Grades: Gamification, ABI, & PBL

Thoughts on learning, grading, gamification, and motivation from a n00b. I'm just wrestling with these ideas. Conversation is more than welcome.

Games & Gamification: Addictive vs. Additive 

When the concept of Gamification is mentioned to most teachers, the reaction is neutral at best. I'm sure many people are visualizing trying to turn their subject matter, which they take very seriously, into something resembling Dungeons & Dragons meets Angry Birds. I'm not saying that's good bad or indifferent (See my earlier posts on games). There are others who would (legitimately so) argue that great games function a lot like great teaching. Therefore, Gamification is just a gimmick and really just good teaching. For an example, see the below graphs on "Flow" (a key concept in game design) and Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (educational psychology).

flow zone
Flow: A key Concept in Game Design Zone of Proximal Development: A key concept in scope & Sequence

Despite your thoughts on these issues, there's one area where games consistently kick our butts as educators, and it's not graphics. I would argue that games would be so darn addictive if they weren't additive. We wouldn't play so consistently and with such devotion if we weren't getting anywhere.

Leveling up: Games are Additive and Grading is Subtractive. 

Have you heard of leveling up? Your students have. For the newbies, novices and even the hapless n00bs, here's the 411 on Leveling up.

In today’s immersive multi-player games, you play a character (often represented by an avatar). That character typically begins in a state of ignorance, innocence, and overall inexperience. As you experience things in the game, work at tasks given to you by mentors within the game, and seek knowledge / make discoveries in the game your character becomes learned, savvy, and experienced. This process is reflected by leveling up (often making your avatar more awesome). If you're an educator, this concept should sound a lot like how you envision your classroom. Unfortunately, this vision of our classrooms is entirely romantic, wrong, and ridiculous. Our students see it differently...

You see, in public school at least, we have grades. Grades are not additive. They are subtractive. No matter what rhetoric you wrap it in, grades are punitive and demotivating to most students. Think about it. At the start of the marking period, most of us set up our electronic grade books. We enter categories, weights, and assignments. Our student rosters are listed down the left hand side. Down the right, we either see a black space or 100%. Once our students receive scores for their first graded assignment, the right most column may contain three to five one hundred percents. This tends to decrease further, the more assignments that are entered. Basically, every new challenge is an opportunity to lose more points. One could easily look at our class in the following light: "If I just never showed up, I would be better off."

In games, you are constantly rewarded for your work. Further, failure is only temporary. Never have I had a game tell me that I've failed so spectacularly that I may not re-start or re-spawn. This explains why gamification is so successful. This is why so many families, couples, companies and classrooms have had such success with things like Chore Wars, which gives you an avatar and level-ups for completing menial tasks.

Grades, Intrinsic motivation, High Stakes and not giving a darn...

Okay, admittedly, some of our students get really stoked about having good grades and somewhat upset and depressed about having bad ones. For now, let's skip the argument about whether or not that's a good thing**. The point is, as students get older, grades are used as a stick far more often than a carrot, and neither is very useful for prepping kids for the 21st Century world. How often, in a state of exasperation, have you said something similar to the following statements to your class or individual students?
  • "You need to do X or you'll fail".
  • "Anyone who fails to do X on Y, will receive a zero."
  • "That's fine. You can sit there and do nothing, but you'll fail."
  • "If you want to pass my class, you will X."
In my experience, the students who need me the most don't give a darn whether they get an "A" or an "F" by the time they reach me in middle school. Threatening these kids with arbitrary letters is meaningless. Let's not even talk about "high stakes" assessments. Don't kid yourselves, teachers, administrators, and politicians, these students aren't stupid. They know exactly who faces "high stakes" for these assessments, and it's not them.

Okay, so if you haven't seen the following two videos, you owe it to yourself to watch them. If you don't have time, here's the run-down:
  • Dan Pink argues that extrinsic motivators (eg: Grades / High Stakes Assessments) won't prepare us to solve 21st Century problems.
  • Jane McGonigal argues that games will.

