Tuesday, February 18, 2014

XP and ME

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


Chase Campbell said...

Dr. Wilde,

I think you bring up a lot of excellent points in this post. Within the LMS used in my Credit Recovery class students can earn in-system "points" which they can use to customize their screen, name and personalize aspects of the LMS. I would have thought this a minor bell & whistle save for the fact that it seems to actually excite some of my most difficult learners.

The idea of point accumulation leading to greater risk-taking (and possibly to more "failure" but therefore more learning) is well-thought out and seems to be true thus far for our class. I know for myself I am always trying to look for means to improve my XP and level up. If I were to receive some boss armor I would be even more inclined to do so!

George Dale said...

Dr. Wilde,

I like the idea of going up rather than down as a student proceeds in a course. Most students are so used to the standard start at 100. In fact I have seen instructors who have set their grade book to display moving up and students became quite agitated.

The idea of reward is so much more appealing in Bloom's view as opposed to Skinner's.

Andrew Petagna said...

Hey, I think it matters on the student entirely. Some may be more comfortable top down, some bottom up. Of course, over time, we'll find one a little better than the other, but it still would help some students by changing. What I am confused about, however, is how many experience points translate towards what letter grade?

Muffle Wumpus said...

I've enjoyed this aspect of the class very much so far, and reading your rationale makes me understand better why. But, while I like the idea of use XP in a class, I think Andrew brings up a valid concern. In this context at least, we are eventually going to be assigned a letter grade. So it's hard not to think of the XP as points toward a goal that we must get as close to as possible. I still think it may be as good a test of the system as possible, given the institutional constraints.

Two other concerns have occurred to me about this. First, it seems like it might be difficult to settle on a standard set of criteria for assigning points (or at least they are more or less opaque to us players). Since it's up to the DM (or in this case, the instructor:) it could run the risk of seeming like an arbitrary exercise of power. But then grades have probably always had the same problem, and even thinking back to my time as an adolescent gamer I seem to remember that the cruelest DMs always had to concede that a creative solution to a problem merited more substantial XP than merely slaying an orc in the standard manner.

The second issue I've been thinking about is the aspect of competition that an XP system introduces. This may just be a consequence of everyone's status being viewable by the whole class at all times. Again, if it were regular grades it might be the same. You do mention in your post that XP don't actually give you anything besides a boost in status, whereas in role-playing games, you get to increase your powers and get more stuff to build you character with, and often in video games, you can "unlock" the next level. Of course, most video games can't really reward fail-to-learn acts of creativity.

Teresa Dobler said...

I had never considered before the idea that the "traditional" grading system was based solely on the concept of losing points away from an A. But I too have noted to my students "this is a new quarter, you all have As again". I think that, within a mastery learning environment, you are right that students would not be as afraid to think creatively and try something a little more risky.

wildejk said...

Chase, George, Andrew, Muffle and Teresa, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I would like to respond to some important concerns you have raised.

First I agree with Andrew that it depends on individual students as to which method they might prefer and (also) on how well the instructor implements either.

Andrew also asks about how many points you need to get an A. This is an interesting question with a lot of potentially different answers. In this course you need 8500 XP to pass. I am not making distinctions between As and Bs. Because you don't know how we are getting to 8500, I am giving you smaller weekly targets and letting you know if you are falling behind.

While a grade is still required, I think that any system that avoids averaging and allows students to add to their grade (plus-based) is an improvement to our current traditional loss-based system. You don't need XP to provide additional or alternative assignments for those "do poorly" so that they can still demonstrate mastery and get an good grade.

Muffle asks about how to make the criterion for success standard and visible to learners. This is also very interesting and important. I am thinking about two different types of assignments. One is the type that if you do it, you get credit. The doing it is itself the definition of success. One example of this is making a couch in Jokaydia. If you build a couch and submit it according to the guidelines, you have met the criterion. Other assignments have a quality component that is not easily discernible. This is true with XP or traditional grades. Having standard rubrics for things like discussion posts, can reduce the arbitrary nature of grading. My approach is, if you do it and I don't think it meets minimum requirements for success, I tell you and you don't get XP until you meet the requirements. Failure doesn't count, only success.

I am still experimenting and thinking through all of this. There is still a lot of arbitrary :) But I hope that through my experimentation (on you) I will develop a system that I can translate to my other courses. Thanks so much for your feedback.

Heather Kurto said...

These are great comments on a subject that seems radical but simple. I feel like a professional student. I have to say that I love this class, but not knowing my grade makes me anxious. I complete the list of assignments, which I understand is its own reward, but I am looking for validation from the instructor. I feel that if there is not validation then my work is invisible. I think this is why I have a hard time with blogging. I do it for my own reflection, but sometimes a comment makes it that much better.

