XP, or experience points, are touted as one of the innovations possible when gamifying instruction. It isn't a new concept. Systems of reward are a hallmark of shaping learned behavior in the behaviorist approach to teaching and training. Many of us raise our eyebrows at the notion of handing out M&Ms every time a learner takes a tiny step toward our learning goals. And from the learner's point of view what good is an XP? It isn't even made of chocolate.
But there is something to this XP thing that I want to explore.
For many of us seeing our XP stack up and our rank change is compelling for no apparent reason. Especially when the accumulation of XP can lead to better virtual (non-existent) equipment, access to virtual (non-existent) places to perform virtually harder (non-existent) missions. I quip but when we are in a game or a virtual world the virtual (non-existent) becomes very important and real.
Aside from our pleasure at receiving virtual tokens for our successes, there are more pedagogically significant reasons for employing XP meaningfully. Sure, engagement is important, but XP can also causes us to think radically about assessment and risk taking. XP turns our usual approach to both Assessment and Risk taking upside down.
Assessment and motivation.
Ordinarily a learner begins class with an A, 100. Everything she does from that first day on has the chance of maintaining her A or reducing this starting grade to 99, then 98, then 97. Alternatively, a learner who receives XP for her work, starts with 0 xp. Everything she does from that first day on has the chance of either maintaining her 0 or increasing her XP to 1, then 2, then 3. In other words in the traditional model there is no where to go but down. Who came up with that?
Assessment and risk taking.
When everything you do has the chance of reducing your 100, the safest course of action is to, err, play it safe. This assessment approach encourages learners to figure out what won't cause them to lose. Thinking creatively is risky. On the other hand when XP are at stake, trying anything is better than doing nothing. Failure doesn't take away points. So risk taking is valued in an XP system.
What's in a name?
It is not important that this upside down approach occur within the context of "gamification" strategies or even that one uses the words experience points or XP. The value of XP as it is used in games is that it reminds us that assessment doesn't have to take the traditional form. The significant change occurs when we base our assessments on learners successes rather than on their failures. And this isn't a new idea either. Just as rewards in learning have their earliest appearance in BF Skinners work, the idea of assessing success is a hallmark of mastery learning introduced to us by Benjamin Bloom in 1971.
_Bloom, B. S. (1971). Mastery learning. In J. H. Block (Ed.), Mastery learning: Theory and practice(pp. 47–63). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
_Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan