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Gamifying Grammar, Part I

Last month, I wrote about setting up my classes in Brightspace before the semester had begun, in part because I was in the process of gamifying my advanced grammar class. I've had a few people ask me about that, so I thought I'd provide an update here with plans to provide more as the semester progresses.

What is gamification?

Janice has written about gamification in the past, so I won't repeat much of that here.

Simply put, gamification is the use of gaming strategies as a part of your course structure. For example, with my grammar class, I created a point system that has no direct impact on the students' grades. Points are awarded primarily for doing extra work outside of class. As they accrue points, they "level up", and each level provides them with increasingly beneficial rewards.

Why Gamify Grammar?

A scan of a yellow Schoolhouse Rock/Grammar Rock CD.Because grammar is, for some reason, considered boring by many students. It's also very difficult. In a class like this, we get pretty deep into the complexities of the English language. And it's a very un-English-like (In the grammar class, we would look at what I did just there and explain that I used the proper noun English as the base morpheme, and changed it into an adjective by adding the derivational suffix -like, but then negated it by adding the derivational prefix un-.) English class. We don't read beautiful writing and talk about what it means. We read textbook chapters and practice the skills explained in those chapters.

I wanted to do something to make the class more engaging and, possibly, even more fun, but I also wanted to improve student learning. As I've said, it is a tough class -- the kind of class in which sometimes typically strong students struggle -- so I wanted to infuse it with some techniques that would teach the students how to learn in this kind of class.

What's the Game Plan?

Today, I'm just going to describe the overall structure of the gamified aspects of the course. Next time, I'll delve into some of the specific ways the students are able to earn points.

In terms of their grades, the students have three major factors: Exams, Homework, and Engagement. They will be taking six five exams over the course of the semester, and those together count for 60% of the final grade. Each week, we read one chapter from the textbook, and they do all of the in-chapter exercises. That all contributes another 20% of their grade. And then they get a weekly Engagement grade, which is based on how well prepared they are in class and how they demonstrate that.

However, they also have a lot of optional work they can do out of class to earn points. Much of this is designed to help them better study for the class: pre-reading worksheets; post-reading worksheets; reflections on their homework. They can also post to a weekly language forum to apply some of the concepts we're learning to the real world. Often in class, we will do some activities through which they can also earn points.

As they earn points, they move up in levels, and each level comes with a perk that they can use at any time. The literature on gamification suggests that you have a theme to tie everything together through a narrative. One common approach is to have a fantasy-based theme, in which students might become increasingly more powerful wizards or warriors. I decided to do something different, so I played with the old Grammar Rock shows I grew up watching during Saturday morning cartoons. Each level is a new step in becoming a musical superstar. Take a look at the levels and their associated awards:

This table provides information about the different levels that can be achieved in our course game.
Level Points Range Level Perks
Superstar! 950 - 1000 Exemption on any 5 final exam questions
Monarch of Pop 800 - 949 Perfect score on any 1 exercise revision
Mx. Dynamite 650 - 799 Exemption on any 1 exam question
Slowhand 500 - 649 Perfect score on any 1 class engagement
Beat Slayer 400 - 499 Free cup of coffee/tea at Gracious Bakery
Chairperson of the Board 300 - 399 1 exercise revision exemption
Teen Idol 200 - 299 1 class engagement exemption
The Hardest-Working Person in Show Business 100 - 199 1-day extension on any 1 exam
The Artist 2 - 99 Access to Language Forum
Leader of the Band 1 Access to course syllabus & schedule
Daydream Believer 0

Three weeks in, all students have achieved the 3rd level (The Artist), and five have recently moved up to the 4th level (The Hardest Working Person in Show Business). I'd say about half the class is actively working to get as many points as they can. With the others, about half are just now starting to see the benefit of doing the extra work, while the rest just aren't all that interested in trying.

Is it working? Well, as I just said, many of them are doing the extra work each week, so they're already doing more than most of the students in previous years (who read the chapter, tried to do the exercises, and usually came to class saying they didn't understand most of it).

Are they learning more? We have our first exam in a couple of weeks, so I'll have a better sense of this then. In class, they seem to be showing about where I expect them to show up: understanding much of the content, but having trouble with some specific aspects.

After Thursday's class, I did a quick and dirty assessment and asked the following: How are you feeling about everything we've covered? One student, who never hesitates to speak honestly, said, "Not awful."


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About Jason S. Todd

Jay Todd studied writing with Frederick and Steven Barthelme and Mary Robison at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in various literary journals. Since 2007, he has been a member of Department of English at Xavier, where he teaches American Literature, Freshman Composition, Modern English Grammars, and The Graphic Novel and Social Justice. From 2007 to 2010, Dr. Todd served as Xavier's Writing Center Director. From 2010 until 2015, he served as QEP Director, managing Xavier's Read Today, Lead Tomorrow initiative. In 2015, he became the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development's first Associate Director for Programming. As Associate Director for Programming, Dr. Todd assists in providing high-quality, relevant, evidence-based programming in support of CAT+FD's mission to serve faculty across all career stages and areas of professional responsibility. You can follow him on Twitter at @jason_s_todd.

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