Thursday, May 29, 2014

Gamification Series Part 12: Narrative & Avatars

Speaking at GIE13 last summer, Professor Lee Sheldon made a fascinating point that I had never really considered.  

It it is not necessarily the graphics or technology that make a "good" game.  Instead, it is the ability to create a story that engages and enables players to become emotionally invested in the overarching narrative.  (paraphrased)

How can this concept be applied in a classroom?  One example is a project that Sheldon continues to develop at the Emergent Reality Lab at Rensselaer.  He described how RPI students are taught Mandarin and Chinese culture by playing a live-action role playing game.  From what I recall from his lecture, the back story involves students who are brought into custody in a Chinese airport and are being interrogated by authorities (role played by native Mandarin speakers at RPI).  Another new project by Sheldon is call These Far Hills, "a game that teaches engineering by following the adventures of an extended Irish family emigrating to Mars." Source

If this all sounds a bit wild to you, it did to me as well.  After considering this for a while, it did start to make sense that developing a narrative for the course could create a greater sense of purpose for students progressing through our gamified World History class.  With a few weeks to go in the summer of 2013, I decided to give it a shot and dove in.

Step 1: Narrative - "The Blueprint"

I decided to create a narrative that would attempt to tie in all of the major historical eras in the curriculum.  No easy task.  Ultimately, I went with a post-apocalyptic theme that required students to enter a virtual world in order to study the achievements and mistakes of historical civilizations.  The goal was then to develop a Blueprint for future societies based upon what was learned through study of these eras.  Here is a copy of the complete BLUEPRINT narrative.

After students completed all of the missions for each scenario, as part of the narrative, they needed to Report to Mission Control.  This assignment helped students reflect upon the era while also staying true to the narrative by considering how they could use their newly acquired knowledge to develop THE BLUEPRINT.

Step 2:  Avatars

Part of the story line is that a team of experts from different facets of society have been chosen to work in teams and embark upon this journey.  I therefore had students create avatars based upon certain classes of people.  Each avatar class has designated skills and expertise, but students then created their own back story for their avatar.  The classes included General, Judge, Senator, Professor, Business Leader, Artist, Scientist, and Citizen. Students could also create a new class if approved.  Complete Avatar Class List Here.


  • Try to develop a narrative that is broad enough to have appeal for the most students, yet not so vague that it is meaningless.  
  • Give students flexibility regarding their avatar and how it will play out in the story.  
  • Although there was enthusiasm to start, make sure to keep tying in the narrative and avatars.  If these components are not included and referred to regularly, many students will lose interest.   I made this mistake by Quarter 3 and had a difficult time getting traction moving forward. 
  • Consider making the narrative/avatar component optional.  For instance, if a student wants to progress through each scenario yet is disinterested in the back story, I would allow it (as I did this year).
  • Have fun with it, be creative, and include the students in the process!


Complete Gamification Series

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gamification Series Part 11: Leaderboards

Going hand-in-hand with the XP grading system is our use of three different Leaderboards.  Since quick feedback and the ability to track progress are major components of gamification, I consider some type of leaderboard essential. (Particularly if you are promoting the spirit of competition in your gamified course.) 

The Individual Leaderboard displays the high XP scores for individual students across classes.  The Team Leaderboard displays the combined scores of students in each team. Finally, the Class Leaderboard pits each class against each other in a head-to-head competition. (Screenshots below)

Although a Leaderboard can be tracked and displayed by simply writing the top scores on a class whiteboard, I was looking for a way to do so more effectively (and efficiently!)   Luckily, I came across Michael Matera's incredible "Gamification Grading Sheet."  The screenshots below demonstrate how the script can be used to enter data and display information for students in various ways.  (If you are looking for another way to create leaderboards, I believe the 3D Gamelab has a leaderboard feature on their platform, so check that out.)  


1. If displaying your leaderboard online, make sure to consider student privacy.  For instance, if it will be a "public" document, make sure real names are not included (ex. nicknames / avatars).  I would suggest keeping the document "private" or only displaying to students within your LMS.  Also, if posting a screenshot (as I did above), make sure to blur out names.

2. Consider only displaying the "top scores" to the entire class.  Although I haven't experienced this at PHS, other teachers have voiced concern that students towards the bottom of the leaderboard may react negatively to the fact that the entire class knows where they are. 