ABI Grading System

So if punishing and rewarding results is a bad system for creativity and schools require a grade, then how do I handle this in a class that is all about creativity, critical thinking, collaboration & communication? How, in fact, do I reward? I like to provide incentives or incentivize things that I believe help the creative process such as self-reflection, trying new things, going above and beyond the suggested ideas for each project, rather than success or failure. Further, I like to remove the option of failure as much as I possibly can. In reality, I teach in a public school. We teach in batches. We give grades. In other words, I have kids for a finite period of time, whether they're developmentally ready for what I have, and I have to give them a grade when they leave. In fact, I just spent my morning populating my electronic grade book. How do I jive what I'm wrestling with here with what I have to do as part of my professional responsibility?

A few years ago, my Principal put the following article in my mailbox:

“Trying Out a Different Idea: The ABI Grading System” by Eileen Dame in Middle Ground, October 2008 (Vol. 12, #2, p. 19-20), no e-link available; Dame can be reached at (behind a pay wall).*

The system essentially works like this.
  • A = 90%+ (Above and Beyond) - Do 100% of what you're asked to do, and more. Successfully demonstrate all key skills, and find new ways to apply them. Complete extra credit. Add awesomeness to your projects.
  • B = 85% (the Basics) - Do 100% of what you're asked to do. Successfully demonstrate all key skills. 
  • I = Incomplete (not 0) - You haven't done 100% of what you were asked to do, or you have not successfully demonstrated key skills. You and I will spend a lot of time together until you do. 
Key points to make this system successful:
  1. Only students who do 100% of what they're asked to do are eligible to go for the A.
  2. Students are not permitted to fail. Failure is a cop-out. An "I" is not just another name for an "F" in the grade book. Kids are smart. They'll see right through that. We must be relentless in tracking these kids until that Grade is an 85%. "I haven't seen you demonstrate X, yet. Are you ready to show me that you can do that today?"
  3. There are no C or D grades. I'm not here to rate a performance. I'm here to teach. 100% of what I assign should be valuable and therefore worth doing.
  4. Late work gets an 85; end of story. Don't rant to me about the "real world" and "deadlines" and "teaching responsibility"***. Let's start by teaching that finishing stuff has real value.   
Sure, this is not exactly leveling up. It is however working splendidly for my purposes thus far. Until the school allows me to designate students as level 22 tech-warrior first-class, as opposed to a student who received a 94%, I shall probably use some permutation of this system. It does allow me to make my grades more additive. It does encourage "bonus quests" and "power-ups" (or whatever you want to call going above and beyond).

A Project Based Learning Example

My course, Computer Information Technology, is skill-focused. Students either demonstrate the computer skills or they don't. Essentially, I want everyone to demonstrate the skills, period. I've approached my class with the mission to make life more simple, productive, and beautiful through the application of technology. I feel that it is more engaging for students to do this while working on challenging and engaging projects that are interesting and of value to them. Currently, my students are working on ten different projects. I allow students to go above and beyond by:
  • Reflecting on their process and the application of the skills they're learning through blogging or vlogging.
  • Providing useful feedback for fellow students through Edmodo, Blog comments, reviews on Gamestar Mechanic, etc.
  • Providing technical assistance via Edmodo, with screenshots and / or links. 

Not perfect

Like any patch over something that is obviously broken, this is not perfect. I'm still left with a lot of questions and conundrums. For example:
  • What do I do with the rare kids who consistently and tenaciously refuse to complete things and are left with incomplete assignments at the end of the marking period?
  • How do I get my scoring system to reflect Flow, providing more challenge and independence as students skill level increases while providing the consistency that is expected of me?
  • When my electronic grade book only recognizes / reports percentage grades, Exemptions, and Missing (0.00%), how do i accurately reflect what is happening in my class on progress reports?
Again, I'm just wrestling through these concepts. Please comment. Conversation is encouraged.


*I am happy to share. Just send me a request.
**More about grades here, here, & here.
***PS: How many times have you needed an extension on paperwork from your Principal (Just sayin')?


  1. Yeah and even the United States Federal Government gives you an extra half a year to complete your tax return.....

    1. I'm going to use that in conversation with colleagues! Thanks.

  2. Love the charts, and your sharing of many ideas here. Thanks.


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