Gaining Experience Toward Mastery

One of the problems the current education environment is suffering from is how we decide when a student has adequately learned material. At the moment, we assign a percent that’s supposed to describe to what degree a student has mastered the presented material, but it’s often based on a few snapshots in the form of quizzes and tests. I don’t know about you, but I can name classes I’ve taken where my grade didn’t reflect how well I had actually mastered the material. I got A’s in classes I have the barest memory of, and C’s in classes where I then went on to teach the material in another setting.

So then, we reframe the current grading schedule to claim it reflects the effort the student put into the course. But again, I can name classes where I killed myself to get a C, and skated my way to an A, and I’m willing to bet most of you can, too. Regardless of whether we’re claiming the numbers and letters represent content mastery or student effort, we muck things up even farther in some classes by throwing in a bell curve to satisfy somebody else’s statistics.

Meanwhile, neither we nor the student has any idea how well he really knows the material, or if he could apply it in a real-world situation…the actual goal of education.

Some teachers, recognizing the need for grades that provide some actual feedback to the student and that promote real effort over gaming a class’s grade, have changed their approach to their assessment process. Professor Lee Sheldon switched to a method where students come in with no grade, and earn experience points (XP) throughout the semester through various projects and assignments. The student’s grade is then based on his XP. While this does keep the grade tied in to the student’s effort, it’s also based on the student’s decisions about how and when to participate, and how well the student prepared assignments and projects, where the practical practice is (theoretically) happening.

Sheldon isn’t the only teacher who has tried to make the grading system more accessible by incorporating game elements. Mike Skocko developed a system where students leveled up when they demonstrated their understanding at various levels. Each level provided a certain amount of XP toward the student’s final grade. What’s really interesting about Skocko’s system is that lower levels give students a safe space to begin their learning journey while higher levels encourage students to become peer teachers and to take risks.

More recently, the Quest Schools in New York and Chicago have incorporated XP and badges into their curriculum to not only show where a student is in their understanding of the material they’re working on, but to also help a student organize and pursue specific learning interests. There is then a profile system students can look at when they’re building projects for teams, allowing students picked to work even more on a skill they’re trying to master.

The point is, the grading system should be about providing feedback to learners about where they are in their learning journey, and to help them make decisions about next steps in that journey. The current system isn’t giving students that, so we need something that does.

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Questioning Strategies as Game Design?

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with as I try to imagine how I would develop game-inspired educational material is how to incorporate my teaching style into my work. The problem is: I’m a Constructivist with Socratic tendencies.

That first isn’t too big a problem. Sequential story-lessons are easily planned out and created, and mythocentric game design makes a compelling argument for letting story-lessons that don’t rely on each other serve as a “level” that the learner can explore at will before being allowed to move on to the next “level” and building on what they’ve learned in lower “levels”.

The second, however, is a bit more challenging. I tend to direct my students through questions, helping them to make their own connections and to see why they’re doing what they’re doing. When the teacher isn’t present, though, it’s hard to know what sequence of questions to set up to help facilitate that type of learning.

After reading Emily Short’s series on modeling conversation in interactive fiction, I thought I had it somewhat figured out: create a Guide NPC to ask more common or basic questions to guide learner between encounters and to help the learner think through the problem when they’ve made a mistake. The Guide NPC could even go so far as to offer a review if the learner is completely off-topic.

The more I thought about that, the more I felt myself getting turned around because I felt I was making too big an assumption with the basic or common questions. Then, a former student and I gather around a virtual whiteboard to see what was going wrong on a homework assignment, and I found a preliminary answer. As we talked, I found the probing and directing questions I nearly always ask, mainly because she was asking herself those questions with a preface of, “I know you’d ask me…”

The next problem to either resolve or let go is wait time. I use that to help feel out where a student is in understanding what they’re working on, but I can’t exactly give a fictional character that same instinct.

Games as Training Tools

The other day, we looked at games as a means of personal development. Today, we consider games as a means of training the group.

