The Problem with Grinding (a recap)

At the end of last year I decided to experiment with a new Grading system. For years I had championed XP Grading but was trying to overcome the problem with GRINDING. The benefit of XP Grading is that all XP are equal. This gives students an opportunity to overcome a poor test score (or out right test anxiety) by making up the XP in another area. By creating side quests that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in a different but still meaningful way teachers can construct a truly differentiated classroom. The downside of this advantage is Grinding. This is a term from Role Play Games where a player will continuously accomplish easy low level tasks in order to level up their character before taking more difficult challenges. In any gamelike system there will be some players who want to take advantage of the rules to win the game. In the classroom though this grinding amounted to a distortion of the students/player’s true abilities. As I began studying Standards Based Grading the concept seemed to pair well with game inspired designs. I implemented the concepts but I know believe that a blended XP/SBG system would be better than either system individually (for more check out pt 1 and pt 2 of this series).

Still, the problem of students grinding out lower level tasks to just bang out XP remains. For a potential solutions I am looking to the heavens for inspiration… specifically Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Skyrim Skill Tree Constellation Inspiration

Skyrim is an action RPG (it’s more complex actually but let’s keep this simple). When the player accomplishes certain tasks they earn “Perk Points” that can be used on a skill tree to enhance their character with new powers and skills. The basic concept of a skill tree is that the character starts in the lowest level and slowly moves up the tree. The tree branches in different directions which forces the player to make choices as they specialize their character. The skill tree in Skyrim has 3 main “trunks” – Magic, Combat, and Stealth – with 6 branching skills in each. The theme for the skill tree is the Elder Scrolls World Constellations… And it is beautiful.

For this thought experiment I am thinking about the Warrior Branch and its 6 subskills. Although players can build a character with some skills in each “trunk” the Perk Points are limited and to get to the most powerful upgrades players usually specialize. These are the 6 “constellations” of the warrior skills. Note that each ‘star’ is a skill.

The Heavenly Solution

My biggest concern with grinding in the XP system is students racking up points in low level activities and avoiding more challenging activities. Another concern is students repeating the same skill over and over again and never stepping outside of their comfort zone. Once a student has demonstrated mastery in one skill it is also grinding to continuously earn points in that one skill. The obvious solution is to limit the number of activities or number of types of activities available to students. This is a fairly brute force method though and I would like to make it a bit more elegant using game mechanics.

Enter the Constellation Perk Points system. In my outline of this plan each completed side quest will earn a student 200 Level Points (what I used to call XP), some XP (not tied to grades), and “Perk Points”. Students can only complete 6 side quests in the semester which will max out their Perk Points and LP. This will mean that students can earn up to 1,200LP out of my 10,000LP system. In the letter grading system this would equal just over a full letter grade. When I describe this LP system to students I stress that these side missions are a pathway to make up for LP that they may have not earned during a test. Completing all 6 side quests would essentially raise a test score average from an 80% to a 100%.

To combat the grinding within a single skill category I am planning to arrange side quests according to the deconstructed skills standards in the 2020 SC state US History Standards. These standards are Comparison, Causation, Periodization, Context, Continuities and Change, and Evidence. I have already made Standards Based Grading rubrics for these standards so the side quests will be ranked according to these rubrics and students will keep redoing their work until they reach “Level 3 – Meets Expectations” which will award them the LP, XP, and Perk Point. I will likely need to give some sort of bonus in XP and/or Perk Points for those that meet level 4.

Here are my Early Constellation Models.

When this system starts students will receive a paper copy of each constellation (probably all 4 on 1 piece of paper). Once a Perk Point has been earned students will receive a sticker that can be added to their paper copy which each “Star” representing a new perk power. They will need to start at a particular star and work their way linearly through the constellation. This means that there will be trade-offs and strategy involved with using their points. Since the more powerful perks will be towards the end of the constellation students will have to complete the side quests and decide which skill tree they would like to complete OR decide if they are fine with several lower ranking powers.

I am still working on the plan for implementation. My initial thoughts are to have a website with side missions. In Google Sites some pages can be hidden from view but are still accessible if a person has a direct URL. Using this feature I would also like to hide some hidden quests physically around building on item cards. Another option might be awarding quests for completing certain activities in class or solving some puzzles.

This is still a work in progress but this game inspired idea has me more excited than I’ve been in quite awhile!