Complete Gamification Series

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Flipped Learning Book Release Webinar Archive Available

For those unable to view last week's Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement Book Release webinar live, the archived event can be viewed (for free) at the following link.  Simply register for the event to view:

It was an inspiring discussion about education with Flipped Learning pioneers Aaron Sams, Jon Bergmann and the other incredible educators who co-authored the new book.  Here is an overview of the hour:

(Flipped Learning Background / Overview of the New Book)
Co-Authors Share Their Stories
Q & A Session
Doug O'Brien (TechSmith)

I hope to see many of you at Flipcon14!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Gamification Series Part 10: Guilds and Team Missions

Another key gamification element has been the development of guilds, or in our case "teams."   As the students progress through the scenario, they will face missions that are either designated "solo" or "team."  (See Screenshot Below)

As you can surmise, Solo missions are completed by each individual student, while Team missions require all members to participate.  The final score on these missions are shared by all members, while also counting towards a separate Team Competition that is tallied on the Team Leaderboard.  (More on leaderboards in the next post.)

A majority of team members must have successfully progressed to this level in order for the team to start.  Those that are way ahead can earn extra XP for assisting teammates who have fallen behind. Those who are still far behind even though a majority of the team has made it to the level will "jump up" to the team level, but must return to where they were in the scenario upon completion.

If that last part sounds a bit confusing, it has been for students as well, especially when we started off. I will certainly revisit this system based upon end of year student feedback and my own observations.

Here are my thoughts regarding the advantages and challenges of teams and Team Missions thus far:

  • Fosters Collaborative Problem Solving
  • Encourages Peer Support and Instruction
  • Competition Among Teams is a Motivating Factor for Most Students 

  • Pacing
    • What happens when some students persistently fall behind?  
    • Does this penalize others in the Team if they don't reach that mission?
  • Groupings
    • By ability?  Interest?  Randomly?
  • Should TEAM XP be including in the grading system

Although some tinkering is needed to make this system work more seamlessly, I believe that the advantages far outweigh the challenges.


Complete Gamification Series

Monday, May 12, 2014

Gamification Series Part 9: XP & Grades by Attrition

First, any transition into mastery (or competency-based) learning turns the traditional grading method on its head.  Since our gamified course is rooted in mastery learning, how to grade students became a central question that I needed to address.

CHANGE # 1  From Average to XP Total

Instead of averaging assessments throughout the unit, each student continuously accumulates points, or XP, until their "final score."

Why?  Well, it seems that students are more motivated when they witness their score going up and up. Think about it from a students' perspective.  If you have a 95% average, and you successfully demonstrate mastery of the next objective with a 90%, you are rewarded with a LOWER average. Some reward.

Here is a screenshot of the XP scale that we used in Scenario 1 with it's corresponding grade.

There was no magic formula when creating this.  I simply determined how many XP points were needed to demonstrate basic mastery of each objective (mission).  This minimum total was the C range. I then added up the maximum XP available and made that the A+ range.   I know this is not a perfect system, but it is iteration #1 that I hope to keep improving upon. 

CHANGE #2  Grading Both Mastery & Progress

How do I determine a students' grade when report cards come out?  I've developed a system that takes both Mastery and Progress into consideration.

Mastery Grade

This reflects a students grade on each objective.  These grades are then averaged and weighted at 50%.
Objectives that students do not get to are not entered as a 0.   That is where the Progress grades comes into play.

Progress Grade

This is the score reflected in the student's end of unit XP total (see chart above).   This is also weighted at 50%.

Student A demonstrates mastery of the first 6 objectives with flying colors and earns a Mastery Grade of 100%.  This student, however, did not complete the final 2 objectives and only earned 600 XP (see chart above).  This correlates to Progress Grade of 80%.   Student A's report card grade is then a 90%.


1. Do not be hesitant to create high XP totals for all assignments.  Creating assignments worth 120 XP are more motivating that those worth 5.  Again, it may seem trivial, but somehow it works. 

2.  Assign XP for each step of complex tasks.  If it will take an entire week for a student to earn XP, consider breaking it up into steps that provide more frequent feedback and positive reinforcement. 

3. BONUS XP challenges are a big hit.  For example, use this to bring in real-world situations or push students thinking into new realms. 

4.  If you think there are major issues with this grading system, tinker with it until you are comfortable.  Also please share your suggestions regarding how it can be improved!


Complete Gamification Series

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Release Event on 5/14 - Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement

Next Wednesday (5/14) at 4pm EST, I will be joining a session hosted by Jon Bergmann, Aaron Sams and other incredible co-authors of the upcoming book Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement.

We will be discussing the transformation from Flipped Classrooms to Flipped Learning as well as key ways that each of us effectively made this transition with our students.  There will also be a live Q&A session to follow.

Registration Info Here

I hope that many of you will be able to join us, and if you have any questions or comments in the meantime, please let me know!