Stop Collecting Papers

I am trying to get better at my click-bait titles. How did that one sound? The only thing better would be if I could get a Listicle title in there – 5 Ways to Stop Collecting Papers…

Maybe next week.

If you can’t tell, the title is meant as a bit of hyperbole. Collecting papers, whether digital or physical, will probably still be necessary but I would encourage teachers to consider the speed at which feedback is provided on student work. In video games the player receives almost immediate feedback and a nearly instant ability to adjust strategy and replay. This is referred to as a Feedback Loop.

To what extent is this true in the classroom? Over the last few years my goal has been to collect and keep as few pieces of student work as possible. It is not earth shattering analysis that the faster feedback the better. (Maybe I should make that claim for more clicks though… Hmm…) The pedagogical question is not about feedback but rather how can a teacher structure the classroom either physically or in instructional design to create these feedback loops.

My answer has been to create an Open World Game styled class.

My game inspiration comes from games like Grand Theft Auto, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and The Legends of Zelda. In these games the player starts the game with access to a fairly large map. Some areas may be blocked off but within the area open to the player there is a great deal of freedom both in terms of movement and action. The player can choose to focus on a main narrative path, seek out side quests, or even just explore the map. There is no “correct” way to play.

In my experience, few classrooms are structured in this way. This is not meant to be judgmental rather an observation that most classes have a linear design. The teacher initiates the class and the students follow a prescribed path usually with timed sections and predesignated checkpoints. This sounds similar to a side-scrolling platformer like Super Mario Bros which is obviously a work of genius but every player will get through the level in a similar way and in a similar amount of time. Look at the difference between two Nintendo era games. The first is the more open world Legends of Zelda and the second is Super Mario Bros.



Many paths in the first and one path in the second.

When I began thinking of building more rapid feedback loops I realized it was strict linear structure that caused me to collect 80-90 papers at a time. The students each completed the same assignment at the same time meaning I had to collect the work to give feedback.

Now we come to a basic math problem. Let’s assume a teacher collects one hundred 2-3 page papers. How much time does it take to provide reasonable feedback? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Let’s assume 5 minutes per paper with no bathroom breaks, coffee breaks, phone interruptions, admin or family interactions. That comes to over 8 hours! I know that I am not finishing that in one night and probably not in two. The stack builds and builds and builds!

From the student’s point of view the paper or project is done and has been submitted on Monday. The teacher collects the work and in the best case scenario the student gets it back by Thursday. Think about how much that student has done in those 2-3 days. In the student’s mind, that paper may as well have been collected last year and that 8 hours of precious feedback is is not worth the paper the student is going to throw away as soon as it is handed back. This is like playing Super Mario Bros and battling to the World 4 boss only to die fighting Bowzer in the Castle and then the game shuts off and locks you out for 3 days! How many of us would even consider turning that game back on?! The gamer knows you get to immediately jump right back into the final part of the World and try again only this time with feedback from the previous attempt.

Here is how I created my Open World Style Classroom to ensure a better Feedback Loop.

  1. Create Different Mission Paths. The first step in my design was to create different mission paths. The early version of this was a simple menu of options where students needed to finish 3 out of 6 assignments in unit. As time has gone on I have added narrative and other mechanics. My students have Main Mission paths, side quests, ranking quests, Battle Prep, and other types of activities that they can choose to complete while in the classroom. (Here is a link to my classroom website if you want to check it out: ECHS Watcher’s Hub)
  2. The Transition Period – My US History Class is broken into 2 semesters with 4 Units in each semester. Think of the entire curriculum as a World Map. Each Unit is a section of the map. We completing missions in the current section of the map and players/students have access to the past areas. Future parts of the map are locked downloaduntil we finish the current zone. Think of this GTA V map. Unit 1 is the Green zone that is unlocked. After we unlock the Yellow Zone we can return to the green zone but most of the missions will take place in the yellow. In my class once we reach the Final “Common Assessment” that marks the “transition period”. Students can still return to past units and complete missions and can even earn full XP for those activities BUT they cannot use class time for these missions. Students must be working on the current Unit’s material while in class.
  3. Flipping the Content Knowledge – I know that Flipped Classroom has its issues; it can shift the burden of work outside of class time and there are equity of access issues. I use a modified Flipped technique which my curriculum coach tells me is form of Blended Learning. Recorded mini-lectures or borrowed YouTube clips dealing with content are used by students to create different forms notes at designated times in class.  These notes are checked on predetermined days (for example Standard 1 Section A might be due on August 29th) but the students have flexibility when to complete the notes. I refer to this as Battle Prep and on Fridays unlimited Battle Prep is allowed; on other days we focus on missions and quests. (I have more on this year’s modified Flip but that is another post.)
  4. Conferencing – Since I am not spending time reading lecture notes I can instead continually conference with students. The majority of my classroom instruction time is roaming from student group to student group conferencing with individual students or small groups. If we go back to that math problem I have freed up 2 and a half hours per week per class to meet with students and discuss their work rather than collecting, marking, and returning it. In my 90 minute class if I have 20 students I can meet with each of them for 2-3 minutes two times per class – longer if they are in small groups. The best part is the feedback is while they are working and it is instant. They take my comments and can immediately work that feedback into their ongoing work. The process is iterative and dynamic.
  5. No finished work – The culture built by the constant conferencing lets students know that the work is always being improved. Students have come to understand that the mission is not “finished” because they show me their work. It also means I am familiar enough with their previous designs that I can quickly spot any improvements and whether the feedback has been taken. The intense and often cursory 5 minutes of feedback during an 8 hour after work collected papers session is replaced with a deep and meaningful extended conversation with each student. This feedback loop might last for a class period or two weeks. It really depends on the student and the expectation for the mission work.

Well look at that! I got to 5 steps! I should rename the Post into a Listicle!

The truth is that each of these steps interacts and feeds into the other. This is not a simple solution to better feedback but a radical classroom redesign. For this reason I will not give into the Click-Bait headlines or meaningless platitudes. And truthfully it will not meet the needs of every situation; however meaningful and rapid feedback loops are possible if the teacher is willing to take time and effort to install this game inspired design.


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