Classically Inclined

October 2, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – the first year

Following on from my noodlings here about whether I should submit my gamification of intermediate Latin for a College Excellence Teaching Prize, I managed to put the paperwork in before the small boy appeared – and I’m delighted to say that I won one of the awards! The prize was awarded for “an innovative and creative project, which engages students from diverse backgrounds in motivational extracurricular learning”, which is rather nice as that was what I was after. As those of you reading who teach intermediate language classes will know, it’s probably the most diverse set of student experiences you find in a college classroom, and thus presents some really interesting challenges.

For those of you coming to this fresh – gamification is a strategy that tries to use the human enjoyment of games to enhance the learning experience within the classes. Last year, I reworked how I teach intermediate Latin to make the formative work I’d assumed students would do out of the goodness of their hearts into a tangible system of game-based activities. This would make the previously unspoken assumptions about the workload in the class clear and visible, and hopefully also give students the motivation to keep on top of the work required. The introduction of short-term rewards in a game format functioned through an insignia or badge system, where each activity had its own specific sticker type to collect. Students competed to collect the most insignia over the course of the term, with a ‘top three’ scoreboard updated regularly on Moodle. I wrote about how I thought things were going after one term here.

When I came to write up the prize submission, I was pleasingly gratified to discover how much of the literature I’d pre-empted or intuited in constructing my approach, although again that probably rests on the laurels of colleagues whose models I was inspired by (shout-out to Tim Phin and Ted Gellar-Goad here). However, another thing that became very clear was how much the existing literature focuses on the technology of gamification, the ability to use these virtual learning environments we’ve all now got to build increasingly elaborate assignments and virtual worlds. Now, this is all fine and groovy for delivering an on-line course, but teaching intermediate Latin is intensive enough without loading your shoulders with that extra technological burden – and, to be honest, I’m not sure that it would help that much to put language exercises exclusively on-line. My colleague Nick Lowe is a great fan of technology as an aid for vocabulary learning, and I see the point of that, but why move sentence translation onto a screen when the ability to scribble on a sentence is such a valuable learning tool? Also, one shouldn’t underestimate the motivational power of stickers.

So, having won an award for the gamification project (gosh, it feels good to type that), how did last year turn out? Well, the results of the final exam showed much less of a tail than the previous year, suggesting that the weaker students were helped along through the system, which was the overall goal. But equally, parts of the project failed completely – the English-into-Latin project which I’d created the first year I taught the course and then incorporated into the insignia vanished without a trace, for instance. When I last updated I wondered if it was because I hadn’t been explicit enough about expectations, but on reflection, I decided that the gamification model revealed just how much work needed to be done for the activities I was already setting; the extra activity in the first year had been picked up by students who weren’t handing in homework that last year’s students were.

So, what am I doing differently this year? Not a huge number, if I’m honest, not least because coming back from maternity leave to teaching means I’m not particularly keen on making more work for myself than necessary. I’ve also got more students enrolled on the course than for the past two years, which is great, but will mean an extra workload in and of itself. So I’ve made two major changes. I’ve cut down the kind of insignia that I set students – I wanted to have a hundred to match the US systems I was modelling (where 100% would be the top A grade), but in a non-compulsory system that doesn’t work, and students weren’t progressing up the ‘ranks’ particularly quickly (thus, presumably, meaning that the motivational function of assigning ranks wasn’t really in play as intended). So I’ve accepted that the insignia don’t have to add up to a hundred, and have cut out the ones that didn’t get much or any take-up last year. I’ve also changed the way I test vocabulary learning through the insignia process, from an individual verbal test to a written test taken in class by everyone. It’s more traditional, but it’s more likely that everyone will participate and actually learn their vocabulary (she types hopefully). I got students to complete evaluation questionnaires last year, partly for the award submission and partly for my own interest in how gamification had gone, and the vocabulary element was something several of them picked up on as a less successful part of the course.

Overall, however, last year’s students all seemed to be on the whole pleased with the gamification experience, and I think it went well for a first run. There will always be a few tweaks and improvements to be made to any new system, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it runs this year with light modifications. The principle is clearly sound – now it’s time to get the fine tuning right.

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