My Gamification Journal: Part 1

Gamifying my 5th grade math course has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my teaching career. After two and a half years of introducing gamified elements, I am finding a number of benefits:

  • Students are learning by exploring
  • Their education programs are truly differentiated by content, pace, and path (which leads to higher engagement)
  • I spend less time performing rote/repetitive tasks such as grading and delivering canned lectures
  • I spend more time having meaningful interactions with my students
  • Students cover more content in the course and develop better mathematical reasoning skills
  • We have more class time for enrichment, such as games and projects

At this point, there are so many systems in place, that the gamified environment part of my class could almost function on its own. Most of my planning involves eliciting student feedback, involving parents in the process, making minor tweaks, and helping guide students in crafting their own creative content. As I’ve shared my process with other educators, through presentations and writings, I have come to see that providing a still photo of what my class looks like now doesn’t capture the experience in a way that’s easily reproducible. When I first started using Khan Academy, I could never have predicted how it would come to be used in my class. I decided a journal of my experience could demonstrate that a gamified classroom doesn’t come out of a box: it starts with a problem to be solved, it’s designed around the specific needs of each individual class, and it happens in baby steps with a lot of trial and error.

Step 1: A Problem to be Solved (Fall 2013)

I started my teaching career as a humanities teacher, and taught only English and history for the first 10 years I was in the classroom. three years ago I was asked to teach 5th grade math in addition to language arts. I attended the Summer Math & Science Workshop (Now held at The Fay School, but previously at Dana Hall), and in a course taught by Lainie Schuster got a glimpse of the potential to change how math was taught by focusing on games and activities that teach mathematical reasoning as a precursor to algorithms (shortcuts/processes).

Once I got into my classroom, I soon realized that the materials provided left me dangerously unprepared for the needs of my students: the 5th grade text began with decimal place value and operations, while a number of my students struggled with whole number place value and operations. The following unit centered on complicated word problems with volume and rate and time, and they assumed students had a solid grounding in fractions. As I got to know my students better, I realized that many lacked the ability to demonstrate the most basic operations (2+3 or 4-1) using manipulatives or diagrams, even though most could solve these using traditional algorithms.

Student performance on quizzes from the text was poor, and when I assigned worksheets or homework from the text, some students did great work, others turned in work that was incomplete or demonstrated poor understanding, and some turned in nothing at all. I would spend hours after each assignment correcting student work and struggling to understand the errors in their processes. Even when I could figure out the error, trying to remember which student made which error or to communicate improvements in writing was almost impossible. It took several months for me to develop an understanding of individual students’ conceptual understanding of math, and even then, I struggled to find the time to connect with each student to help them correct conceptual errors or provide differentiated material that was appropriately challenging.

Step 2: Research (December 2013)

I realized that the way I was teaching math was not efficient enough to meet the wide range of student needs in my classroom and that I was spending too much time performing activities that could probably be done better by a machine. I had used Google Apps for Education to promote collaboration in history and Language Arts classes, and I’d seen 1.0 style math games where students solve simple equations for points, but I was a relative newbie regarding cutting edge EdTech. I was looking for something that could adjust to student needs and report on progress to the teacher.  I figured either there was something out there that could automate much of the work I was doing and, if not, it needed to be built.

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Math Blaster, a 1.0 style math game

I consulted my school’s director of technology, Aaron Grill, and he introduced me to some of the terms I was describing, such as “Teacher Dashboard,” and “Adaptive Learning,” as well as to a wesbite called Khan Academy. I’ve spent so much time using and talking about this platform in the past two years, I’ve had friends repeatedly ask me why I don’t work for Khan Academy, and I’ve even had students accuse me of being Sal Khan in disguise.

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Problem set from Khan Academy

I’ve learned the hard way not to introduce a platform to my classes until I feel comfortable as an end user – when I’ve tried to roll out programs based on marketing materials or online reviews (sadly, the line between the two can sometimes be blurry), I’ve encountered apps that were glitchy, hard to understand, or sometimes still under construction. Once I had played with Khan Academy for a few hours on my own, I knew this was the well-designed and responsive platform I was looking for.

Step 3: Roll- Out (January 2014)

Once I was confident that Khan Academy was the right tool to use with my students, the next step was getting them to use it. I started by creating classes and setting the grade level to grade 5. In class, I used Khan Academy’s search bar to find something related to what we were currently learning and used the projector to show the activity, ‘Ordering Fractions,’ to the class. We tried some practice problems, and I typed in the answers the students volunteered. I also demonstrated how they could access videos and hints when they needed support.

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Video suggestion sidebar

Then, I assigned the students 15 minutes of homework on Khan Academy that night. I chose to assign minutes rather than number of problems or even number of completed activities, for several reasons. First, I wanted to measure student effort – if students completed the same activities, some would finish much faster than others. Struggling students would struggle to meet basic expectations, while advanced students would breeze through. I wanted to ensure that each student was being challenged appropriately. If someone spent 15 minutes of genuine effort learning a new skill, but only got two questions right, I wanted to reward that as much as someone who spent 15 minutes getting everything right – since the platform is designed to give students work at their own level, the student who gets a lot of questions right will be rewarded by moving forward to more challenging content.

First Impressions

Right away, I realized that while I had solved some problems I was encountering in class, I had also created a whole new set of problems to be solved. While students had been challenged by the content of their textbooks, they (and their parents) were at least familiar with the format.

Once students were solving problems on their computers, they encountered new challenges. The largest issue I found was that when students wrote their answers on a piece of paper, they were more likely to write out the steps they took to solve the problem. When working on a computer, students tried to do more in their head, or they used the awful ‘scratchpad’ function built into Khan Academy.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about the specific instructions I gave students and parents to help make their use of the platform more effective. If I were to go back to the beginning, though, the biggest change I would make would be to have students spend several periods using the platform in class before asking students to complete anything at home – that way I could observe their work and give more feedback on their process before they were expected to use Khan independently.

Despite the challenges, there were enough initial benefits to using the adaptive learning platform that I decided it was worth working out the kinks. Although I was still learning how to read the data Khan was generating, even at the outset I could tell which students were putting in the right amount of time at home and which were not (some were even spending too much time!). Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.46.00 AM

I could also tell a great deal about their persistence and willingness to use resources. A student who gets one problem incorrect and moves to another activity requires a very different type of support from a student who tries the same problem 20 times and keeps getting it wrong, yet doesn’t use a hint or a video. I was always hoping to see the student who got a few right, a few wrong, took a hint or two, and then completed five in a row correct.

Next time, I’ll go over four more steps:

  • The process rules I instituted to help students use the platform effectively
  • How I used points to incentivize students and add excitement
  • How I learned to better read the data being generated and choose the right recommendations for my students.
  • How we went from using Khan Academy as an independent learning tool to part of a process of gamified learning in leveled groups

Your Impressions

Are you dying to add a gamified learning thread to your class but unsure where to begin? Are you deep into the process and have something to share? Do you think the whole gamification thing is a fad that’s past its peak? Share your thoughts in the comments below!