Writing FTW, part 2

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Is it possible to replace the drudgery of a grading contract with game elements that transform first-year composition into a more engaging, dare I dream even exciting, class?

I hope so. I think so. I hope you'll help me think it through.

Before I get started, let me share some fundamental assumptions. I want to keep grades and game elements separate. I don't want the formal, institutional feedback to correspond to game results except insofar as the game motivates the effort that produces better writing. Also, I want the game to feel competitive but require cooperation, in the hope that combining the two gaming styles will make the course design appeal as broadly as possible.

 Let me say right up front that there's nothing new or interesting, gamewise, in what I'm proposing here. It might not even be new in composition pedagogy. It's new to me, though, and this is my blog, so cut me some slack (for now at least).

Last weekend I was at the Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State. Their name badges included a lanyard, and attached to the lanyard was a small black button with the event's Twitter hashtag, #tltsym12, in plain white text. I immediately liked the idea of the pin, as I could see myself adding to the lanyard year after year that I attend the symposium. Then, the check-in staff told me I also qualified for the "Road Warrior" badge--car tire sable with venti latte cup argent--because I'd driven to University Park from Hazleton. That was my first indication that a game was afoot. It turns out that, for the rest of the conference, additional buttons were given out to reward contributions to the conference: for speaking, for asking questions, for answering questions, for visiting vendor booths, etc.

I thought it was a great idea, but I also thought more could have been done with it. If the goal was to motivate (and not merely reward) good conference behaviors, it would have been better to let us know beforehand what we needed to do to earn the tokens. I know: we all know or should know how to behave at conferences, but if it's just a reward for doing what you would or should do anyway, then there are probably better ways to spend the budget. (Unless, of course, the point was to demonstrate and spark thinking about how such a system could work in classes, in which case...WIN.)

Ok, so let's talk about the behaviors that we want to develop in a composition class.  I'm going to skip over the qualities of writing that we look for in the texts students produce, things like rhetorical design / genre focus; development of ideas through research, reflection, critical and/or creative thinking; organization; style and correctness. Let those form the basis for grading, and let's focus on the behaviors that produce those qualities.

I like the name tag / lanyard thing. Well designed, cool-looking buttons are worth winning in themselves, but I think I would also apply a point / rank / leaderboard system to generate some competition. The cooperation would come in through the means of awarding the badges: you can only receive a badge if you are nominated for it though a post on the course blog by another student in the class.

The badges might include:

  • The Friend in Need: awarded to a student who provides great peer review (generous in the time and attention devoted to the task; substantial, supportive yet constructively critical commentary. There should be three levels (bronze, silver, and gold), with the higher levels awarded for consistent effort in this area. (Silver could only be awarded after one third of the semester has passed, gold only in the final third, and only if the previous level was earned in a previous game period.)
  • Helping Hands: given to those who make contributions above and beyond expectation on a collaborative project. This badge could also come in levels, if the assignments allow for multiple collaborations.
  • The Good Citizen: recognizes those who take the time and make the effort to nominate others for badges; also available in levels.
  • Research behaviors could be recognized with such buttons as Digging Deep (exceeding expectation for quantity and quality of sources), F2F (including interviews by the author), Information Literacy (completing a literature review / annotated bibliography)
  • Digital Storyteller: recognizes high achievement in creating multimodal, multimedia texts
  • Gearhead: recognizes students who push themselves to master technological tools of writing in the context of 21st century literacies, including hardware, software, web applications, databases, etc.
  • Human Resources: seek help from librarians, writing center consultants, professors in your classes or major
  • Mr or Ms Dependable: recognizes classmates who are always there for you...or just there. Also available in levels.
  • Spread the Word: dissemination / publication rewards for sharing your work with a few trusted classmates, with the class as a whole, or even publishing your work to the internet (on a course blog, eportfolio, YouTube, etc.), and for publicizing or promoting your work on FB or Twitter.
  • It would also be possible to allow students to offer qualitative assessments through badges like The Scholar (nominate work that represents the best of academic endeavor, work from which you learned a lot); The Artist (nominate work that represents significant creative achievement).
If I include a points system, the silver and gold levels would be worth significantly more than bronze. The qualitative rewards would be worth quite a bit, with the intention of limiting their use. (One could also require some kind of group assent to those badges--multiple nominations, polling, or the like.)

Because the game is separate from grades, I would award high achievement through game rewards: t-shirts for every participant and perhaps a Nittany Lion statuette for the student who earns the most points during the game. I might also ask for nominations for the Avis award (not number one, but tried the hardest) and the Grindstone award for the student who, through hard work, improved the most during the semester.

Notes: 1. The names for the badges are (obviously, I hope) placeholders. I'd love to get some feedback, especially if you have better ideas for badge names or any ideas for designs, or for sources of funding to pay for all of this. 2. Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll post about why this is only a half-measure, and offer an even more tentative idea about how to help students achieve an epic win in FYC.

Thanks to all TLTSYM12 folk for inspiring these fantasies.

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