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Why Gaming Part 2: Building Feedback Momentum

April 25, 2013 by Josh Caldwell

Newton's Cradle

In my last post about game based learning I spoke to the power of rules in school and the need to create a rules system that supports and encourages learning and productive failure. Central to this issue is the dissonance between the goals of our rules (to create a safe and effective learning environment) and the student perception of those rules (punitive failure, demotivational grading). I see a similar disconnect of intent and outcome when it comes to feedback in instruction. Again, the goals of feedback are admirable and lofty – I tell my students what they did well and where they fell flat so that they may correct that behavior in the future, or better yet try again at the given assignment and demonstrate improvement, turn that C into a B or an A. Why is it then that students so often ignore my meticulously crafted feedback, or choose to live with the C instead of taking the opportunity to try again for the A? Why would that same student try over and over, often for hours on end, to get 3 stars on every Angry Birds level, when 1 star is all they need to progress? It turns out that the immediacy of the feedback in games makes all the difference.

The importance of quality feedback is well established by academic research, and among the many aspects of quality feedback, timeliness is regularly identified as key to successful feedback. The question is, how timely is timely, and what can we do to make it better? This is where games excel, because they provide feedback that is not only instantaneous, but immediately actionable. In other words, right after I fail in a game I can immediately try again. This is what keeps us playing for hours on end. This is what pushes me to strive for a perfect 3 star stage in Angry Birds. This immediate and actionable feedback creates momentum. Each attempt I learn something new, I try something different, and I don’t stop until I’m successful. Not only am I receiving meaningful feedback from the game, I’m getting it it while I’m still in an active learning mindset.

Even if I could grade and provide thorough feedback on 120 essays quickly enough to return them the next day, it wouldn’t compete with the kind of feedback games can provide. Furthermore, my 55 minute period has that unwavering bell that will kill any momentum my students could build up in class. The systemic and physical constraints of my classes prevents, to a large extent, providing the right environment for true feedback momentum. There are, however, some intermediate steps that can get me bit closer to that ideal:

Get More Feedback Sources

One against 120 aren’t great odds, and dividing my feedback attention 120 ways pretty much kills any hope of timeliness. To improve those odds, start thinking about other audiences that you can use for feedback. Peer reviewing is a great start, and dead easy when using collaborative writing tools like Google Docs. Not only does this allow you to provide more immediate feedback by increasing the number of feedback sources, but being the source as well as the target of feedback gives students more opportunities to hone and practice their skills. Other feedback sources can include parent volunteers, online communities, other staff members. Audiences like these have the added benefit of adding more realistic stakes to an assignment.

Let the Computer Do It

While there are many activities that rely on a human touch for true assessment and feedback, we ought to harness the power of computers whenever possible.Processing power is what gives video games their astonishing feedback powers after all. Spellcheck is great, but more full featured tools like Paper RaterGlencoe Online Essay Grader, SAGrader, and Essay Tagger can give students immediate feedback on the mechanics of writing, allowing them to build their momentum and freeing up the teacher to focus on the more human and nuanced aspects of writing. Sites like CodecademyCode School, and Treehouse analyze code as it’s written to provide both an environment for and evaluation of programming skills. Similar tools for automated feedback of math, science, and many other subjects are coming out all the time. While no solution can replace the skilled eye of a great teacher, we would be foolish to ignore tools that can both ease our own grading burden while providing the kind of feedback immediacy that would be impossible without technology.

Give Binary Grading a Spin

It’s such a deceptively simple idea, but with some much powerful potential. Binary, if you are unfamiliar, is numbering system of 1 and 0, on and off, win and fail, mastered and in-progress. I was first introduced to this idea when exploring the 3D Game Lab system, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit skeptical at first. Without a letter grade, how do students know how well the did on an assignment? How would my students and their parents react? Implementing a binary grading system presents many challenges, enough to warrant a separate post (forthcoming), but the potential benefits may be worth the trouble:

  1. Removing the letter or percent grades places more emphasis on your feedback – letter grades carry with them a lot of baggage which often communicate unintentional feedback (an A means I did it perfectly and have nothing left to learn).
  2. Students no longer have the option of “settling” for a low grade – work has to be redone until it meets the necessary requirements.
  3. Teachers can spend more time on feedback and less on grading, greatly decreasing turn-around time

The impact of such a grading system on student perception of progress, success, and failure is deeper discussion that I’m just beginning with my admins, and certainly I wouldn’t suggest such an impactful change without the support of your school leadership. If you’ve got other ideas for helping students to build feedback momentum, let me know in the comments.

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