Belts and Bows: Ranking System Reviewed

At the end of last year I wrote about my plan to implement a Tie Ranking System. Now I am a two months into the implementation of that system and couldn’t be happier with the way the studemts have responded. First, a quick overview of current version of my Tie Ranking System.

I invited my son’s karate instructor to my school to give a self-defense session and afterword I couldn’t resist showing him my ranking wall. I had already explained to him that the karate belt system had inspired this mechanic. Essentially, at the dojo when the instructor feels the student is ready the student may ‘test’ for the next higher belt. This is the same basic structure my current system uses though I tied it to Levels which are related to their XP count. For example, a student with 3,500XP is a level 14. Students must meet a minimum level before the can test for a new rank. For example, to test for a white bow tie a student had to be a level 7 and to test for the yellow tie (the next rank up) they had to be a minimum of a level 13. This takes some potential bias oit of my hands. It also allows choosing to rank test to be a completely voluntary system. Games after all are a voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles and well over half have attempted to overcome the barrier to gain at least one rank.

I have 12 ranking levels – 2 tiers of 6 colors. Each student starts as a White Tie. By ‘testing’ after level 7 a student can move up to a White Bow Tie. The straight ties is the first tier and bows are the second tier in each color ranking. After white is yellow then green, blue, purple, and black. The highest honor is the Black Bow Tie.

Each belt test consists of two phases. The first is a 10 question content quiz. The student must score an 8/10 or better to advance to the performance task phase. If a student does not meet this mark they may retake the quiz next class. The only penalty is wait time. The content is matched to the content is linked to the color and represents where a student should roughly be in the class when they achieve the color. White tie content is standard 1 only. Yellow is a combination of standard 1 and 2, and so on. The performance task varies with each tie as well and correspond to skills I expect students to be competent with before they leave my class. The white bow test was separating primary and sources, the yellow tie was source validity, and the yellow bow is locating sources in databases. Like the content quiz, if a student fails the performance task they may retake it the following class. Interestingly, in the karate dojo the decision is largely subjective by the instructor. In the performance task if a student struggles I feel the same subjectivity but the students failure leads to a discussion of why the task was unsuccessful. The rapid feedback and ability to quickly try again the next class help with this free to fail concept.

At each level I have offered students several potential motivators. The first is a pure ‘stuff’ reward. Students get a Gold Bonus for completing the level. Since they are demonstrating mastery of a skill I also award XP. Students may also to participate in a pin placing ceremony! We play celebratory classical music (though one student recently requested the Civil War song John Browns Body) as the student walks across the front of the classroom and moves his or her own pin to the next ranking level. In literally every ceremony the other students spontaneously applaud – especially the others that have tested. This and the pin on the higher rank are important Status rewards. Not every student wants this which I respect and check before we start, but they are all so proud when I shake their hands when I award them the new level. I also have an access reward built in too. The highest ranking students are allowed to sit in my “Black Tie Lounge” that has some comfy chairs. Students can also purchase power cards and most improved can sit here as well.

In all the ranking system acts like a voluntary leaderboard but unlike simple Leaderboards it can also serve as a personal marker rather than just a competition with others. In fact one of the reasons I wanted a karate style system was seeing the community that was present in a dojo. Even though there is rank order every upper belt helps a lower belt improve and realizes that they can learn in the process. Instead of being solely comparative it also fosters collaboration. I am seeing this in my class as well. Students that struggle with the source validity test are seeking out the higher ranks to understand how to pass next time.

One last piece of trivia. When I showed the karate instructor my wall he told me that in Japan they used to give each student a wooden block to place on the wall. As the student moved to higher belt ranks they moved the block along the wall in a fashion similar to my system. Each student has a clothesline with their codename. The move the clothesline “up” to the next ribbon each time they rank up. Apparently my effort to simplify the process and make it public was another adaptation of an older karate system!

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