Ungrading and Learning
I taught the introductory class, called Game Design Principles, for our new Game Design major this Fall. I think this first offering went pretty well although there are some things I will change the next time I teach it. The sixteen students in the class had a wide variety of backgrounds and previous experiences with game design. I tried to really focus the class on each student’s individual learning and was able to get to know each student’s individual goals for taking the class.
I used an ungrading approach in the class. As Susan Blum says in this essay, grades are problematic for a variety of reasons. They are a form of extrinsic motivation which causes students to focus on maximizing their grade rather than maximizing their learning. They encourage students to treat college as a game where they are trying to earn as many points as possible rather than focusing on learning as much as possible. Most important to me, grades instill in students a fear of risk-taking because taking a risk increases the chance of failure and failure will mean a lower grade. So I have been experimenting with many ways to decenter, or even get rid of, grades in my classes. I think my approach this semester was pretty successful. I think students also thought it was successful but I’ll wait until I see the course evaluations to know for sure.
I tried to emphasize learning throughout the semester. With every assignment and activity, we talked about learning and how students would demonstrate what they had learned. I didn’t put grades on any assignment throughout the semester. But I provided extensive feedback on everything students handed in. It seems as though this was a successful exercise because as the semester went on, students began to respond to the questions in my feedback within Canvas, our learning management system. So their work became the subject of an ongoing conversation which was exciting. These conversations also allowed us to explore their individual goals. For example, when they handed in their final game near the end of the semester, we talked about what they might want to do with those games in the future. Several students were interested in publishing their games so we decided together that those four students would skip the last assignment of the semester and instead do the work they needed to in order to publish their games. These four games are now published on itch.io and although they may not be the best games in the world, these students can use their games in their portfolios as significant accomplishments. An interesting part of that particular activity is that none of the students published the exact game that they handed in on the due date. Instead, all four students made modifications to their games based on the feedback that I gave them about how I thought they could improve them. While those students were working on publishing their games, the rest of the class investigated businesses of their choice to determine the publishing histories and business models of those companies. The conversations while they worked on this assignment demonstrated their deep engagement in understanding how the business of games works which was also exciting to see.
I think one of the most successful parts of my ungrading efforts this semester came during the final exam period. Although I didn’t grade any of their assignments through the semester, I needed to submit a grade for the class for each student. I have used self-evaluation in other classes to determine final grades and wanted to use that method again this semester. But I wanted to make sure students were using demonstrated evidence of their learning as well as self-reflection to self-determine their grades. So I created a final exam that asked questions about the content of the course. There were questions about formal elements of games, about strategies for making sure game decisions are interesting, about coding in Twine, etc. and I assigned points to each question. I tried to develop at least one question for the course learning goals (which are listed in the featured image on this post). The students took the exam just as they would for a traditionally-graded course. But then we went over the answers in class and the students graded themselves on their answers. Many students asked questions about the answers they gave and, as a class, we talked about the number of points we would give these answers. It was such an amazing conversation because students seemed to be really grappling with whether they understood the content of the class. I then gave the students a kind of worksheet in which they answered questions about whether the score on the exam accurately reflected their learning in the class. I also asked them to go into Canvas to look at and summarize my feedback on their assignments through the semester. Finally, I asked them to indicate the grade they should get in the class and why. I think this was the most successful ungrading experience I have created. I think the students found it valuable–many of them commented on how much they enjoyed it and the class in general. I’ll definitely use an experience like this in the final exam period again.