How To Be My Favorite Teacher

I wrote this post several years ago for a different blog. In talking to some friends tonight, I was inspired to dig it up, re-polish it, and publish it again. I still think the idea is great, and I hope to teach at some point in my future. I think this idea works, and it’s fun to talk about. So here we go. Gamification. 

Gamification is not a word I just invented. While it is a newer word (first coined in 2002), it is a real thing.

If you try to gamify something (ok…I may have made that one up), you apply gaming principles to something that is not a game in order to create a better experience, enhance participation, or make something more enjoyable for others.

You may be familiar with many of the modern applications of gamification. Achievement badges, leaderboards, challenges, and progress bars are all common examples. Many iPhone apps have these features to keep you playing (talking to you, Farmville). Every xBox game comes with a list of achievements to unlock, intended to encourage players to continue playing the game even after they have beaten it once or twice.

Turning chores into a game certainly makes them more entertaining. Why not teach classes in the same way? Please don’t tell me that college courses currently place an emphasis on attendance and participation. As a system, the college lecture format is dated and often amazingly inefficient (especially considering the price many students pay to attend college).

So here is my idea. I am going to pretend that I am a Chemistry professor, teaching a class called “Introduction to Chemistry” for incoming freshman science majors. I have 400 students in my class. The class teaches basic chemistry, and most of my students will continue to take harder chemistry classes later in their academic careers, so I can assume they are at least reasonably motivated to do well in this course

I will format my class somewhat traditionally:
5 Tests x 100 pts each
5 Quizzes x 10pts each
5 Pop Quizzes x 10pts each
5 HW Assignments x 40pts each
1 Final @ 200pts.

=1000 points total. In my experience as a science major, this is a fairly common syllabus. Here’s where I change it up. I will also distribute a “Game Card” to each student. I would probably create a point system called “moles” or something dorky like that. You could achieve up to 100 mole points in the semester, perhaps. Some you can get automatically, others would require direct effort. At the end of the semester, your mole points are converted to extra credit points. For the math wizards, that’s 10% extra credit available for free. A whole letter grade.

How do you get mole points? Stuff like this..

Attend Office Hours and Ask Questions- 5 Mole Points
Most students will never attend office hours and ask for help, but will instead futilely struggle, search the internet, and ask friends. I’m no expert, but I bet that getting individual help from a professor will improve classroom performance.

Achieve 90% or Greater on an Exam- 10 Mole Points
This rewards students who perform well. It offers a clear motivation to excel on exams. You could argue that students who receive this achievement don’t need it, as they are already smarter than the average bear. I argue that a C student could conceivably study hard, get a 90%, and would deserve a 10pt bonus for his effort. Also, see next achievement.

Improve Your Test Score by 10% or More -10 Mole Points
This one is not for the smart kids. If you scored a 94% on my first exam, you got the previous achievement and don’t really have hope for this one. For the C student above, who maybe got a 75% on the first exam, this doubles the incentive to buckle down and perform better on the next test.

Other incentives could include activities like writing a short report on a current research topic that you find interesting, exposing the student to some practical applications of their studies while forcing them to take some initiative and break new ground. Scheduling an appointment with a tutoring service (if the school supports one-mine does) during the week before a test will help their test score and increase retention. Other “achievements” would reward class attendance, for example, or perhaps encourage participation. I thought about including one that would reward students for finding an error that I would purposefully include on the slides each week, so that they are encouraged to ask questions and think critically about what I write instead of blindly memorizing it.

The weather is awful, can't go to class The weather is beautiful, can't waste it in class  Lazy College Senior

There is a valid argument against my little game I created. Students would need to have a level of motivation and achievement to do more than just immediately lose the “game board” I gave them on my first day of class. Also, the teachers likely to implement this game would be good teachers already. They would teach dynamically, interact with students, and have their own ways to implement all of the same things I am attempting to do with my game. 

I think that’s fantastic. Maybe they use part of my games, maybe they use their own system. Whatever. I think that a system like this (or similar to it) would improve the classroom experience for teachers and students alike.

Facets of gamification are already working. The Khan Academy incorporates these ideas into their online lessons. At the end of the day, doing your chemistry homework will never be as fun as playing real games, pursuing hobbies, or spending time with friends. If these ideas will give people extra motivation, and if that extra motivation translates to academic success, then I think they are worth pursuing. It may not be incredibly fun, but there are much worse games to play.

P.S. I first published this in 2011, so the Hunger Games reference was less dated. Also, I think I am a better writer now, but I’ll let you decide.

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