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FRESNO, Calif. — A group of seventh- and eighth-grade girls sat around a lunch table discussing a new game-like app they use in school. Danna Rodriguez somewhat sullenly said she didn’t want to care about Strides, which tracks points students can earn for attendance, grade-point average and engagement with the app itself, among other things. But she can’t help herself. She does care.
The pull of the points and the opportunity to “level up” has hooked her, as it has many of her peers at Edison Computech 7-8 and throughout the Fresno Unified School District.
When Danna is close to reaching a new level, she asks around to find out what else she can do to earn points. She checks the app every day, preoccupied with the idea that her unbroken streak of log-ins could get interrupted.
“I check it so the green line doesn’t get the red dot,” Danna said, laughing. “It’s scary!”
If she clicks into the app every day, reaching it through her district’s student portal, the line of green dots gets longer and longer on her screen. If she misses a day, a red dot breaks the streak.
Strides is an experiment in Fresno, based on the data-tracking fever inspired by Fitbit and other apps. At a time when schools are using more and more data to drive decision-making, from the central office to the classroom, giving students a look at their own data is the next frontier. By letting students see trends in their grades and attendance and making that data fun to track, administrators hope students can be nudged toward behaviors that are actually good for them academically.
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Students never lose points; Strides is all about positive reinforcement. The points available are evenly balanced across five “pillars,” with daily and weekly maximums in each category. Besides attendance and grades, students can get points for logging in to the student portal that houses Strides, for participating in after-school activities and for having their good behavior noticed in class. A student who doesn’t get good grades but participates in several after-school activities and has good attendance can keep up, points-wise, with a student who does get good grades but doesn’t participate in any extracurriculars, for example.
“We’re trying to avoid kids opting out because they see these super-smart kids are just going to win and [they] can’t compete,” said Paul Scott, coordinator of Fresno Unified’s software development team. “That’s not fun at all.”
Some students truly do not care about the points they can get for showing up to school or maintaining a high GPA. Others care, but only because it’s another opportunity to be rewarded for things they’re already doing. So far, early user data suggests that students who log in to Strides at least twice a week have higher average attendance and higher GPAs, and that’s true across race and ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status.
“It certainly appears that Strides is a healthy habit of high(er) achievers,” said David Jansen, Fresno Unified’s executive director of data science and software systems, via email.
There are students, though, who said the game has changed their behavior. Danna, for example, checks her educational stats more often than she would otherwise. And Melissa Miranda, a seventh-grader, said she knows going to school earns Strides points and she’s more likely to attend every day because of it.
Andrew Scherrer, Computech’s principal, said his team has been emphasizing use of the student portal for years. Computech is the district’s only “bring your own device” school, and all students have access to a laptop or similar device every day with which they can log in to the portal at any time. Scherrer’s own analyses of data from the years preceding Strides showed that students who monitored their statistics on the student portal did better in school — a finding that made him excited about Strides’ potential to give them even more motivation to do just that.
And Shannon Miles, an academic counselor, said students’ questions last year about why attendance should earn points at all had given her the chance to talk to them about how detrimental missing just a day or two of school per month can be for academic performance.
“Clicking Strides and wanting to understand it that first year just led to a ton of different conversations,” Miles said.
As students collect more points for certain accomplishments, they earn badges or “cred.” These badges can be secured for classroom participation, academic improvement, attendance, getting the highest grade in a given class and more. Developers also added in “Easter egg” badges that are just fun surprises. For example, students can earn one for typing in the Konami Code, a sequence that unlocks special features in many video games. Within a day of the secret release of that badge last year, a student randomly typed in the code and earned the badge. Through word-of-mouth, other students caught on, and many now have the badge and its accompanying points.
These special features are meant to keep the “game” interesting for students of all grade levels. Strides is now open to all of Fresno’s 58,000 students from second through 12th grade, said Jansen, a very broad age range to target with a single design. Gold stars that seem exciting for elementary schoolers can fall flat with high schoolers. But sometimes the gold stars show up as memes instead — like one of a puppy winking and pointing a paw with the words, “Who’s awesome? You’re awesome.” Even high schoolers have been known to squeal with delight upon logging in to Strides and seeing this surprise.
Also important is the leaderboard. Students see where they fall in relation to their entire school on Strides points. This element is anonymous by default, but a social component of the app lets them connect with peers and track their own progress in relation to their friends’. If two students accept each other as connections, they can see each other’s overall Strides score.
Several students said the leaderboard was what they paid most attention to in Strides. Generally these were the students who were “winning” against their peers. This raises concern that students lower down on the leaderboard might lose motivation to try — despite efforts by developers to give students multiple ways to earn points. Perhaps students can’t participate in extracurricular activities because of family commitments, or situations out of their control prevent daily attendance. Students can log in to the student portal and rack up points for doing that every day, but they are necessarily hamstrung in the other areas.
Despite the potential pitfalls, Jansen highlights the fact that Strides offers opportunities for feedback about academic performance that can help students make good decisions about their education. He finds this particularly powerful for students in the middle of the achievement spectrum.
“The high achievers get plenty of feedback,” Jansen said. “If you’re at the bottom, there’s also lots of feedback. But it’s the large chunk of students in the ‘murky middle’ who don’t have a good sense of how they’re doing in real time and compared to how they’ve traditionally done.”
