Games and grading V: gambling on grades

This post is just a side note to my thinking about games and grades, but as I’m writing about that subject, I can’t resist noting that students can now place real-money bets on their own grades.

I won’t bother shooting the fish in the moral barrel on this subject. I will instead note that the implementation seems poorly calibrated and easy to beat. It also involves a low cap on initial bets, so students have little incentive to alter their grades materially to win the bets.

I wonder what the real game is: does the company let the students win easily on those low-dollar initial bets and then let their real prediction model take hold? (I’m thinking of the classic pool shark model.) As far as I can tell, that model explains the information in the article better than the company’s rhetoric.

Games and grading IV: the sports kind of games

I was listening today to Robert Laughlin on EconTalk. Laughlin makes a side point about higher education; the podcast summary sketches it like this: “Attending elite universities is not education—it’s access to the peer group. There’s a lot of truth to that. The actual education you get is pretty generic. If you were really diligent, you could open books and read it. What you are really selling is access to other students and to colleagues. Gateway to certain things—that’s what you charge for, can’t charge for knowledge.”

Economists often make arguments like this about higher education: the real value of elite education, they say, is access to peer group, or status signaling, or pure credentialing—almost anything other than what happens between faculty and students.

And to a large extent, I buy those arguments. I think they are incomplete, however, and their incompleteness comes to light when we think of applying the same logic to elite high school athletes. Would anyone say that an 18-year-old athlete would do just as well to study books and videos for a few years as to enter an elite college or professional program?

I suspect that nearly everyone would agree that highly skilled athletes need to seek out the handful of coaches who can and will help them develop their skills further.

To what extent are highly skilled 18-year-old writers or mathematicians or musicians in a similar position?

I don’t know exactly, of course, but I suspect that the present and future ability of elite colleges and universities to justify their existence and price tags depends on their success in making the case for that analogy—the case for higher education as a process of doing rather than knowing.

Games and grading III: Dan Pink and motivation

How can we know how to motivate students for different kinds of tasks?

One reason, perhaps the primary reason, that teachers explore connections between video games and education lies in their longing for students who display gamer-like motivation. What Shakespeare professor doesn’t want students as eager to construct Renaissance London as SimCity?

In his TEDTalk on motivation (a precursor to his recent book Drive), Dan Pink outlines some social scientific studies of motivation. Pink summarizes his argument in this short CNN piece:

In laboratory experiments and field studies, a band of psychologists, sociologists and economists have found that many carrot-and-stick motivators — the elements around which we build most of our businesses and many of our schools — can be effective, but that they work in only a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.

For enduring motivation, the science shows, a different approach is more effective. This approach draws not on our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but on what we might think of as our third drive: Our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

In particular, high performance — especially for the complex, conceptual tasks we’re increasingly doing on the job — depends far more on intrinsic motivators than on extrinsic ones.

If I want my students to focus on their own “complex, conceptual tasks,” I need to consider ways to activate their drive to “create new things,” and I want those things not only to be the occasional essay but also initiatives that shape the classroom experience fundamentally.

Games and Grading II: Dan Meyer

I present to you a games and grading post that is about neither games nor grading!

Dan Meyer gave a TEDTalk on his approach to secondary mathematics education: the talk is well worth watching, and it provides a good introduction to inquiry-based approaches to teaching.

I’ll return to Meyer’s talk as I continue this series of post, but for now, I’ll pick up on its literary side. Meyer quotes Deadwood creator David Milch, saying that bad television

creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I’m doing what I can to tell those stories which engage those issues in ways that can engage the imagination so that people don’t feel threatened by it.

This is John Keats’s version of that sentiment:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . .

I find repeatedly that writers on new media reinvent Keats’s wheel. Is Negative Capability the signature skill of the contemporary workplace?

Games and Grading I: James Paul Gee

Reader, I’m slowly concocting a new way to teach introductory literary studies. Care to join me?

I haven’t posted for a while, in part because I set myself too large a task: to integrate a number of pieces I’ve been watching and reading lately into a big old essay on grading, video games, and inquiry-based learning (a big idea at Grinnell these days–more on that to come).

Instead, I hereby begin a series of shorter posts about the sources for that hypothetical essay. I’ll bring them together later.

I’ll start with this Edutopia interview with James Paul Gee: “Games, not Grades!”

Gee points out that video games are assessment machines, but they don’t alienate their players the way educational assessments alienate students because, Gee argues, games don’t separate learning from assessment.

I find this initial point powerful but too simple: many classroom environments do ties assessment to learning consistently, even if periodic larger assignments constitute the graded material. Gee seems implicitly to assume that and equivalence between assessment and grading.

My objection may be mostly semantic, however, so I’ll move on to what I see as Gee’s two most powerful insights:

1. Course textbooks ought to work like video game manuals, in that they should function as references that help students solve problems they have encountered in a process of exploration. I realize that in advanced seminars, I do teach students to use critical sources in this way, but I have not achieved the same effect in lower-level courses.

2. “Passion communities” such as those who produce fan fiction “tend to set very high standards” for their members, offering copious feedback to help new participants meet those standards.

As this series of posts continues, I will imagine ways in which college English courses might combine these two insights by creating “passion communities” that learn to navigate the texts of literary study with self-guided intensity.