Assessment, Alignment and Feedback Spotlight #4

Faculty Info

Name: Emily Fairfax
Academic Program: ESRM
Average Number of students per section: 40
Featured Course:

  • ESRM 100: Introduction to Environmental Science and Resource Management*
    *Part of a living learning community

Had you taught online prior to the rapid shift to virtual instruction in response to COVID-19? 

No, not until the shift (1.5 semesters now).

What practice or technique have you implemented in your course?

I figured if we’re going to be all online I might as well take some inspiration from the online environments we already know can hold someone’s attention and keep them motivated for hours on end: computer games. So I “gamified” my entire course this semester. Basically, instead of being structured like a traditional course it was designed to mimic an RPG (role playing game) like Skyrim or Witcher.

Students can do main quests (required content), side quests (extra credit assignments, but for ~*~ gold coins ~*~), come to town halls (sync sessions), view their score (grade), go to the bonus shop & “buy” bonuses (using side quest coins). There is even a help page! The help page is full of big pretty buttons that redirect students efficiently to get them through snarls and snags during the semester.

Side quests are optional short assignments that only pop up every now and then and only last for a limited time! Gotta encourage students to check the canvas page often somehow. Completing these earns the students ~*~ gold coins ~*~

My favorite part was coming up with the bonus shop items! These items are different ways for students to have control over their due dates, attendance, and score in the class without ever having to ask me for permission to use them or justify needing them.

The whole goal of this approach was to give students agency and control over their learning environment.

Why did you choose this approach?

Making a gamified class was all about empowerment and motivation. The pandemic has completely upended so many aspects of our lives. It’s easy to feel like everything is out of control. But at least in my class, the students can still control their educational journey.

Every time they log in to the course Canvas page they can make choices. Do they want to work on the main quests (core course content)? Or do they want to dig a little deeper and explore some tangents (side quests)? Their curiosity for exploration beyond the core course content is rewarded with gold coins, which then go on to bolster student grades or earn leniency on due dates. If students want to stick to core content and not do any side quests that is completely okay too. Some people like to speed run computer games and finish as fast as possible and not do anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Some people like to take their time and explore a bit more. Both are valid ways to game, and similarly both are valid ways to learn in my course.

How have students responded to this practice or technique?

The overwhelming majority of my students have expressed that they liked this format.

Many enjoyed the sheer novelty of it. When you’re taking 5 online classes that all look the same it can make doing coursework all blur together. But when a class is designed totally differently, it’s easier to remember things about it since it sticks out in their minds.

Several were particularly glad that they had ways to build in flexibility (bonus shop items) without having to divulge a lot of personal information. Everyone has good days and bad days and sometimes you just want to turn something in late without having to email your professor about how you were up all night doomscrolling and completely forgot to do your homework.

A handful of students struggled with the course design at first and didn’t like that it was different and took a bit more effort to navigate. But once they got a hang of it, they were perfectly able to “speed run” the course and not worry about the extra gamified elements.

When courses resume on our physical campus, will this practice transfer to your in person classes? If so, why?

Yes, I think it will. Gamifying was all about the design of the class, making it more fun, rewarding students for being curious, and building in flexibility. That can happen online or offline.

When we’re in person I can be even goofier and 3D print actual miniature “swords of some other time” and “feathers of forgiveness” for students to “purchase” from the bonus shop. I can give them side quests that send them out into the community instead of just out into the internet.

I think this approach will be even better when we are back in person.

What’s your advice to STUDENTS preparing for a virtual Spring 2021?

Remember that you will be spending about 3 hours of your time per week per credit hour in a class. So a 3 credit course will take about 9 hours per week. That can add up to a lot of computer time if you’re taking a full credit load. Figure out which assignments and/or classes can be completed on a phone or tablet, or on a weaker internet connection, and try to change up your physical space if you can. Sit on your porch for one class, then move to your living room for another class. Try to keep at least one part of your space “off-limits” for coursework. Only go to that space to relax, read, watch TV, etc. Not to work. Making separation between work and home life is extra challenging right now, but still really important to do.

Is there something you plan to change for Spring? What and why?

I will have fewer assignments in my classes. I originally thought a larger number of lower point value assignments would be best for keeping students on track, but it wound up being such a nightmare to grade – especially when I was accepting so many things late. It’s just not sustainable with my teaching load. Next semester I will be having fewer assignments that are worth more points each and students will have longer to complete them. Still working on ways to use my course design to encourage students to not procrastinate the bigger assignments… I’m sure I’ll think of something!

Which 3 resources and/or tools do you consider essential to effective virtual instruction?

  1. A good headset and mic. Nothing is more frustrating than being asked to repeat yourself over and over because your mic isn’t great.
  2. A second monitor or just a very large monitor. Online teaching means a lot of juggling different windows. Much easier to do if you have them all open and just tiled around your screen rather than constantly minimizing and reopening them.
  3. Coffee (or whatever you need to stay calm, cool, and collected). Virtual instruction is tough. Taking a break to sit outside and sip some coffee between classes was something I really needed to make it through more challenging days

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