Fresno’s student portal has operated for years as a report card of sorts. Students could see a snapshot of their achievement. That’s what most student portals offer in districts that have them. But they provide little context. For example, a student will find out at the end of the semester that that she was absent five days. But Strides lets the student see trends over time and communicates that information in a game-like way. The student can see that she’s been to school 15 days in a row, and that 23 days is her record. With this feedback, she may be nudged to continue the streak at least until she breaks her prior record.
In some ways Strides is obvious — getting points for straightforward actions like coming to school. But several students said they don’t quite understand Strides, or how many points they actually get for any given action or achievement. They don’t know all the ways they can earn points faster — and they can’t turn to their teachers for help. Many students discovered Strides before their teachers even knew it existed.
All of this was strategic.
Neill Gregory, a software engineer at Fresno Unified, said the theory is that students will be more motivated to explore something that seems like a mystery. He explains it using an analogy: if someone comes across a dark hole, curiosity will likely prompt the person to engage in slow and steady exploration. For all that person knows, the hole could go on for miles and be full of treasure.
“That’s part of what we’ve done,” Gregory said. “We’ve created a system where you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Similarly, the stealth rollout was designed to pique student interest. While the superintendent, chief academic officer and principals got a heads-up that the platform was ready, no one else did. Middle and high school students logging in to the district’s portal simply saw a new tab on their screens, near where their attendance and grades had always been. When they clicked it, they found the game-like tracking system.
Within the first semester, almost 30,000 students had accessed Strides at least once, according to Jansen. That’s most of the secondary students in the district (traditionally the top users of the student portal). This year, usage has continued to rise as students access it more regularly, Jansen said, and it has also continued to drive increased use of the student portal more generally.
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Some teachers and school leaders were put off by the lack of information about Strides. But principals got the message that the less adult involvement in the app, the better. If schools advocated for its use, it could lose the “cool factor” the developers hoped it would have.
While principals have tried to respect that, some haven’t been able to keep themselves from brainstorming ways to institutionalize Strides. At the end of last year, Abril García, Roosevelt High School’s vice principal, requested a list of the highest-scoring Strides users in each grade. They got to pick from a range of prizes, including Bluetooth speakers.
Scherrer, principal of Computech, plans to incorporate Strides into his school’s end-of-year awards ceremony this year. He said he likes that it provides a new way to recognize student performance. Sometimes the high-flyers on Strides aren’t the ones who show up at the top of other award categories.
Still, Jansen worries that prizes will disrupt what Strides is getting right. Already the app plays with fire when it comes to its method for motivating students.
Yu-kai Chou, a gamification expert who developed the Octalysis design framework, describes eight “core drives” for human motivation that can be built into game design. Strides primarily motivates students through the opportunity for accomplishment. Getting points, leveling up and earning badges all bring a sense of triumph — but if students start to see those points (rather than personal growth) as the prize, the motivation will have become extrinsic.
“The biggest problem with extrinsic motivation is it wipes out our intrinsic desire to learn,” said Chou, who was not involved in developing Strides. But, he added, school already does that by tying achievement to grades, a future diploma and the promise of a good career. Babies, by contrast, learn simply because they want to learn.
Fresno developers have continued to add new features, to keep the game interesting, and Jansen is monitoring the risks inherent in the design.
He’s also thinking about the research opportunities Strides presents. His team hopes to identify specific traits of high-performing students based on Strides’ data, and to use that profile in teachers’ and parents’ efforts to help improve other kids’ performances.
So far he has held off on doing this type of analysis, however, in part to build up the student user base and also to collect more data. Because of this, it’s still too early to judge the effects that Strides is having. The app isn’t considered an “intervention.” It’s just a gamified way for students to keep track of their own educational stats and those of their friends. But the district plans to design a trial in the near future to study whether using Strides on a regular basis helps underperforming students or those who miss school often.
Strides’ data may also be able to help the district track social and emotional learning. Fresno Unified already annually surveys students to measure their levels of social awareness, self-management and growth mindset, but Strides offers a platform to ask students survey questions all year long. This will lead to an unprecedented amount of data, and the district is partnering with Panorama Education, an IT company, to study it.
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In one such project, Malati Gopal, an analyst with the Fresno Unified School District, has crafted a number of “affirmations” that will start showing up on students’ screens, designed to give them a boost of confidence or sense of control over their lives. For example, one draft affirmation says, “I am the architect of my life; I commit to coming to school each day ready to learn to affect my future.” Analysts will be able to see whether there are any patterns in student behavior following the appearance of such affirmations.
Gopal is also considering adding pop-up puzzles to Strides to see how long students try to solve problems before giving up. This could offer a concrete measure of certain social and emotional skills to complement the surveys.
These subtle studies offer adults a chance to probe the inner workings of student motivation and performance in ways they haven’t been able to do before. Collecting data regularly over the course of an entire year or more, based on students’ actual actions rather than what they report on annual surveys, could provide a rare opportunity to prove that one thing actually causes another. Schools — and researchers — often have to limit themselves to saying that one thing simply correlates with another.
Sam Moulton, research director at Panorama, said the type of research and data collection Fresno Unified is planning is not at all uncommon among tech companies that do experiments to figure out how little changes in their technology impact user behavior.
But it’s not quite the same.
“Usually it’s about how to get people to click ads, not get kids to attend school more regularly,” Moulton said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
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