Barry Fishman and Caitlin Holman – Higher ed grading systems deserve an F

Higher education graduates need to be prepared with the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to be leaders and contributors at all levels of society. What stands in the way of this outcome? One barrier is the grading systems we employ, contributing to the problem of graduates who are not well prepared for a global 21st century society.

We propose an approach called gameful learning – based on observations of one of the most durable and natural environments for learning – learning from play. We are not talking about learning by playing games. Learning in school is already a kind of game, but a poorly designed one. Our goal is to design a better system that encourages risk-taking, challenge and deep learning.

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One of the features of a well-designed game is that players are attracted to it because it is challenging, not despite that fact. We often observe students seeking courses that will help them maintain a high GPA, instead of learning experiences that really challenge them. But life isn’t about success. Life is about persistence, progress and often, learning from what doesn’t go the way you planned. Occasional failure is a good sign that you are working on challenging and worthwhile problems.

A gameful course design begins with clearly articulated learning goals, and offers a range of opportunities and pathways for students to work towards mastery of those goals. The theoretical framework behind our work is called Self-Determination Theory, a psychological theory of motivation that emphasizes support for competence, autonomy and relatedness. Four core elements are a grading frame that emphasizes progress, support for multiple pathways to suit individuals’ different needs, support for exploration and risk-taking, and enabling what we call “non-exclusive” win states.

Instead of starting with 100% that is “yours to lose” (an all-too-common frame for coursework), students start with nothing, or more accurately, with the knowledge and skills they bring with them, and work to reach their personal goals – a “leveling up” approach common in games.

Gameful design recognizes that not everyone learns in the same way or at the same pace but that doesn’t mean that they can’t accomplish the same goals by the end of the course. Gameful design emphasizes choice in assignments, such as enabling students to present their work in different formats or enabling them to attempt different kinds of tasks or assessments in different orders. Perhaps a student has test anxiety. This does not mean that they do not understand the content. It only means that they don’t do well in timed testing situations… which, by the way, they are unlikely to face in the world outside of school. Learners may require different amounts of time and support to achieve the learning goals we set for them.

Gameful courses encourage risk-taking by enabling the “freedom to fail.” Not fail the course! But to try something that doesn’t work out on the first attempt. You didn’t get the results you wanted, the topic was more challenging than you anticipated, you aren’t yet proficient in the tools required to accomplish the task. So you get feedback and try again. Or you put aside that particular challenge to try something less difficult, building the skills and experience you need to accomplish the original or overall challenge. Too often the norm in higher education is a high-stakes midterm or final exam or assignment. We have observed students posting statements on social media such as, “I only need to get 176% on the final to pass this course!” Assuming that this outcome is highly unlikely, the most obvious (even logical) thing for that student to do would be to give up, and many do.

We hear many complaints from colleagues about “grade inflation” or a lack of rigor in academic coursework. But too frequently, what these complaints actually mean is “too many students are getting an A.” Using a grading curve to ration grade outcomes is a common response but it makes no sense. A curve hides meaningful information about what students are learning. If your course is sufficiently rigorous – because you have set challenging learning goals and hold students to a high standard – having a majority of students earn an ‘A’ should be a mark of distinction. You must be an excellent instructor! This is the heart of competency-based models, which depend on both rigor and transparency to ensure that the grade earned reflects deep learning. In gameful systems, we refer to this as a “non-exclusive win.” Everyone can succeed, and a well-designed education system should support all learners on their way to success.

We see gameful learning as one component among a wave of ideas currently being discussed for higher education and supported by the work of HEQCO. These ideas – competency-based education, micro-credentials, moving beyond credit hours, learning analytics, personalized learning – work best when they are pursued together in integrated systems. Gameful learning works extremely well in conjunction with these new (and often re-discovered) ideas in education.

The goal of gameful learning is not to “make learning fun” but to challenge and engage. Students must demonstrate deep learning through challenging activities paired with rigorous assessment. But not all students will arrive at our goals along the same path. We also distinguish this approach from the more common “gamification” of education, which often involves some of the more superficial elements of games such as points, badges or leader boards. Such elements might be employed in a gameful course design, but the truly important change has to do with the underlying assumptions and design of the assessment system.

The University of Michigan has made a big investment in gameful learning and we are developing learning support tools and professional learning materials for instructors that are aligned with gameful design principles. This process begins not with technology but with an attitude change. Are you or your students tired of “playing the game” of school? Let’s make it a better game that is worth engaging in. In the end, we all stand to win.

Barry Fishman is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Professor of Information and Education at the University of Michigan. Caitlin Holman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information.

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Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinions, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

5 thoughts on “Barry Fishman and Caitlin Holman – Higher ed grading systems deserve an F”

  1. Thank you for this insightful article. The ‘strive for success’ vs. ‘avoid failure’ dichotomy exists in the workplace as well. In some workplaces people are rewarded for avoiding failures. An example would be a stereotype of a government worker. In this model, a successful person avoid mistakes, and need not have any ‘big wins’. In other workplaces people are rewarded for their successes. Typical examples would be a business which develops products. Thomas Edison comes to mind. A successful person has ‘big wins’ which may well be accompanied by many mistakes. In post secondary education we should be encouraging innovation and excellence by fostering a philosophy of using ‘mistakes’ as stepping stones to successful learning.

  2. Thank you for this fantastic blog. It resonated with the research I am doing integrating “gameful learning” into nursing education. The biggest hurdle has been overcoming the recalcitrant “curve” mindset about grading and assessment. Thanks for articulating these important issues in such a constructive and provocative manner. I will be sharing this blog far and wide and I hope it will stimulate much needed discussion, and ACTION.

  3. This was a very interesting and thoughtful piece. Some research my colleagues and I did published a few years ago provides a quantitative and qualitative look at the impact and functioning of grading practices that reward students’ continued investment in improving their performance in a course. I thought that these might be of interest to the readers of this article.

    Qualitative look:

    Quantitative look:

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