Grading With Badges Revisited
I learned something new this week. Yet another reason why teaching is such an awesome job. Actually, I learned lots of things as my students are wrapping up their class projects, but one thing I learned is specific to teaching and that thing made me think again about how and why I grade with badges.
I use badges to grade class activity – specifically class discussion (whether in person or via online discussion board and/or class blog). Typically, students are assigned two weeks (one in the first half and one in the second) when they must submit a Community-Reflection report on class discussions. The report (see template) helps me keep track of attendance and participation, but its most important function is to recognize good participation. Students can award up to 11 badges to their peers, but they choose (although evidence must be provided for all badge awards) how many to award and which classmate(s) deserve the badges.
It is a simple concept, but I have found three benefits to using badges to assess class discussion plus an unexpected bonus I discovered just this week.
Crowdsourcing Cuts Workload
It would be impossible to grade two sets of class discussions for every class every week. It is really really hard, but dividing the workload across the roster makes it possible. Even better, with multiple eyes on participation each week, there is much less chance of a noteworthy idea going unnoticed. It is really hard for one person to observe all the great ideas shared in a class as some students are more naturally noticeable than others.
Focus On Coaching
My contributions to class discussions, both in person and online, can focus on coaching rather than grading. I can be much more of a participant or mentor (as is needed) when I am not worrying about how I will assess the discussion. Forgetting about the grade also means I can focus on checking in with everyone because I do not need to monitor the discussion for assessment purposes.
Students are less likely to focus on me (the instructor) as their primary (or only) audience. This manifests itself in two important ways, both of which support more meaningful discussion. First, it gives students an authentic audience and purpose. When they see the instructor as their only audience, too often the focus is on pleasing the instructor or regurgitating ideas they believe the instructor wants to hear/read. Too often there is little thought put into those responses. However, knowing their classmates are looking for evidence of thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas spurs most students to really craft their responses and engagement. Second, students pay much more attention to the ideas of their classmates. At first because they are required to, but the more they engage with each other the more they learn about and from each other. Not only does this spur discussion, but it also sparks a more supportive classroom atmosphere where students are not competing but encouraging.
Badges Are Fun
This week, due to poor planning on my part, I found myself without class reporters, so I decided to award badges myself and I learned something really interesting. Grading with badges is fun! I discovered that knowing I would need to award badges made me review our class discussions through a new eye as I was specifically looking for ideas to reward. I could take off my coach hat, or set it aside, and put on my cheerleader uniform and that is a pretty cool place to be.
Do you ever grade with badges? Have you ever considered grading with badges? What are the benefits and drawbacks to grading with badges?
Students Respect the Badge
Last week I blogged about why my students must blog. In many ways I was preaching to the choir. Most instructors reading my blog agree with my points and are not surprised by the merits of student blogging. Many readers are already blogging or have blogged with their students. Almost everyone agrees that any class activity that encourages writing and thinking and engagement with course content is a good thing, but there is just one problem – assessment. If done right a class blog generates a lot of writing. If you want to do it right then that writing should be read and given feedback. And who has time!
Remember one important thing! Yes, student writing should have an audience, but it is important to remember that the audience does not have to be you – and should not be only you. In recent semesters I have made the audience of my class blog the class itself. I am a presence, but most weeks I am no more present than any of the students – in terms of comments. I do general skim through the blog posts to get a sense of the conversation and ideas and engagement, but I only post when compelled by a question or idea. To provide that audience, my blog assignment comes in two pieces. There is the initial post which responds to my weekly prompt (usually crafted to recap or extend the class reading and discussion for that week) and then there is at least one extended response to another post. It is interesting that many students seem to have trouble choosing just one so they frequently respond to more than one post. Also, the act of selecting and responding draws them into the conversation so there is often more interaction than one post and comment. Perhaps the most interesting benefit of this method is that students work harder on their posts when they realize there is an audience and that they need to compete for readership. I know this because students tell me and I watch the evolution of the posts over the semester.
All this posting and commenting is great for learning and engagement, but how do you untangle this activity and generate a grade? I assess the class blog assignment two ways. First, there is simple participation. Students who post and comment regularly will earn at least a B on the assignment. This is easy to determine using blog stats and perhaps the easiest grade I generate. However, to earn an A on the assignment you need to inspire and engage – and I use badges to determine this. Actually, I don’t do anything with the badges. I hand that responsibility off to the class. We generated a list of badges and criteria as a class (using super heroes as that is the theme of our class) then each student was able to award each of those badges to a classmate, but they couldn’t simply vote – they needed to cite evidence (a specific blog post for example) to support their recommendation.
