Steps to Mastery – Gamification Principles, Part Two

Angry Birds and Mastery LearningIn our original post on “gamification,” we covered the idea that mastery learning was a natural aspect of most video games. Now, remember, “gamification” does not necessarily mean using games in lessons. It means using the principles and teaching approaches of games in your lessons. And that includes taking a mastery learning approach.

Video games provide challenges and obstacles for the gamer in discrete steps that increase in difficulty. This is extremely apparent in the “levels” or “boards” through which gamers move. Even games as simple as Angry Birds or Candy Crush have levels. Each level will have an increased number of tasks or skills the gamer must be able to execute or demonstrate. What’s more, those additional skills will be needed in order for him/her to pass the new level. A typical pattern within a game will look something like this:

Level One

Gamer is being introduced to the world of the game.

  • There will be demonstrations of how to use controls Swiping right will make your character kick right.
  • There will be explanations of outcomes The tower of crates will topple.
  • The number of tasks the gamer will have to complete will be very smallTopple all crates to free the puppy!

In the gamer were a student and you were giving a lesson, the “controls” would be tasks such as defining a word or solving an equation. The “outcomes” would be your learning outcomes such as a word being used in a sentence or an equation being solved correctly. The number of tasks the student has to complete (define five words or solve three equations), is an assessment that demonstrates that your expectation of “mastery of the task” have been met.

Level Two

Gamer is comfortable with the world of the game and ready to do more within that world.

    • New controls will be explained and added, but no further instruction is given on the original tasks. It is assumed that the player as has mastered the original . The gamer may have had only one or two “controls” to use before. This increases the complexity for the gamer – “Do I jump in the air or do I use my exploding egg to topple the crates?”
  • New outcomes will be introducedOne tower of crates can be used to topple another or a freed puppy might help the gamer to topple the next tower.
  • The number of tasks the gamer will have to complete will grow, but that is only because they are completing new tasks that BUILD UPON the tasks already known. This doesn’t necessarily mean toppling more towers (though it can), but could mean toppling bigger towers or toppling new kinds of towers.

In the classroom this increased level of assessment could be writing a paragraph describing or using a word rather than just a sentence – to show a deeper understanding of its nuances, or solving a more complex equation that incorporates the rules and operations learned from the earlier equations.

Level Three

  • New controls may be added without explanation, or with only partial explanation. They may build upon an earlier control, for example, swiping right twice in quick succession makes your character give a “super” kick that topples multiple towers at once. A similar example for students might be jumping to the conclusion that “aviation” has to do with flight based on the fact that the students just learned the word “aviary” or coming to recognize the commutative property because 3+2 and 2+3 have turned out to be the same.
  • New outcomes will be introduced and may not be fully explained. The gamer may be able to surmise the desired outcome through exploration. For example, he/she may have toppled all towers but the level is not yet “passed.” He/She may explore until he/she realizes that there is a puppy trapped beneath an underground tower of crates that the gamer didn’t see or expect because it’s a new obstacle and it wasn’t introduced. However, he/she should be able to conclude, “Since I always have to free puppies from towers, I’ll assume the reason I haven’t passed this level is because this underground puppy remains trapped.” For a student this might look like, “Maybe you should read the paragraph again and think about what that new word might mean based on the overall story,” or, “Well, if you used this number and that number, the answer would be what? Right…so what do you need to know to solve this equation then?” The teacher is giving hints, but pushing the student to figure out the outcome on his/her own.
  • Assessment might include an expectation that students will make a mental leap or push a boundary. For example, students guess at the definition of two new words in a story based on shared roots, or may be asked to solve equations that include variables they’ve never seen before, but they solve them automatically by applying the commutative property. In this case it’s not enough for the student to simply repeat a practice that’s already known (task). He/She will have to alter, invent, or augment a known task to complete the assessment.

The lowered level of “guidance” from the program is based on the idea that the gamer has grown more familiar with the expectations and constraints of the game world and will EXPLORE his/her own boundaries and capabilities beyond the guidance given on his/her own. If the learning environment is one that encourages “safe” failure (view our post on this here), students will definitely do this, just like gamers.

What Mastery Really Means

Candy-Crush_masterylearningIf you are a teacher, by now you are probably thinking, “We already do this every day! This is how teaching is done – building upon what students have already mastered.” Except that this is often untrue. We do build upon what they’ve learned, but not necessarily what they’ve mastered.

The only way mastery learning can truly work is if you have discrete tasks, outcomes, and goals (assessments) that are stepped in difficulty AND (this is critical),  you only allow a student to move on to the next set of tasks, outcomes, and goals once he/she has met the prior goals 100%. Not 70%. Not 85%. Not 93%. 100%. (You freed all ten puppies! Bonus for you!) That is mastery learning.

It could require you to break your lessons and assessments down into smaller chunks, it could require you to give some students more time or practice, and it could require you to present different ways to learn the same thing or demonstrate understanding of the same thing. This is obviously a variation of differentiated learning, but with mastery at every step as an expectation.

In the modern classroom with time constraints being what they are, this can be daunting, but it is also worthwhile to pursue insofar as it’s possible. A mastery approach is not always possible.

For one thing, it presents challenges in areas of study that do not lend themselves to discrete, stepped learning and assessment. In our earlier article we referenced philosophy, but there are also subjects like the creative arts (writing, music, visual or performance arts) that have discrete tasks but not discrete outcomes and goals due to their subjectivity. There also may not be any way to “step” these by difficulty at times. Is there 100% certainty that one poem is better than another? (Poets, you can duke this out on your own, but many teachers would have to agree that judging creative work can be tricky.)

That’s why teaching is never a “one size fits all” profession. Gamification principles are great. They leverage an environment in which learning is clear and students feel free to explore beyond guidance and risk failure. And whenever and wherever possible, giving students the opportunity to actually master content before moving on is the best scenario for them. But in some cases it won’t be possible to completely “gamify” your lessons…and that’s just fine!

Adding this approach to your “quiver” of pedagogy will shift the way that you plan lessons and curricula, the types and frequency of assessment you’ll use, and the expectations that your students have of themselves. It may be worth selecting a unit and examining whether you could apply gamification principles for mastery and give it a try. You might find it’s easier and more fun than you expected!

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