This semester, I tried an experiment in my senior capstone course. Instead of deciding for my students how their final grade would be calculated, I invited students to weigh what percentage of their grade each item would be worth.
The course is called “Local Heroes,” and it asks students to conduct research projects on civic leaders in the Monmouth community. Using archives and interviews as primary source materials, students create multimedia biographies of these local heroes that include text, images, links, videos, maps, and more. Student work is then published on the Warren County Virtual Museum. The virtual museum was designed by Paul Schuytema, Monmouth’s community and economic development coordinator, in partnership with a local arts center, a public library, a history museum, and the college.
The four major components of the course include participation, a local history research project, the local heroes biography, and a final public presentation. I had planned to assign 25% of students’ final grade to each item until talking with Paul about an idea to add an element of gamefication to the grading process.
Level Up, the program Paul built for our pilot project, allows students to decide how their grades are weighted. I set minimum values for each item, but students decide beyond that how they want to allocate their points. During the first week of school, students log in to the program to find four bars. Using + and – keys, students can increase or decrease the value assigned to each grading item. At the end of week two, the values (which total 90 points) are set and cannot be changed.
Here is where the gamefication comes in. At midterms, students get 10 additional bonus points, which they can add anywhere—including previously graded material. Because the first project was due before midterms, a student who performed well could put all 10 points on that project. A student who struggled, in contrast, could assign their points to future work.
Ideally, students would identify their own strengths and weaknesses—do I produce consistent daily work? am I good at public presentations? are group projects where I shine?—to tilt the scale in favor of their strengths. And, we also hoped that students would feel more empowered and engaged in the evaluation process if they had a voice.
With the minimum values, students had control over 65% of their points. Paul and I calculated in advance that, if a student “gamed the system”—hoarded all their points on the first project, for instance, performed well on that project, and checked out for the semester—the highest possible grade a student could earn would be a D. I decided I was comfortable with that possibility, and we decided to go ahead with the experiment.
At first, I was surprised by how many students were anxious about having so much agency in determining their final grade. During the first week, several students expressed nervousness about how they would assign their points, and decided to conservatively divide the points fairly evenly. By midterms, though, the students were almost uniformly excited about the ability to allocate their bonus points in a way that would make their first project count for more or less of their final grade. In course evaluations, several students talked about how much they appreciated their role in the Level Up system and that they felt a stronger sense of ownership and investment in their work as a result.
When I calculated final grades, I was pleased with the results. Of the 17 students in the class, 6 students earned a higher grade than if I had divided the points evenly, 11 students earned the same grade, and no students’ grades were lower than without Level Up. Of the 6 students whose point allocation improved their final grade, 2 improved by 1/3 of a letter grade, 2 improved by 2/3 of a letter grade, and 2 improved by a full letter grade. So, the program did not have a major impact on student grades, but it did have a minor positive impact for about 1/3 of the class. I had one student game the system and take a D for the course, but my attendance policy ensured he couldn’t check out entirely after midterms.
So, in terms of academic integrity in assessment, I felt confident that the grades assigned fit what students earned. The only difference, for this class, was that students’ self-assessment of their strengths played a small role in their final grade.
Overall, I think the project was successful in developing students’ self-awareness as learners and agency in the grading process, without changing their final grades significantly. This Spring, I am teaching a first-year writing course, which will include many smaller projects and papers, and which will have underclassmen who are just discovering their strengths as learners. I plan to adopt Level Up for this course by lowering the stakes, giving them control over 15% rather than 65% of their final grade, with 10% assigned the first weeks of classes and a 5% bonus at midterms, but spread over eight categories rather than four. I am curious to see how Level Up will work in this new context.
We are still testing and tweaking the Level Up system, so you can’t find it or download it yet. But, I’d love to hear other examples of gamefying the grading process—what have you tried? what has worked? what advice would you give in gamefication within student assessment?