Gamification of Good Behavior

August 26, 2013 — 14 Comments

The fall semester starts in a couple days and I’ll be teaching Calculus 1 (for like the 15th time) and our undergraduate Abstract Algebra course. Despite my relatively low teaching load, I’ll also be advising 3 undergraduate research students (on two different projects) and 2 masters thesis students. Combined with the fact that I’m still frantically trying to prepare brand new IBL materials for my Abstract Algebra class, I expect a very busy semester. For this reason, I decided not to mess with the format of my calculus class very much. I think it has room for improvement—namely ramping up the IBL aspect of the course—but this will have to wait until a later semester. I feel a little guilty about this, but I’m no use to anyone if I’m trying to do too much.

Notice that I said that I wouldn’t mess with the format “very much.” I am going to make some small changes. In previous semesters, I always devoted one class period a week to students presenting problems at the board. This has always worked well for me, but last semester I tried something else that I don’t think was as successful. So, I’ve decided that I’ll return to presentation days. In the past, I had a fairly nebulous way of assessing student presentations. I want to encourage students to present, so I make it worth something. But on the other hand, I don’t want it to be a high stakes thing. A class typically benefits more from the discussion surrounding a less than perfect solution to a problem than they do from a presentation that is flawless. So, I encourage students to share what they have. Of course, I don’t want students putting crap up on the board on a regular basis either. In a small class, this isn’t very hard to manage, but in a class with 45 students (which is what I currently have enrolled in my calculus class), it gets a little trickier. I’ve been thinking about how to manage this for a few weeks.

The latest version of WeBWorK—which we use for our online homework platform—has a new feature called “Achievements.” You can read more about this here. This basic idea is this:

Instructors now have the ability to create and award “Math Achievements” and “Math Levels” to students for solving homework problems and for practicing good WeBWorK behavior. In a nutshell, students can earn achievements by meeting preset goals. For example, they might earn an achievement for solving 3 homework problems in a row without any incorrect submissions, or for solving a problem after taking an 8 hour break. Earning achievements and solving problems earns students points and after a student gets enough points they will be given a new “Math Level”.

I have zero experience with the WeBWorK Achievements, but I thought I would give it a try. I don’t want to make earning them mandatory and I don’t want to offer extra credit either. So, I’ve been passively brainstorming how to handle them.

Northern Arizona University now requires faculty to take daily attendance in all freshman-level courses. However, how we take this data into account is up the instructor. It just has to count for something. The past couple semesters, I’ve been diligent about taking attendance, but I’ve always been a little bit vague about how it does or does not impact a student’s grade. Policies like, “you’ll lose a letter grade if you miss X number of classes,” drive me nuts.

Yesterday, I decided it was time to sort out what the plan should be for presentations, WeBWorK Achievements, and attendance. I had read a short article about gamification in education (I can’t remember which article) recently and I thought, “hey, why don’t I just gamify this stuff that I’m not sure what to do with.” In general, I’m not a fan of offering points for things that students should naturally do (and I’m also sure I have tons of counterexamples to what I just said), but I’m going for it anyway. Maybe this is a horrible idea. Here is what I currently have on their syllabus.


As per university policy, attendance is mandatory in all 100-level courses, and in particular, I am required to record attendance each class session. Daily attendance is vital to success in this course! You are responsible for all material covered in class, regardless of whether it is in the textbook. Repeated absences may impact your grade (see the section on Achievements). You can find more information about NAU’s attendance policy on the Academic Policies page.

Presentations and Participation

Throughout the semester, class time will be devoted to students presenting problems to the rest of the class. In addition, we will occasionally make use of in-class activities whose purpose is to either reinforce/synthesize previously introduced concepts or to introduce new concepts via student-driven inquiry. If necessary, these activities will be explicitly graded.

I expect each student to participate and engage in class discussion. Moreover, I will occasionally ask for volunteers (or call on students) to present problems at the board. No one should have anxiety about being able to present a perfect solution to a problem. In fact, we can gain so much more from the discussion surrounding a slightly flawed solution. However, you should not volunteer to present a problem that you have not spent time thinking about. Your overall participation includes your willingness to present, engagement in and out of class, and consistent attendance record. Your grade for this category will be worth 8% of your overall grade and will be based on Achievements (see below).


This semester I’ve decided to “gamify” good student behavior. Here is the gist. I’ve generated a list of items that I deem good student behavior. Every time you achieve one of the items on the list, you earn some points. The more points you earn, the higher your Presentation and Participation grade (worth 8% of your overall grade in the course). So, how do you earn achievement points? Here’s a list.

Points Description
5 Stop by my office sometime during the first two weeks of classes. This is a one time offer and stopping by to just say hello is fine.
2 Stop by my office hours to get help. This goes into effect after the first visit and you can earn points for this up to 4 times.
1 Attend class, arrive on time, and stay the whole class meeting.
1/2 Attend class but arrive late.
1/2 Attend class but leave early.
2 Attend a review session offered by our Peer TA. You can earn points for this multiple times.
4 Stop by the Math Achievement Program to get help. This is a one time offer and you must get a “prescription” form from me in advance for a tutor to sign.
2 Find a typo anywhere on the course webpage, homework, exam, etc. These points are first come, first earned, but there is no limit to the number of times you can earn points for this.
5 Volunteer to present a problem to the class on presentation days.
3 Agree to present a problem to the class on presentation days after I’ve called on you.
2 Earn a non-secret Achievement in WeBWork. You can see list of possible non-secret Achievements by clicking on the appropriate link in the sidebar after logging in to WeBWorK.
3 Earn a secret Achievement in WeBWork. These shall remain a mystery.
2 Post a useful resource such as a video or link to a math-related website on our course forum.
2 Post a relevant question on our course forum.
2 Post a useful response to a question on the course forum that does not just give an answer away.
5 Earn at least an 8/10 on your highest score for a Gateway Quiz.

