

The tie to class content is stipulative, though, and didn’t I say before that the value in grades is stipulative as well (for most kids)? Why yes, I did say something like that. And here’s the thing – I’m doubling down. I’d even proffer that the stipulative link between games and learning feels more natural than between non-thematically-linked content or skills will feel natural to us. If we have been telling kids that their grades or the content matters because we say that it does, why not appeal to something that has a more genuine tie to most people’s psychological drives and declare that these goals matter? We can stipulate that this thing is important – the game – and it’s more believably important, even if the theme of the game is fantastical. We can say in one breath, “It’s just a game,” and in the next, “and I for some reason care about this game…” if the game is a good one.

The more levels on which my meta-game can be made appealing to students on the levels that games appeal to them, the more they’ll be motivated to complete the tasks associated with the game – learning tasks, physically challenges – whatever.

Then the problem becomes a technical one: how do I make my classroom as much like a game as possible? And that’s a separate conversation.

Student-created model/art in a sidequest associated with game content in the meta-game

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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