Motivating Learning Beyond Grades

Motivating Learning Beyond Grades


Education in the United States is in dark times. Although we are one of the richest nations in the world, based upon international testing, our 9th graders are 28th in math, 22nd in science, and 18th in reading. Of course standardized testing as a measurement receives its fare share of criticism, but an even more insidious culprit in America’s classrooms isn’t children’s time watching TV or playing video games. It is America’s dependence upon grades.

Grades are simply an outdated game mechanic.

When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, whether numbers or letters, to indicate scholastic attainment of the pupils or students in these institutions, and when we remember how very great stress is laid by teachers and pupils alike upon these marks as real measures or indicators of attainment, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking system.

This was written in the preface to a book written by a E. Finkelstein, a Cornell master’s student. It was written in 1913. Why are grades still one of the central pillars of our education system even if they have been dependent upon “blind faith” for over a century?

On a basic level, it’s been assumed that there is no better way to keep track of and, frankly, quantify students. In addition grades give feedback to students and serve as a strong, extrinsic motivation for students to improve.

Gamification has the potential to solve both of these problems by providing new tools and new game mechanics. These mechanics can be more closely tied to the intrinsic benefits of education and will motivate students to engage with the education system and subsequently be prepared to solve today’s problems.

According to a recent study headed by Roland Fryer of Harvard’s economics department, directly paying for good study habits can motivate students to achieve better results. One important note is that it doesn’t work just to pay a student based upon final grades or a career GPA. Small positive actions like attending class or completing assignments must be rewarded.

KhanAcademy is a great example of a potential future for education.

In some of the criticisms surrounding Fryer’s research (via comments on NPR), people ask “why don’t parents just provide the motivations for the students by creating a supportive environment”? Many parents simply do not know how to create a supportive learning environment. John List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago is just beginning a study comparing training parents in how to motivate children to simply educating students. This research demonstrates that the gap between work and achievement is too wide and many do not know how to cross it. Gamification can help to build that bridge.

While money can work for some students in the short term, it can often have negative affects in others. By following the SAPS model we know that cash is amongst the weaker motivators. Creating a gamified system with points, we can achieve better results. As an example, Eric Rosenberg, the founder of a social enterprise called Healthy Money, already uses “virtual currencies” to great effect within the classroom.

A secondary benefit to developing software frameworks around education is that we can utilize A/B testing, metrics and analytics to continuously improve education systems. To quote from Oliver Staley’s article on Professor List,

List says too many decisions in fields from education to business to philanthropy are made without any scientific basis. Without experimenting, you can’t evaluate whether a program is effective, he says.

“We need hundreds of experiments going on at once all over the country,” he says. “Then we can understand what works and what doesn’t.”

As long we continuously keep the end goal of better education in mind, incremental steps can be altered and evolved to better achieve the mission. Currently much of this testing takes place on a long time frame, through heavily funded studies, and within University Laboratory Schools, but by maintaining the tradition of iteration and testing used by the tech industry, we can apply it to designing better education systems.

Quest2Learn is taking games in education out of the digital space and into brick-and-mortar schools.

Some programs are leading the way in gamified education. Quest2Learn is a 6th-12th grade school in New York that from a grant by the Institute of Play has designed an entire curriculum that use games to approach learning about complex systems. KhanAcademy is a nonprofit educational organization that boasts support from the Bil and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google’s 10^100 program. KhanAcademy is mainly an online education site that uses extensive gamified elements to keep students engaged and encouraged to complete courses.

Education in America is in dark times, but it is about to enter a new renaissance where students, teachers, and parents are brought together by new software and new systems. Gamification has a place in realizing this goal.