Important: Any time I feel you are taking advantage of the spirit of this, I reserve the right to take away an achievement point.

To calculate your grade for the Presentation and Participation category, I will divide your Achievement points by the maximum number of Achievement points earned by a student and then convert to a percent.

Feedback is extremely welcome. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

Edit: One thing that I forgot to add is that I have a Peer TA for 10 hours per week. She attends class and has access to the course forum, etc. So, I’ll let her do most of the point tracking. Otherwise, I’d have trouble with the bookkeeping. Also, I decided to use the highest number of Achievement points earned by a student to calculate a percentage for each student. In the comments below, Strider suggested that I use the average of the top 3 instead. I like this idea, but I think I’ll use the top 5.

Dana Ernst

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Father of two boys, husband, mathematician, cyclist, trail runner, rock climber, and coffee drinker. Columnist for MAA blog Math Ed Matters.
  • Hey Dana,

    This is a pretty cool idea. I know I don’t need to prod you to do this, but keep us updated as to the results.

    The only question I have regarding this system is why you calculate the final grade relative to the highest achiever in the class. Is this purposeful in itself because you expect it to foster competition, or, having not done this before, are you looking to calibrate it? Also, why the highest and not, say, an average of the top three?

    Good luck,

  • Kelly Robertson

    I was interested in this because we have been discussing the gamification of education at my company lately. I think what you are doing with the achievement points sounds brilliant! Any average to highly motivated student is sure to earn enough points to get a good grade. I know if I was a student in your class and saw this, my competitive nature would come out; and I would do all I could to earn points. The brilliance comes in when you look at the tasks needed to earn points. All of the items will implicitly or subtly help student performance. Great idea, Dana! I will be curious to see how it goes!

  • Strider, my plan for calculating the grade is really just a result of not knowing how to calibrate the point cut-offs. I figured I would refine this the next time (if there is a next time). However, I like your idea better. I may take the average of the top five and use that to divide.

    Kelly, thanks for your comments.

  • I have been pretty skeptical about the use of points in classrooms, although this is the use I am least skeptical about. This mostly seems to be about getting them to do things that they wouldn’t normally do, but are good for them (like visiting your office).

    Here is my analogy: I don’t use rewards and punishments when I parent (And, yes, this is largely because I read Alfie Kohn’s stuff). However, I am in the middle of rewarding the hell out of my daughter for using the potty. The reason? I don’t think that I am going to kill her intrinsic motivation to use the potty by doing so (in fact, I can’t do that since she doesn’t have any).

    In a similar way, students are never intrinsically motivated to visit my office (maybe _your_ office, but not mine; I don’t have any stuffed crows lying around). So there seems to be little risk in rewarding this.

    So I am curious and optimistic about this. Keep us posted.

    Also, “secret achievements” in WeBWork are awesome. I am considering doing your class’s homework just to find out what they are.

  • Ben Braun

    I’m curious about how this goes as well. I’m always hesitant about attaching external rewards to things, because this causes intrinsic motivation to decline. If the goal is to nurture the students’ beaten-down intrinsic motivation to learn, I’ve always felt that it would be starting off on the wrong foot to try to generate intrinsic motivation by offering extrinsic motivation. Having said that, if no one is engaging in a course, then perhaps some extrinsic motivators are better than the alternative…

  • I’m a little worried that this will back fire, largely because of the “intrinsic motivation” issue. One of the reasons that I am so in love with my kids’ Montessori school is because there are very few external motivators. My approach described above is pretty much the opposite of that. I usually have good engagement in my classes. The worst case scenario is that the engagement declines or is no longer genuine. I’ve got my fingers crossed that this doesn’t happen. My hope is that the students that usually do the stuff they are supposed to, keep doing it, but that I pick up a few that normally don’t do what they are supposed to.

  • I’d never be able to do this because I am horrible with bookkeeping. But best of luck to you. Also, I’ll have to check to see if our WeBWorK install has the Achievements option as well.

  • Ben, thanks for the link!

    Robert, I have a Peer TA available 10 hours per week that will do nearly all the bookkeeping. Otherwise, I’d flounder.

  • Dana,
    I like some aspects of this idea but I know I couldn’t track all the points. As you say, you have a TA. I guess I worry, even at 8%, if either I or the students would be distracted by the ongoing scorekeeping. (It’s like when you spend 2 hours trying to figure out how to format something just right in LaTex, when that something has epsilon effect on the paper’s quality.)
    The good thing is that most of the points are earned outside the class. Let us know what happens.

  • I totally stole some of that wording for my syllabus. Hope you don’t mind!

  • Rachel, steal whatever you want! Then tell me how to make it better.

  • how did it work out Dana?

  • Ron, I implemented the points scheme two semesters in a row. I’m glad that I tried it, but I’m not sure I’ll do it again. First, I’m philosophically opposed to the whole thing. I was willing to ignore that if it actually worked. However, I’m not sure it had any significant positive impact. Feedback from the students was that they didn’t mind the system, but that it didn’t modify their behavior either. I had my Peer TA keep track of the points, so I avoided that headache.