Monday, May 25, 2015

Bottoms Up on Assessment

Experience points (XP), are touted as one of the innovations possible when applying gaming principles to teaching. Players and learners gain points toward a goal. This isn't really a new concept. Systems of reward are a hallmark of shaping learned behavior in the behaviorist approach to teaching and training. Many of us raise our eyebrows at the notion of handing out M&Ms every time a learner takes a tiny step toward our learning goals. And from the learner's point of view what good is an XP? It isn't even made of chocolate.

But wait, there IS something important here worth considering.

It turns out many of us like to see our XP pile up. But aside from the pleasure of receiving tokens for our successes, there are pedagogically significant reasons for employing XP meaningfully. A close examination of how XP works might turn our approach to both Assessment and Risk taking upside-down.

Assessment and motivation.
Ordinarily a learner begins class with an A, a 100. Everything she does from that first day on has the chance of maintaining her A or reducing her initial grade down to 99, then 98, then 97.  Alternatively, a learner who receives XP for her work, starts with 0 points. Everything she does from that first day on has the chance of either maintaining her 0 or increasing her XP to 1, then 2, then 3. In other words in the traditional model there is no where to go but down.

Assessment and risk taking.
When everything you do has the chance of reducing your 100, the safest course of action is to, err, play it safe. This assessment approach encourages learners to figure out what won't cause them to lose. Thinking creatively is risky. On the other hand when XP are at stake, trying anything is better than doing nothing. Failure doesn't take away points. So risk taking is valued in an XP system.

What's in a name?
It is not important that this upside down approach occur within the context of "gamification" strategies or even that one uses the words experience points or XP. The value of XP as it is used in games is that it reminds us that assessment doesn't have to take the traditional form. The significant change occurs when we base our assessments on learners successes rather than on their failures. And this isn't a new idea either. Just as rewards in learning have their earliest appearance in BF Skinners work, the idea of assessing success is a hallmark of mastery learning introduced to us by Benjamin Bloom in 1971. In mastery learning students have multiple opportunities and ways to achieve A. Making a mistake is ok. Practice and try again.

What does it look like?
Many teachers already assign "points" to assessment tasks. 10 points for journals, 20 points for the draft storyboard... The recipe for turning grading upside down is:
  • One part: change of perspective. Believe that it is possible and desireable to help more students get to A.
  • One part: more assessment possibilities. Give students the opportunity to resubmit assignments. Give students more activities than are necessary to achieve A. Give students choice in activities.
A does not have to have an upper limit. In the classes in which I have adopted this upside-down assessment approach, I see students doing much more than is required. If I require 800 points for an A, most students surpass that, by 20 or more percent. They do more work with better quality. And they are not afraid to fail when the stakes are low.

_Bloom, B. S. (1971). Mastery learning. In J. H. Block (Ed.), Mastery learning: Theory and practice(pp. 47–63). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
_Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan

This post is adapted from XP and Me my February 2014 post in the blog Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds.

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