Lourdes Torres said...

The fact that we begin with 0 XP makes me feel like I am in a competition to earn as many points as possible. I feel that if I have less points then other students, I a need to go on and beyond to catch up to them. Having so many experienced gamers in this class and seeing their high XP just motivates me to learn as much as possible.

cfong205 said...

This blog has given me a lot to think about. In my classes, every semester students begin with an ‘A’ and I tell them on the first day that this is so because I believe in them. It never occurred to me that by doing this I was putting creativity and risk-taking in handcuffs.
Currently, after reading this blog and experiencing the use of XP in our course, I decided to grade student participation in the course blog and give them XP for completing tasks, helping each other, taking risks and posting about their experience. Thus far, participation has increased considerably and there is more collaboration in the class as students try to help each other to earn XP. I will continue to look out for the “significant change” that I believe is already taking place. At the end I will be able to compare the effect of the change in the grading criteria by comparing the results of this semester to previous semesters, where a blog was set up for students to collaborate with each other without rewards for their contributions. These are all face-to-face classes and the blog is set up for students to ask questions and post answers “ ‘just-in-time’ and ‘on demand’ “.

Daniel Seiden said...

Funny that I didn't know what XP stood for until I read this! It really makes sense. Students, I find, have a hard time reflecting on what they learned in a given day. How did you earn your XP? Might be a better question.

Andrea said...

Fascinating. Reading this post has made me realize my brain already worked in XP mode. I have never assumed an A or 100 at the start of the course. For me it has always been about earning points through assignments whether those points were explicit or part of the overall letter grading scheme. I am always keeping a mental tally of points needed to get the desired outcome (grade or otherwise).

Maybe its late in life to have this realization, but this explains why some people are so personally offended at a low grade. If they view it as 'taking away' and do not separate rational critique of performance from personal affront it would be upsetting to get anything less than an A. Interesting and contrary to my world view.

I have been enjoying earning XP in the Immersive Envir. class so far and believe that is because it plays to my naturally math oriented grading schema.


Pandora Carraway said...

Dr. Wilde,

I believe that you brought up some interesting points in regards to XP. I agree that students are more likely to want to take risks in the hopes of gaining extra points since if they do not complete something correctly, they are not going to get harmed grade wise.

The Reed Family Adventures said...

Dr Wilde,

What a great idea. I have never had a teacher use XP points before, or the idea of starting at 0 without being able to go any lower. When a teacher says everyone starts out the semester with an A, I have always thought of that move with Michelle Pfeiffer, called Dangerous Minds, as she goes on to tell them "All you have to do is keep it". That seemed to motivate her students and lift them up, and I must be honest, I used that phrase with my class a time or two. But keeping it can prove quite a challenge.

These last few years I have been focusing on encouraging my students to be risk takers and think outside the box. This is part of 21st century learning and something that more and more of my students are having trouble with. I love how the XP points don't penalize that for them and foster creativity in solving problems instead of going the safe route. I would like to try this idea with my class sometime, but would have to figure out how to get the parents onboard. They are alway wary of things that are different than how they learned in school.

Tara Reed

allyson kaczmarek said...

Dr. Wilde,
I read your post the comments “down under”; many good points were made and nicely communicated at the educator level of dissection. My point of reference comes from being an older student working towards an advance degree after spending years in the performance-based reality of delivering a product within the corporate environment. From my position the frustration I experience from professors is that even with the understanding of what it takes to make the A, in the end the professor has the control to alter to the rules of engagement; whether through using a curve or altering rules after the fact. Then there is the professor just not liking you…so is there real credence in what an A means anyway?

From another angle, learning ultimately is a personal choice – you choose your degree, you choose to study, you choose your focus and the current education trend seems to be swinging into the notion of personal choice combined with opportunity to learn in the method that works best for you. I firmly approve of this direction with the following reason; the goal of education is to be able to take the knowledge and do something with it. If I am only regurgitating and route memorizing I have not gained anything hence why employers state that new graduates do not know how to perform anything. Therefore XP’s combined with overarching high level goals is real world learning (another trend in our educational world) which provides for the opportunity to learn in your individual fashion, working towards your focus but still understanding what is expected through presenting the end goal up front; just not the path. For those reasons, I think that XP and moving up works at motivating even the most reluctant student combined with teacher mentoring and enthusiasm.

Arnaldo Robles said...

Dr. Wilde,

I read your post from the eyes of an instructor, not a student, and I must say the "upside down" approach is AMAZING! I never actually realized that starting with 0 XP was motivating me to do things because of my urge to raise my points. This immediately got me thinking how can I apply this type of grading system into my own Spanish course that I teach. I say this, because just like you might have students who pushback and resist the new immersive online environment, I also run into the same problem with my own students who aren't used to being immersed in the language. I feel students are very afraid of failing at anything, especially infront of other classmates, so the way you conduct XP's is a great way to allow students to make mistakes and have them learn from them.

nhwlsn said...

