Points for Grades

During the summer and autumn, I became interested in “gamification” approaches to education. The idea is to use the psychological tools and strategies commonly found in video games to make education more effective. There are numerous problems with this approach, if taken at face value, but I think there are lessons to be learned.

One common feature of video games is the idea of points. Cookie Clicker is a game that consists entirely of accumulating points by clicking the mouse (or purchasing upgrades using points), and it is fiendishly addictive. I wanted to try replacing my traditional grading scheme with a points-based system. The use (or abuse) or such points-based systems is often called pointsification.

The Process

For my Math Studies classes, we used the following system to generate quarterly grades:

100 points (max) for weekly quizzes
50 points (max) for weekly homework
35 points for serving as the class Scribe or Artist [to be explained in a future post]
10 points for attendance, thrice weekly
and bonuses worth between 10 and 200 points for optional extra assignments

Before the quarter began, I calculated a grade scale based on the IB system of 1-7 points.

7 is the point equivalent of 100% on all homework and quizzes, and perfect attendance
5 is the point equivalent of 70% on the homework and quizzes, and perfect attendance
3 is the point equivalent of 0% on the quizzes, and perfect homework and attendance
1 is the point equivalent of 0% on the homework and quizzes, and perfect attendance

Our school uses PowerSchool for grading and attendance, but the PowerSchool GradeBook package isn’t able to create the sorts of progress bars and reporting that I wanted. Thus, I did my grading in a Google Spreadsheet.

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 8.52.14 PM

Some of the students’ grades appear in columns J to O in this image. I’ve “frozen” rows 1-2 and columns C-D, which is invaluable when scrolling around a large spreadsheet. The green boxes (above the blurred-out students’ names) indicate the total cumulative points so far.

After the first quarter, two of my students suggested that I include some guidance as to what is a satisfactory grade during the middle of the quarter. In other words, after three weeks, is 400 points good? Column P is my solution to that problem: it is a running total of the maximum scores for all attendance, homework, and quizzes. The current “maximum” score appears in the red box.

Our school uses Google Apps for Education, so I have a Google Site for each of my classes. On the site for this class, I created an individual page for each student. With a few clicks, I’m able to make these pages viewable only to the student and myself.

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 9.08.43 PM

Now, I inserted the points and target cells from the Spreadsheet into the page of this Site, using a process I put together previously.

The progress bar is done differently, as Google Sites have a built-in capability for inserting charts from a Spreadsheet into a Site. Creating the progress bar required a bit of playing around: it’s a stacked horizontal bar chart, with the grades (column Q above), grade bounds (column R), and the total number of points as (respectively) the three data series.

The Results

Without a control group, I cannot draw a conclusion from this experiment. Instead, I’ll list a few ways in which this points-based approach seemed to change the learning process:

  • It was new. Students always seem to have some enthusiasm for newness, and that was apparent. There was a great deal of curiosity when I first explained the system, and I think the reaction to the individualized web pages with the progress bars was something like, “that’s cool.”
  • Progress was clear. I was careful to stay up-to-date with my grading, and most of the time I got the points updated within a day or two. That meant the students had a (nearly) real-time picture of how they stood in the class, and they could see the result of their work visually. I think this was appreciated.
  • A couple students relied on last-minute bonus assignments (especially the 200-point project of creating a video solution to an exam-style problem) to boost their grades at the end of the semester when they realized they could go from a 4 to a 6 with a few extra hours’ work. I wasn’t unhappy with this, although allowing such an approach isn’t promoting efficient time management.
  • For the “slackers”, it didn’t seem to provide much benefit, as their attendance and grades continued to be poor.
  • It was more work for me, both (a) to create and maintain the individual sites, the points  box and progress bar, and (b) to maintain a careful record in a spreadsheet in addition to PowerSchool. While there was clearly a reward, in increased student understanding and motivation, I think I could have used the time more effectively by planning more-engaging learning activities, conducting after-school tutoring with struggling students, and so forth.

Ultimately, our program coordinator decided that all grading should be done, and published for student access, on PowerSchool. Thus, I had to stop my pointsification experiment after two quarters.

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