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University of Michigan professors give out more A’s under a new grading system. Credit: Jill Barshay/The Hechinger Report

At the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, about 8,000 students have earned their ordinary course grades in an unusual way. They start out the semester with a zero, but each has the opportunity to earn an A by racking up points. The professor determines how many points each assignment or test is worth, and there are various ways to get to an A. If students botch an assignment, they can try something else. Each student can track his or her point tally online and see options for earning more points.

Since developing this system, named “GradeCraft,” five years ago with two colleagues, education professor Barry Fishman gleefully admits he’s awarding many more A’s. He estimates that he’s doling out A’s to 80 percent of his students now, compared with 50 percent or 60 percent beforehand. But, he claims, his students are working a lot harder.

“Colleagues say I’m not rigorous enough,” said Fishman. “I think rigor should be about how challenging the material is, not how hard it is to achieve a certain outcome.”

In surveys conducted by GradeCraft’s inventors, students reported that they worked harder and felt more in control of their class performance. Those results were published in the January, 2018, issue of Games and Culture.

Related: Fitbit for education: Turning school into a data-tracking game

Higher grades and more motivated students sound good. But it’s unclear if students are actually learning more. No one is asking these students to take additional, outside assessments to measure their learning gains. Inferring learning gains from their current coursework is complicated across subjects as varied as political science and computer programing. Plus, it’s hard to gauge how much students already knew prior to taking a course.

But Fishman argues that conventional grading systems can undermine learning. That’s because if you fail the midterm, and it’s worth 30 percent of the final grade, you might realize that you’ll never be able to claw your way back up to an A, and stop trying. “You moderate your behavior and try less hard to maintain a B average. You see it all the time,” said Fishman.

The opportunity to earn an A, even late in the semester, keeps students engaged, Fishman argues. And it encourages students to take risks, knowing that they can repair the damage later if they fail at first.

In one undergraduate class, Fishman offers a menu of 1.4 million points. Students need to reach 900,000 to get an A. “You could never earn a good grade just by doing dumb stuff,” he said.

In another graduate seminar, Fishman assigns only one paper. But students can revise and resubmit it over and over again to earn an A.

Related: Making ‘Big Data’ useful rather than scary for teachers

Fishman was inspired to turn his grading system into a game after reading James Paul Gee’s 2003 book, What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy. Best-selling games, Gee argued, are great learning environments where players work hard and build skills.

“The challenge for us in education is that well-designed games aren’t teaching the things we want to teach,” said Fishman.

Many researchers and educators are experimenting with ways to get students to learn, joyfully, through video games. But Fishman thinks learning is hard work, and a lot of it requires reading, writing, practice and reflection. Instead of trying to turn his course material into a game, Fishman started brainstorming about turning the entirety of school into a meta-game, one where players engage in a conflict, defined by rules with a quantifiable outcome. In this case, the “conflict” for the student is whether he or she can master the material.

He teamed up with a political science professor, Mika LaVaque-Manty, who was also experimenting with ways to motivate students through games. Graduate student Caitlin Holman came up with the idea of an online console, or dashboard, so that students could track their progress.

Almost 100 professors in 28 different programs and departments at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have tried GradeCraft, and most are repeat players. A couple professors didn’t like it. It can be an onerous burden to manage so many different assignments. The system has been particularly hard to implement in large science classes where students are traditionally graded on just a few, often multiple-choice, tests.

Another reason some educators resist, however, is the deeply ingrained belief that grades shouldn’t just be a reflection of how well students have mastered course material, but a mechanism for ranking students and signaling which students in the class are best. That’s why some professors like to grade on a curve, in which only the top 20 percent can earn an A.

So far, the system has been used mostly at Ann Arbor, an elite institution where students tend to obsess about their grades. One science high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee is testing it, too. Other colleges, including the University of Michigan at Dearborn and the University of Arizona, are experimenting with using GradeCraft in initiatives to keep students from dropping out. Time will tell whether counting your way to an A works for less motivated students.

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