One of the most common and useful training game is the role-playing simulation. No longer the domain of teenagers huddled around a table with cans of Mountain Dew lying around, role playing possible situations has become a popular way to help employees explore appropriate responses in a safe environment. It helps the team get into the mindset of the people they will be working with, which in turn allows them to be sympathetic when things don’t go as planned. It’s important for these simulations to explore not only good scenarios, but the worst-case scenarios as well.

Another common training game is the quiz show review. After teaching things, we always have to check to make sure our students understand, and what’s more fun than styling that check for understanding with a quiz show! It keeps the learning environment fun and helps everyone review.

One of my favorites in training was always some sort of brainstorming game. I’ve seen these take many shapes, but I like it because it can take on a Scattergories feel, or it can be topic-based, and the suggested competition or timed element creates a friendly sense of competition. It also allows for some great ideas to be brewed in a safe zone.

We respond well to games because we perceive them as fun and interesting. They help break up the training into digestible sections, and they can help get the point of the training across so that the actual training never stops.

Gaming as a Teaching Method

For as long as I’ve spent playing any variety of games, and with my interest in accidental learning resulting from a multitude of gaming, I thought it might be interesting to figure what is a game.

What triggered this is the realization that the reason I have a student who seems to take a lot out of me is because I can’t just teach him. He shuts down. I quickly figured out that I had to make everything a game. Once I framed it that way, he was more receptive to the lessons, and learned the concepts beautifully. Parents have long used games to manage tired, cranky, strong-willed offspring, anyway, so kids are used to being manipulated like this.

So, what is a game? It turns out “game” has a long list of definitions if you go looking for help from a dictionary. One of the most straightforward definitions, oddly enough, comes from Wikipedia:

A game is a recreational activity involving one or more players. This can be defined by A) a goal that the players try to reach, B) some set of rules that determines what the players can or can not do. Games are played primarily for entertainment or enjoyment, but may also serve an educational or simulational role.

Basically, a game contains a set of rules that the player exists within and the goal the player is trying to obtain. Somehow, that sounds an awful lot like how learning is often structured. We give the student a set of rules to learn and work with while guiding them toward a specific goal. We’re laying down a challenge, and many kids love to be challenged (whether or not they’re willing to admit it).

Perhaps this is why establishing a game-like environment can help students learn if they’re constructed well.

A Thought on Informal Learning

The things we know best are the things we haven’t been taught.
-Marquis de Vauvenargues

The Marquis obviously realized that much of what we learn is learned informally!

I’ve read so much lately on the learning that takes place in games. I remember playing on Atari and Coleco as a child, and then my grandmother gave me a Nintendo when they were the new console in town. The controllers were simple. Most games didn’t require much beyond simple strategy and timing to beat.

These days, games require an incredible level of hand-eye coordination to go along with those strategy and timing issues. Not only that, but many of the RPGs include a storyline you have to follow closely to make sure you can solve problems on higher levels.

There is much thought on the educational value of these experiences, having to multi-task, to solve problems on your feet. They’re intangible lessons that really can’t just be taught, and have to be picked up through constructed experiences. (Have I ever mentioned I’d love to work on the educational side of games?) Where better than to pick them up than the constructed experience of a game?

Games Can Be Effective Learning Tools

I’ve decided this week should be about gaming. One would think I’d have a gaming week during National Game Week in November, but I guess I’ve never been one to comform. Heh.

Gaming is a method of learning [Dead link]. While it is true many skills can be learned through various types of gaming, one should always take caution. A study recently discovered that games with distracting elements meant to keep the learner engaged solely by entertainment aren’t worth the CD they’ve been burned to.

It’s been my experience, both as a gamer and a teacher, that games can help build problem solving skills, communication skills, deducitve reasoning. Some games help increase basic math skills and teach or reinforce basic economics skills. Game stores that have gaming on the premises are also now trying to build social skills. Gamers have long been thought of as socially awkward because their socialization has been limited to fellow gamers in the same boat. By helping to grow those social skills in a safe setting, these gamers are turning out less awkward, and more likely not to live their life in a fantasy world.