Dr. Wilde and others,

A lot of interesting commentary here. The initial post and reactions certainly explore this idea that "traditional grading" certainly does counter-intuitive things to motivation. I completely agree with the idea that creativity is stifled if we are concerned with maintaining a grade rather than "earning one." Other things pointed out with traditional grading that are problematic include bias, arbitration, and grade curving.

Moreover, I have to agree with Muffle Wumpus that an XP system introduces a competition aspect to requirements that may be good but, like traditional grading, has unforeseen side effects. For instance, I tried a XP system for an orientation class I was teaching but also my Resident Assistants with their position responsibilities. The XP system certainly allowed me to offer multiple choices for how they would get XP (a sense of agency in these decisions), but the downside in both instances is that they began to see their assignments and/or residents as "points." For the RAs and their service to residents, they began to see their residents as potential XP; an intrinsic motivation had become extrinsic and dehumanized. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this "othering" is that I originally introduced the XP system to allow RAs to get "credit" for the work they were doing but wasn't "counted" in their requirements (programming and desk hours were all that really counted in their contract, however a lot of their position was about interacting and supporting residents which was not reflected in the minimum standards). What I did not expect was that what once came naturally now felt prescribed - instead of alleviating pressure and freeing them to do what worked for their specific residents, they started to view these informal interactions as required.

Raymond Boss said...

I particularly like the concept of a goal- and growth-based mindset that the XP system encourages. Starting at 0 is definitely more representative of the learning process than "maintaining an A".

I'm trying to think of ways to integrate this sort of approach into an environment where administrators specify that 10%+ of students grades needs to be homework, 20%+ quizzes, etc. It could definitely be done, but some conversion process would need to be developed.

Sherri Lattimer said...

I think XP and leveling up also help with the issue of persistence. It is very easy in an online environment to feel like you're falling behind. I think it really helps to see where you fall in terms of each module's experience points. It is a real motivator when you start falling behind and feel you need to catch up. I think the diversity of the assignments would allow anyone to earn XP's regardless of technological adeptness. I think the XP's are a direct equivalent to effort and time investment. After all, this is not a class in VR adeptness, but in the application of these types of environments and has invited us to step out of our comfort zones and try something new.

Melissa Mahadeo said...

Dr. Wilde,

This makes so much sense and definitely applies to me! In the beginning of each semester, I always find myself looking at the grade breakdown and calculating the amount of points I can "lose" while still keeping the grade I am aiming for. This is a double edged sword for me. On one hand, it motivates me to continue to do well, but on the other hand, every time I lose points, or if I fall below my initial threshold, I lose said motivation.

In this course, I find myself continually motivated because I know that I am in control of the amount of points I gain or don't gain. With your method, I know that I can meet (and even excel past) my guidelines as long as I put in the time and effort to do so.

David Franklin said...

Professor Wilde,

I really like your point about starting from 0% vs. 100%. I think that starting from zero can make students feel that they really have to make an effort to get to their goal XP, perhaps by taking risks, as you suggested. In most classes, I think, the focus is not on doing well but on not screwing up!


Michael Whitford said...

I like that we start with 0 and work our way up instead of down because it lowers the fear of failure. While I think this is a great alternative to education I also echo my peers when I think of the letter grade looming at the end of the course. Its difficult to forget that eventually I will be assigned a grade depending on the points I receive but it is nice to know that I have opportunities to make up those points.
I think this is a better system than a traditional classroom simply because it doesn't discourage students when they fail. I remember getting an 80 in the class and feeling bad because there would be few chances to boost my grade outside of extra credit. We shouldn't punish students for mistakes.

Jennifer Legzdin said...

Dr. Wilde,

What a different type of approach to grading than the traditional top-down. I like the idea of working towards a goal versus maintaining one.
In terms of the "feeling" that I have when I see my XP compared to everyone else-motivated! I think that knowing my XP is a great indicator that I need to get working!
Jen Legzdin

Meghan Hammer said...

I definitely like this approach of earning XP as grading because it allows the student range of how they can earn their XP. I feel like the majority of the courses that I have taken through the CDIT program follow a similar approach to grading where you have to earn a certain amount of points throughout the course. Knowing how much each assignment is worth could determine the amount of effort a student puts forth in completing the assignment to ensure that they earn all of the points.
Having everyone's XP levels on a spreadsheet could definitely create friendly competition. I frequently find myself comparing my number with others and then look at where I can earn some more because I don't want to fall too far behind.