Posts Tagged 'gamification'

An Imperfect Cake: Gamification in AP English


I presented Megan with the first Golden Ape

By Claudia Felske — If you’re a Marquette Educator loyalist (or dare I dream a Claudia Felske enthusiast) you may recall that in Fall, I committed to gamification in one of my classes as chronicled in my post Monkey Business: The Gamification of AP English.

The notion of gamification appealed to me because of its potential to engage and motivate students, and to somehow make the difficult process of writing an AP Timed essay fun.  Shouldn’t that, after all, be the goal of every educator (and possibly very human being): to make the hard stuff in life fun?

So, I took the toughest part of my Advanced Placement English class and    gamified. Each student competed with him/herself to achieve the requisite AP analytical writing skills (one badge for each skill: focusing  on the prompt, embedding quotes, providing scholarly commentary,  using the vocabulary of literary analysis, and including a substantive  closing) in the hopes that this would land them to a good AP exam score,  and more importantly it would help them master these critical skills for  college and beyond. The golden ape pin (their culminating prize with all 5  badges earned) would be a tangible motivator that would remind them of  their writing ability and the growth they made.


Badge Pride on a Student Binder

 So, what happened? After explaining the gamification process and  badge skills, we dove right in, and  the return of each timed essay found  the room teeming with anticipation. Would they get a badge? If not, why  not? And what would they have to improve in order to get one?

These  simple little stickers were somehow having a profound effect on these  high-achieving students.  This was arguably childish, perhaps even pathetic, but it seemed to be working. They were clearly tuned into their writing at a level I had not previously seen. They proudly displayed their badges on their binders and folders.

Bottom line results?  All of my students received some badges, but only 5 of the 16 received all badges (and the highly-coveted Golden Ape). More on my “take aways” later, but first, theirs:

What They Thought: In an end-of-the-year survey,  All but one student reported that we had “the right amount” of focus on the badges or we should have spent even “more time” on them.



IMG_4157    IMG_4159     IMG_4155    IMG_4160    MEgan.jpg2

Their comments included:

  • “The badges helped my by breaking down each category that I needed to focus on in my papers, and helped me to improve in that way.”
  • “It helped me think about the components of a good essay, especially the Big Ending one. I feel like almost each essay I wrote was stronger than the last.”
  • “Although I didn’t get the golden ape, I found it incredibly useful on focussing myself during essays. It really helped me improve in each of the five important components.”
  • “Not only does it make us think of all of the devices that need to be incorporated, but also adds a challenge and ‘competition’ for us to look forward to.”
  • “I know I worked harder than I would have just for a grade. I really wanted to get that golden APE, and I’m sure any future apes worth their buttons will likewise.’
  • “Having the mini-goals working up to the golden ape was actually very motivating to me and helped me concentrate on all aspects of my papers.”

Not all comments were rainbows and unicorns however, bringing up some critical points for me to consider:

  • “It may have strayed me from the real goal a little bit. I really wanted to get all the badges so I would only focus on doing one thing to get a certain one that week when writing an essay, instead of thinking about having all five components in every one.”
  • “I prefer focusing on well-rounded essays instead of trying to get a specific badge and missing out on the other components.”
  • “It helped me try to incorporate the 5 components, however I think that students should be able to do this without trying to get an award.”

What I thought:
My students were much more motivated to look at specific aspects of their writing and improve them. One of the biggest frustrations in teaching is seeing students make the same mistakes repeatedly without exerting effort to fix them. This was clearly not the case when the process was gamified. Improvement was seen as a logical step in reaching the next level. More students than in any previous year came to conference with me on how they could improve. Students consciously planned what they’d change in their next essay. In this regard, gamification was an unqualified success.

Interestingly, though, when comparing my gamification numbers with the results of the College Board AP English exam, “success” was much more ambiguous. Of the 5 students who received the Golden Ape, demonstrating mastery of each of the timed essay components, 2 of them did not receive a passing score on the College Board AP English exam. Furthermore, none of those who received the top AP English Exam Score of 5 received a Golden Ape in class.

I’ve mulled over these incongruities and I see two different ways to interpret them: 1. My gamification process is not in line with the AP English Exam. I am either measuring the wrong things or evaluating them incorrectly. 2. Those two students who received the Golden APE but did not receive a passing AP exam score either choked on the AP English exam, or their AP Multiple Choice score was so low that even strong essay scores could not bring them up to a passing holistic score.

So my bottom line debrief on year 1: While this experiment clearly succeeded in the areas of student motivation and reflection, there is less clarity in its correlation to AP English exam performance. While I’d prefer that this wasn’t the case (and maybe next year it won’t be) I am comfortable with it.


I have always told my students that a passing score on the AP exam  (translating to college credits) is icing on the cake. The true take-away of any class should be learning, self-improvement, and readiness for what the next step in life brings. By that criteria, and from what students said and I observed, I think the gamification process is an imperfect but delicious cake, with or without the icing.  So I’ll tweak the recipe, but continue to serve it.

Monkey Business: The Gamification of AP English

 By Claudia Felske–

  Monkeys: whimsical, goofy, playful stuff.

  Business: goals, achievement, bottom line stuff.

  Why can’t school be both?

  That’s what I’m attempting to do this year:  Monkey Business, specifically “Battle of the APES,” the gamification of my Advanced Placement English class.