I’ve always thought games were a great way to introduce or reinforce skills and concepts, but I think I’m probably biased because of my background.

Playing Games Teaches Strategy

I grew up playing games with my parents and with friends. Then I discovered video games, and thought those were pretty awesome. I’ve always been drawn to puzzle-solving games, games that require some degree of strategy to win them.

Oddly enough, I’ve never fared well at chess…

In graduate school, I spent my weekends at a local game shop. I’d read or work on papers while helping the store owners run the Pokemon League. That was quite the experience. It’s never really left me.

The kids were interesting to watch. They built their decks. They traded cards trying to create strong decks. Some of the kids often tried to build against the trends they were noticing in other kids’ decks. Everyone wanted to be able to beat the top player in our shop, who also happened to be the top ranked Pokemon player in the country.

These kids read whatever they could get their hands on to help grow their strategies, to make sure their trading deals were fair. The more experienced kids would often mentor new kids to help them build their first decks, or play a few games against them to help them see how their deck worked. Problems were often resolved by a neutral kid, the ones that couldn’t be resolved that way were brought to us.

If you were smart, you never, ever tried to cheat these kids, because they as a whole would make sure you regretted it, oftentimes driving off the offending party if they didn’t change their ways.

I think often about these kids. The oldest is now in his early twenties. The youngest are probably enjoying their freshman year of college. I wonder if the skills they picked up while playing Pokemon have followed them. It occurs to me that these kids have this incredible skill set that can only help them if they continue to grow and adapt them to the grown-up world.

So many people look on games as a pointless waste of time, a way to spend free time that no one has. But what if it’s playing those games that help builds our character? What if games help us develop a problem-solving skill set, a negotiating skill set, a language for resolving conflict? If I could, I’d actually conduct a study on this. Follow a group of kids playing Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh. Maybe follow them into Magic: the Gathering. Then follow them throughout high school and college, into their professional lives, just to see what impact playing strategic games has on them.

It’s possible for adults to get into and reap the benefits of playing games. Chess is always a viable option, but for the more faint of heart, there is always poker. Of course, I’ve been known to accept a random Pokemon or Harry Potter deck myself to play against a kid. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a great learning experience!

MMORPGs as Educational Simulators

It seems like only a year or so ago I was reading about the use of A Simple Life as a classroom simulation. The general idea was to take the game and structure meaningful instructional components so that students could move about a given area of the game and learn things socially and experientially. Now it seems to be more commonplace to develop educational simulations through these multiple-player online games.

I recall that the idea was considered a bit radical at the time, and even frowned upon because games apparently cannot teach anything. As a gamer and a teacher, I was always interested by this theory that playing games cannot teach you anything valuable. (Yes, I understand that there is a large contingent that supports the use of various types of games in educational settings.)

Some of the benefits of including games as part of your instruction include fostering problem solving, communication, and developing strategies. I’ve long held the belief that children who have become involved with TCGs are even learning some skills that will serve them well as adults: negotiating, assessing fair prices, networking

Found via Stephen Downes

Another Voice on Computer Simulations

Following last week’s post on the use of video games in training, elearningpost’s newsletter highlighted a series of posts on the use of computer games in teaching situations, including this one on the link between computer games and learning.

I don’t know if I agree with this entirely, although I do support the belief that computer games do not facilitate retention. There are games that do require some skill-building to move from one level to the next. However, in most cases, the apparent scaffolding of the tasks becomes so repetitious that the player is no longer analyzing and applying, but instead engaging rote memory.

Teaching the Video Game Generation

What’s interesting in most of these readings is the line between a game and a simulation. There is a difference, although something might actually have qualities of both. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but using either as a means to transfer knowledge should be handled with the same care you would use to create a lesson plan intended to be taught in a classroom. They also need to be used in tandem with other training methods.

Found via Library Link of the Day