Guest Blog: Using Game Mechanics to Fix the Grading System and Motivate Students

March 16, 2011 at 5:13 am 5 comments

NOTE: This guest blog was written by my 17-year-old son, who is a high school junior. He plans on majoring in game design in college, and we are constantly talking about how education can be improved by incorporating elements of game design. He wrote a guest blog for me last year on video games in education.  Please leave feedback by commenting on the post – we’d both love to hear what you have to say. Enjoy!

Using Game Mechanics to Fix the Grading System and Motivate Students

                There are two halves to a good education: one is learning, but equally important is the motivation one needs to learn. Boards have been reforming schools, teachers have been changing the way they teach, and technology is playing a more important role in the classroom in hopes of creating a better learning experience. I have seen little to no effort put forth to reform how students can be motivated to take advantage of these improvements. We currently use the standard A B C D F grading system, which, when examined with the eye of a game designer (masters of motivation), fails the students whom it is literally failing.

                The current grading system thrives on fear of failure, on punishment. Throughout a class, students do all that they can to stay afloat in the upper levels of the grading chart (A B C). But once you fall into the water, it is nearly impossible to get back to the surface. The students above water take note as these students completely give up all motivation, letting themselves sink to the bottom without a struggle. This is how a majority of our students think. They do the minimal effort required to not fail, when the system should motivate students to do all that they can to learn the material and do the work required to learn the material. But to do that, we need to look at the classroom differently.

                We need to look at the classroom as a metagame, which is pretty much a game we throw on top of something that may or not be a game in order to motivate people to do something. We see metagames everywhere. If you have ever played Farmville or Foursquare, been involved in scouts or karate, or taken part in the reward systems run by stores, airlines, or hotel chains, than you have played a metagame. The formula for a metagame: Actions = Feedback + Rewards. Buying ten lattes gets you one free latte. Flying fifty thousand miles gets you a free plane trip. Completing certain tasks in scouts gets you badges, and getting certain badges gets you a new ranking, which comes with its own rewards. This is a great system for motivating people, but why does it work? All games, including these metagames, use game mechanics, or strategies game designers use to manipulate human behavior (fundamental list of game mechanics: We need to use these game mechanics to transform our grading system into a reward system.

                A basic rule of game design: the user should always know exactly what will come about in reaction to his/her actions. For example: if I buy fifteen  drinks at Starbucks, I get one free – with this rule, there is no doubt in my mind as to what will happen if I buy fifteen drinks at Starbucks. Students should always know what rewards lie in store for completing homework, doing well on a test, etc. For this reason (among many), curves destroy the motivation of most students. Students being graded by a curve are unsure about how much they need to study in order to get their desired reward.

                The point/reward system found in games such as Farmville works very well as a grading system. Students would be given a packet at the beginning of each unit, outlining due dates for all homework assignments and projects, as well as test and quiz dates. In addition to these dates, the packet would detail exactly how many points could be rewarded for each assignment, for each action.

Students would spend the year doing assignments and taking tests, collecting points. After every unit, each student sees the number of points he/she has collected so far in the year. The teacher should know exactly how many points he/she will offer in the year. The percentage of points the student has out of the total number of possible points for the year yields the student’s level. If a student has 246 points, and the class is going to be out of 1000 points, that is 24.6%, or level 24 (out of 100 possible levels). Instead of the student minimally rising or drastically falling throughout the year, he/she is continually improving, increasing his/her points the entire year (the students cannot go down). After every unit, when the students are given their stats, a set of minimum levels should be announced, projecting what scores are on track for which grades. At the end of the year, the students will be given a standard letter grade depending on their level (or percent of points).

This system is based solely off reward, and will not demotivate students by punishing them. A student in this system will do more homework assignments and spend more time preparing for tests because of the points mechanic and levels mechanic. And this is not the end. Teachers can go as far as they are willing with this system, adding more game mechanics to motivate students as much as possible.

Rewarding achievements (achievements mechanic) can also motivate students. If you give students badges for completing certain things beyond the usual, like completing every possible homework assignment, or for improving his/her test score from one chapter to the next by ten percent, or for getting an A on every quiz in a chapter, they will be even more motivated to work hard. These can come in the form of badges or stickers and usually motivate a younger audience, but for older students, bonuses can be more effective.

Bonuses (see bonuses mechanic) can be awarded for certain situations when students go beyond the usual to positively impact their behavior. Rewarding bonuses (no matter how small/big) every time someone asks a deep question based on the material leads to more alert, thinking students. Rewarding bonuses to students who find an alternate way of solving a problem leads to more critical thinking. Bonuses are another powerful way to motivate students. Teachers can use bonuses like these and tailor them specifically to improve certain aspects that certain classes lack.