This badge award process has some interesting benefits in addition to the original idea of saving my sanity. It requires students to go back through weeks of blogs to look for their evidence. Several reported that it was a much more interesting process than they expected to see how our conversations and ideas have developed. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that the blog posts are not busy work – they are real writing for a real audience. We do this process at midterm and again at the end of the semester, so students who didn’t take blogging seriously the first half realize its importance.
What surprised me is how much consensus I saw. There were almost no outliers when it came to badge awards. The outstanding contributors to the class blog were clear and their efforts were rewarded. I have used badges for assessment for several semesters now and it is very interesting to me that students don’t argue grades determined by this method. They might try to sell me a tragic tale of woe (no matter how clear the scoring guide may be) when I am doing the grading, but they seem to respect the badge. Now I only need to work out a badge system for all my grading woes.
Using Badges to Assess a Class Community Assignment
I just finished awarding my students their badges for our Community assignment and I wanted to share the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of my venture into gamification as opposed to grading. I originally shared my reasons for replacing grades with badges in my post “Community Building With Badges” which was sparked by Cathy Davidson’s description of her badging system but essentially I hoped that badges would be fun and spark student involvement. Plus, I have always hated trying to place a grade on something like community involvement and activity. It is easy to grade the active folks and the slackers but how do you grade the folks in between? What is a B or C when it comes to community activity? Plus of course there is the problem of logistics. How can you keep track of all the various forms of contributions that students can and do make? I hoped that crowd sourcing the assessment for this assignment by using badges would solve the problem of logistics for me. If you are interested in other reasons for teaching with badges you might want to check out TeachThought’s Gamification 101 which also introduces us to a great web site dedicated to the idea of class badges.
There were a number of positive aspects for using badges to measure community involvement. First and foremost, it took the pressure off me and gave students the freedom to measure their own contributions as well as to have a hand in measuring the contributions of their classmates. We worked up the list of possible badges together. They chose to focus on the positive and we awarded badges not just for being good community members (such as Helping Hand and Booster) but also for working hard, overcoming difficulty, and being an active lurker (Little Engine That Could, Tough Cookie, and Wallflower). I like that the badges ultimately reinforced that there are a number of ways you can be a good community member and gave everyone a chance to succeed. I think the students did enjoy awarding and receiving badges so it was more fun than other forms of assessment (not a high bar after all). I think it also increased participation – or rather meaningful participation – as it was not simply a numbers game (post x times to earn x grade). It was not simply about gaming the system (or the instructor) but convincing their classmates that they were a good community member in specific ways. Students are reporting to me that they feel a high level of community support from our class. It is hard to tell how much of a role the badges played but I believe they certainly contributed.
It wasn’t all flowers and cookies. This assignment was labor intensive, messy, and stressful for all of us. Of course, a large part of that was simply because we were building this machine as we flew it. This was my first time trying something of this sort and I did not want to build it alone. I think working through the award system and the badges with the students was valuable but working through something this complex in an asynchronous online class is not easy. Plus, some students were distinctly uncomfortable creating their own assessment, especially early in the semester when they couldn’t be sure I really meant for them to do so. There was often confusion which leads to stress in students. So creating our badge system was a challenge and a number of students spent a great deal of time and energy contributing to the system and badge descriptions. In the end it was very labor intensive on both ends although it was exciting to see the discussion and debates unfold. I believe this will be easier next time as I have already worked through the process once and I won’t have to start from scratch.
This messy, time-consuming, stressful assignment and assessment was also ugly at times. With the idea of crowd sourcing and collaboration in mind, I created a Google doc grid form to award badges. I made my students collaborators on the document so they could go back in adjust their votes as well as monitor results. But this turned out to be a mistake as parts of the form kept disappearing as students adjusted the wrong things. It was frustrating and time consuming on my part to rebuild the form multiple times and frustrating and stressful for students who would find the form gone or broken. I won’t make the voting process so fluid next time just to save all our sanity. The struggles with the form also made it difficult to tally votes and award badges at the end. I spent a lot of time and finally resorted to a large paper spreadsheet to do so. I will definitely need a better system to collect and count next time.
In the end, despite the fact it was sometimes messy and stressful, I think using badges to assess my class community assignment was a good decision as the positive aspects outweighed the negatives. Community participation was up and students feel a sense of community support and we had fun despite the complications. I’ll have to wait until midterm evaluations come in to be sure but I believe my students feel it was a worthwhile endeavor as well.