Gas station without pumps

2015 September 7

Gamifying a course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:07
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Katrin Becker has been do a series of posts on “gamifying” courses.  Her most useful post for me is the most recent one, A Gamified Instructional Design Model for University Courses:

I thought I’d take a wee break from the Gamification 101 posts to post a paper I wrote describing a gamified ID model. Gamification is still relatively new – far too new for there to be any decent guidelines for how to go about designing instruction this way. I will likely re-vamp this paper at some point and publish it somewhere, but in the meantime, I thought at least a few people might find it useful (If you do, by the way, drop me a line!)

I like the idea of having a graph structure rather than a linear structure for a course, and of letting students choose their own ways to earn enough points.  That sort of course would appeal to me as a student (as long as the point scheme was not too fake).

I’ve often thought I’d like to model one of my courses off of the logic-design lab I took at Stanford back in the late 70s—there were a lot of project modules, worth different numbers of points each, and students could choose which projects to design and build (with some constraints, to prevent students from doing only easy projects or of tackling hard ones without some evidence that they could complete them).  There were enough different project modules that students only had to do about 1/3 or 1/2 of the available modules, and enough constraints to ensure that students covered in some manner all the major topics of the course.

I’ve thought about doing something like that for the applied electronics course, but I don’t see how I can make it work—I’m stretched thin trying to help the students when they are all working on the same task. I’d have a much harder time managing students working on different tasks, and I’d probably need 3 times the current staffing (that is, two TAs plus me, rather than just me). Stanford had a high TA/student ratio for that logic-design course—a luxury not afforded in our department.

Also, every design project in the course now covers something different, and coming up with new projects that cover the same (or equally valuable) topics is difficult. I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with the assignments I currently use (and I’m still tweaking them to make them work better)—coming up with 2–3 times as many assignments would take me years.  Students often don’t see the point of the assignments until after they’ve finished them, so getting students to choose reasonable combinations of projects would require some pretty strong constraints (though, in theory, not as strong as the current constraint of doing all 12 available labs).

The graph-based flow, which is theoretically nice and which works well for self-paced courses, is hard to reconcile with the linear time of labs and lectures.  I can only schedule the salt-water measurements for one week during the quarter—so everyone has to be ready for them that week.  Similarly, many of my lectures are using data collected in lab that week, or explaining the theory needed for the design to be done the next week.  To allow graph-based flow through the projects would require decoupling the labs and the lectures, since different students would be working on different labs.

But decoupling the labs from the lectures is the opposite of the direction I want to take the class—that way leads to lectures that students don’t bother understanding, since they seem pointless at the time, or to labs that really are pointless exercises in following instructions.  For the electronics course, the labs and designs associated with the labs are the essential meat of the course—the lectures are just infrastructure to support that learning.

The gamification of a course seems to be based on the assumption that it is easy to come up with lots of ways for students to earn points—something I’ve never found easy in my course designs.  I’ve generally not included quizzes or exams in courses, because they don’t tell me much about what I want to know about the students, and because it is difficult to come up with real questions that can be answered quickly.  But quizzes and exams seem to be the main go-to point generators for gamified courses, in part because they are cheaper to grade than more meaningful assessments like design reports and research papers. That they are measuring the wrong thing never seems to come up as an issue.

I could redo the grading system to be accumulating points, as Katrin Becker suggests, but I really don’t see much reason for that unless there really are many more points available than students need, which I don’t see any reasonable way to achieve in my course.

So I don’t see a way to gamify my courses except in very superficial ways (“mock-gamification”).

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