Game designers spend a lot of time thinking about points and rewards. We know that they are powerful motivators, but we also know they have their share of issues. Extrinsic motivators keep players doing what we want them to do but don’t necessarily result in better player experiences or are hallmarks of good game design. Massively popular so-called social games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans employ expertly-crafted extrinsic motivators to keep players hooked and consequently, entice them to spend money on the game. They are not particularly well-designed games, but they have acquired a very large player base in large part because of this (purposefully-designed) “addictive” quality.
Points in games, like grades in the classroom, can motivate players (or students) to do tasks, especially boring, repetitive ones. But they can also hinder creative thinking, foster competition over collaboration, and undermine intrinsic motivation. We know, for instance, that if we offer the player a reward for the completion of a certain task, they won’t repeat it unless the reward is offered again. Removing the reward also removes the player’s motivation to perform the task, regardless of how interesting or fulfilling the task was in the first place.
In many games, as in learning, there is a certain amount of rote work necessary to achieve progress. For those tasks, points and rewards can work. For sustained engagement however, players must find the act of playing the game to be intrinsically worthwhile, for instance, by being presented with an interesting challenge that tests their skills, or content that is relevant to their interests, or because playing is a vehicle for connecting with others. We know that adding point systems or rewards to any of these intrinsically rewarding experiences is not only unnecessary, but will fundamentally alter their character.
Grades in education share similar issues to rewards in games, but have additional drawbacks in their particular context: they are blunt and imprecise measures of learning, they undermine qualitative feedback (students tend to focus only on the grade itself), and can create an adversarial relationship between professor and students. Like points in games, grades are seen as a fundamental component of educational settings, but they are both tools and are, therefore, open to critical questioning.
Over the past few years, a growing community of educators have been challenging traditional grading structures and creating alternative ways to assess learning. Much of this work has been documented in the recently-published book Ungrading edited by Dr. Susan D. Blum, and discussed at-length in Jesse Stommel’s excellent collection of articles on the topic (https://www.jessestommel.com/tag/ungrading/). They provide accounts of a variety of new and exciting assessment models that can fundamentally transform our practices. I have been experimenting with alternative assessment for a few years and implemented a fully ungraded course for the first time last Summer with very encouraging results.
My First Ungraded Course
I started by removing points from assignments and provided qualitative feedback instead. Final grades were determined by the students themselves via 3 self-assessment forms, spread over the course of term, using as main criteria their level of effort, consistency in turning in assignments, and contributions to the class (e.g. participation in critiques, answering other students’ questions, sharing resources). The final grade was modulated by their special circumstances (e.g. health or financial issues). As a show of trust, they were told their self-assigned grade was final: I was not allowed to lower their grade, only raise it.
Out of 53 students, only 3 grades seemed too high. Over 1/3 of the class (19 students) graded themselves too low and required a bump up. After adjustments, the overall curve was virtually identical to the year before. Students reported feeling a much lower level of stress, but equal motivation to complete coursework, and I noticed a marked improvement in the quality of submissions when compared to the previous 2 years of the same course.
The main challenge was the initial time investment in creating an assessment and feedback structure that was as clear to students as a point system. With this particular approach, timely and high quality, individualized feedback was even more critical, which, depending on the size of the class and amount of assignments, may require some curriculum adaptations. There was also a considerable amount of emotional labor early on to be able to trust students with a task we tend to reserve to ourselves. This process only works if there is real mutual trust which is hard to build but very easy to break. Removing grades is only one component of a more humane pedagogy which, if implemented in a vacuum, may not yield positive results.
Here’s a Twitter thread where I reported on this experience:https://twitter.com/manyweare/status/1303381331787816960?s=20
I have since been iterating on this approach and have settled on a hybrid that values effort, iteration, and demonstrable growth. None of my courses in the last 2 semesters were graded. My current assessment model looks something like this:
• Receive qualitative feedback, not grades
• Can be resubmitted at any point of the term
2. Personal Goals Document
Students set personal goals at the beginning of the course, adjusted at the midpoint of the term in one-on-one meetings with the instructor. They must consider, among other items:
• How many assignments they intend on turning in (above the minimum required)
• How many absences they will allow themselves (up to a maximum)
• Their level of participation in class (introverts are asked to step up, extroverts to step back)
• Previous educational challenges they they’ve dealt with that they will work on (e.g. procrastinating on assignments)
3. Bi-weekly Progress Checks
Students are given periodic access to a checklist showing progress on course assignments, including which are incomplete or need revision.
At the end of the term, students fill a self-assessment form and assign themselves a grade. This grade can be raised by the instructor, but not lowered.
• Time and effort put into the coursework;
• Accomplishment of personal goals;• Number of assignments submitted successfully (i.e. not requiring revision);• Overall grade is modulated by hardship faced during the term (e.g. health or financial issues);The pandemic’s heavy toll on our students (and ourselves) inspired us to implement more a humane pedagogy. Ungrading can be another powerful way to respond to this challenge in a lasting, transformative way. In the resources below, you will find a variety of alternative assessment models that may be applicable to your discipline or your teaching style. I hope you consider ungrading your own courses! Feel free to contact me with questions or to share your approach: email@example.com
• Ungrading, a Bibliography, by Jesse Stommel (https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-a-bibli-ography/)
• Ungrading, edited by Susan D. Blum (https://wvupressonline.com/node/844)
• Beyond the Curriculum Podcast, Season 2 focused on ungrading (https://beyondthecurriculumpodcast.com/season2)
Marcelo Diaz Viana Neto
Marcelo Diaz Viana Neto is an Assistant Professor of Game Design in the Humanities Department, Media Design Unit. His research focuses on creating modes of organization that foster autonomy, self-expression, and solidarity through the practice of game art and design (radicalplay.org). Marcelo was born in Brazil in the city of Sete Lagoas, Minas Gerais. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the California College of the Arts and an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California, Santa Cruz