  So what is gamification? According to the Oxford online dictionary, gamification is the “application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity…to encourage engagement with a product or a service.” It’s an attempt to make “the hard stuff in life fun.” Shouldn’t that be the goal of every educator, possibly the goal of every human being: to make the hard stuff in life fun?

When playing Minecraft, my 11-year-old is wholly engaged, he is collaborating with friends, he is receiving immediate feedback, he is laser-focused on problem-solving, strategizing, learning whatever it is he has to learn to get to the next level.

Engagement? Collaboration? Immediate Feedback? Problem-Solving? Talk about educational buzz words. It’s little surprise then that gamification has become a national trend in education: from online educational games to classroom curriculum designed with challenges, quests, levels, experience points, and badges.

Now, I will be the first to admit I smell the perfume of hypocrisy here…on my very own wrists. If you’ve read my posts in the past, you may recall that I’m a big proponent of the Alfie Kohn camp of intrinsic motivation. I am generally not a fan of stickers, tickets, candy, movie passes to get students (or teachers) to perform well.

However, I am a proponent of making learning fun, of wholly engaging students, of providing specific and timely feedback. And so, I’m admittedly walking a fine line here. I’m attempting to gamify my classroom, to use XP points (experience points), badges and leaderboards to remind students of their progress, to nudge students extend a skill, to energize their learning, but I am not using candy and stickers to coax them into behaving or completing a task. A fine line, I know.

My other challenge (beside possible hypocrisy) is my lack of experience. I don’t even qualify as a newbie gamer. The last time I gamed was was about 25 years ago in front of a Ms Pac-Man console at a video arcade. Yeash.  I don’t even play Farmville or Candy Crush on Facebook.

I do have one secret weapon, however: my son Eliot; I can plug into my students’ generation within the comfort of my own home.

And so, this summer, Eliot and I sat down to gamify.

First, the concept. That was easy.  I have been using the term “APES” (Advanced Placement English Scholars) forever: “Battle of the APES,” then, was the logical choice for my game concept (and the availability of campy 70’s images from the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes movies was an added bonus).

Then, the fun part: apes research. I learned that a group of apes is called a shrewdness. Cool,  since I’ll be asking them to be shrewd in their analysis; in essence, tracking their “shrewdness.” I learned the essential differences between monkeys and apes. I learned about their habits, intellects, predilections. I learned there are five main branches in the ape family: humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons (with many subdivisions). I learned that unlike monkeys (but like humans) apes have broad chests and do not have tails. I imagine we’ll have fun all year alluding to our other parallels with our fellow primates. “Battle of the APES” is proving to be a chunky metaphor.

The game itself?

Eliot asked me what the end goal of the game would be. I had to think about the most important outcome for AP English: the ability to write a substantial literary analysis essay. Then we broke it down into badges or skills. That, too, was pretty easy:

  1. Answering the prompt: directly and fully addressing the prompt throughout their essay.

  2. Commentary: providing convincing support and analysis.

  3. Embedded Quotes: embedding short, key quotes into their commentary.

  4. Vocabulary: seamlessly using the language of literary analysis within their essay.

  5. Conclusion: building up to a greater idea, a larger human truth or question.

We agreed that these will make worthy badges. Aside from the traditional grade, mastery of each of these skills (within their timed writings) will earn students a badge (a sticker I created containing an ape and the skill demonstrated) which they’ll stick on their binders.

“What will earning all 5 badges get them?” Eliot asked me.

“A 4 or 5 on the AP Exam, a successful college career, and the life-long ability to read critically and write…” (he cut me off)

“No, what will they GET? In a game, it has to build up to something. They have to GET something at the end.”

Hmmm, I thought. This is where my philosophy wavered and hypocrisy reared its head: I don’t believe in bribes, in freebies, in stickers and candy.  Yet, for gamification to work, Eliot insisted, earning all the badges has to add up to something tangible. After some soul searching and internet scouring, I found a golden ape (a pin they can put on their letter jacket or elsewhere).

In my mind, I made peace with the golden ape in the following way: Each student is competing with him/herself to achieve the requisite AP analysis writing skills which will lead them to perform well on the AP exam and more importantly bring those skills with them to college and beyond. The golden ape will remind them of their intellectual ability and their intellectual growth. I’m ordering the pins, and that’s where I’m currently hanging my ethical hat.

Next, the team component. Eliot insisted that “all the best games” have a team component. This is where healthy competition comes into play. Each team of APES (orangutans, bonobos, etc) will compete in classroom challenges which can earn xp for their team.

Teams (shrewdnesses) will earn xp if an individual ape earns a badge and when the group completes / excels on a classroom challenge: deciphering a poem, analyzing an essay, creating a metaphor, reenacting a scene, etc. A shared google spreadsheet will keep track of team xp, and the leaderboard will be magnetic apes (one per shrewdness) climbing up my magnetic whiteboard.

The team prize? At the end of each quarter, the winning shrewdness will determine how we spend one class period ( they can go “ape-wild” for one class period: subject to school rules, my approval, and relevance to APE-worthy skills).

No, I’m not altogether sure about this.

Yes, I’m feeling anxious about it.

Yes, I’m excited about it.

Yes, I’ll keep you posted on the state of my Monkey Business.

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