There are many more game mechanics. Another game mechanic used frequently in the classroom is the Community Collaboration mechanic, in which a group works to solve a problem or do something together. Quests (see quest mechanic), or a series of tasks, also motivate students. A quest could force students to solve a riddle or a problem, giving them a clue and leading them somewhere if they use what they have learned (great for history classes). Leaderboards of the top 10 students (or of the whole class, if showing it would not demotivate students who are way behind) motivate students to work harder, rather than motivating them to work less, a result of the curve, as they do not know what will result of their studying and they may not have a chance of doing well compared to others.

Teachers need to step out of their traditional roles of formal educators and into a new role of a game designer. Teachers should carefully design their class, not just their lessons, to motivate students using game mechanics. By morphing the grading system into a reward system incorporating many other game mechanics in the classroom, students can and will perform better without any change in regards to how you teach them.

So, what do you think? Please leave your feedback as a comment, or drop me a line through the contact page on my website. If you have any questions, or if you have ideas for topics that you would like to hear about from the perspective of a high school student, just let us know.



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Flipping the Class & Khan, Part 2 So, I was at ICTCM this weekend … Help Wanted?

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Diane Bauman  |  March 16, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Wow – that is really some food for thought. I love the idea of incorporating the quests..not sure how that would work, but I’ll certainly think on it.

    I’ve slowly been going over into the points system that he outlines….I still use percents and averages, but when student comes to me about their grade, we talk totals…”Ok you’ll need 417 points at the end of the semester to get a D, 487 for a C, etc”. I can see that this means more to a student than just a percent…so I might use that in class in the future.

    Good ideas!

  • 2. Colin Beveridge  |  March 16, 2011 at 5:52 am

    Great post! Should be required reading for teachers everywhere 🙂

  • 3. Kari  |  March 16, 2011 at 6:43 am

    I love this idea! I noticed in my own life how the rewards system motivated me and wondered how I could use it as a teacher, but I didn’t make the connections George’s son does for us here. Thank you, and I will be using this!

    I believe I can manage the points system from my own experience. Probably achievements and bonuses too. However, not being a game player of this sort, I would love to see a follow-up post or more info about how other teachers incorporate the quest mechanic or turn group work into a community collaboration mechanic.

    Thanks again – I really appreciate the ideas and perspective of one closer to (some of) my students!

  • 4. Ryan  |  March 16, 2011 at 8:05 am


    As a game developer myself, I’m glad to see that you’re interested in game design, and furthermore trying to apply it to education! Keep it up! I have a couple comments that might help you clarify your ideas a little bit better.

    First, I think your definition of metagame is a little vague and doesn’t quite capture the main idea. The key component to metagaming is to step outside the realm of the game and use external factors to influence the outcome. The example of “buy 10 lattes and get one free” isn’t a metagame in itself, it’s just a game rule. Now, suppose you work at an office and offer to buy coffee for 10 of your coworkers with the knowledge that yours, the 11th, will be free. Here you’re using outside factors (your coworkers) to take advantage of a game rule (buy 10 get 1 free), and can exploit it to get your coffee for free all the time! That’s an example of metagaming — using factors external to the game to alter the outcome of the game.

    Metagaming already happens in the existing school system in a variety of different ways. Students might make up excuses for turning in late assignments, complain to the principal that an assignment wasn’t graded fairly, copy off one another, store notes in a graphing calculator, or a variety of other “cheats”. In this regard, metagaming is something teachers generally try to discourage because allows a loophole for students to earn high grades without doing all the hard work. However, in some special situations metagaming can be an indicator of good critical thinking skills.

    Another thing I think you should consider is that many of these game mechanics are intended for use in a different context. In general, the process of playing a game is intrinsically rewarding. Is the same true for school? Achievements and bonuses tend to work because they are an added reward on top of an already rewarding experience. In school, often the reward comes at the end in the form of a degree or diploma. If the school experience isn’t rewarding on its own, then are these mechanics still going to be as effective? Just something to think about.

  • 5. Janet Evert  |  March 17, 2011 at 5:24 am

    This is an interesting concept.
    I already use MathXL in a developmental Algebra course and think that them being able to see their grade in the course at all times does help. I always have them determine their midterm grade by seeing what average they need for each letter grade and even allow them to retake Quizzes in MathXL one more time before midterm grades. But often I do feel that students are not interested in doing any better than a C.

    I need to really think about how I can improve their motivation using this concept.
    Thanks for the insight.


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