Back in the 1980s, when Nintendo was emerging as the dominant video game platform, I remember having to rely on passwords to save my progress. Childhood Adam was expected to accurately write down a string of numbers and letters before turning off the game. I seem to recall having to restart Kid Icarus and Blaster Master from the first level many times due to poorly transcribed passwords. There was nothing more frustrating than losing that progress. Eventually games like Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy emerged with “save game” features that did the progress saving for the player. Last year after spending a week or two in Madden Football’s Franchise Mode, I accidentally saved over a team that I had spend weeks building. That old feeling of childhood frustration waved over my adult mind. Losing progress is incredibly frustrating and something that should be instructive to educators for two reasons. The first is a concept known as “loss aversion” and the second, related reason, has to do with poorly designed grading systems.

When a player has invested some time or capital into their game play they naturally want to receive the fruits of that investment. In the popular social media based game Farmville, players plant crops which take a predetermined amount of time to grow. For example, carrots might take 8 hours to grow whereas a watermelon might take 12. Once the crop has finished growing, the player has a finite window of time before the crops begin to wither away and the investment of time and game currency has been lost. The desire to avoid losing the investment is known as “loss aversion” – a powerful manipulative force. Yu-kai Chou, a gamification expert, classifies this mechanic as a “black-hat” motivator meaning they create a sense of urgency. Black hat mechanics can lead to burn out though if used too frequently. It also can become demotivating to continuously lose.

Most grade book calculations are centered around loss aversion. Weighted category grade books are typically based on percentage scores within each of the categories. Since most classrooms start with some easy assignments, like a homework assignment or get to know you activity, most students will start with an artificially high grade. Many teachers will unknowingly play up the loss aversion mechanic trying to create a sense of urgency when the first test rolls around. Study hard or your grade will go down! Teachers need to be cautious with such an approach though. First, this approach can lead to student burn out. Second, continuously experiencing loss can demotivate the student.

Most importantly, grades should indicate student progress through the content and skills of the class curriculum. Loss Aversion tactics imply that a student’s skill decreases if a score lowers their overall weighted average. If a student demonstrates mastery of a skill or even some growth in terms of content understanding their grade should reflect this progress. In a future post I will discuss how to implement XP aka Level-Up Grading as a way to illustrate a student’s progress through the curriculum.