Changing the Classroom Perspective: Incremental Progression

The current debate over badges as a tool for learning assessment has gotten me thinking about one of the current features of the assessment system in university classes. We do not reward people for progressing through learning. Rather, they begin the class with a potential A and gradually lose points over the course of the term.

My university this term is offering a class on Greek civilization that doubles as a freshmen writing requirement. Students learn how to branch out from the 5-paragraph template of high school writing into more complex essay construction focused on argumentation and evidence. They engage in a series of incremental exercises intended to focus their abilities on particular features of an essay – the thesis, the evidence, the outline, the reasoning, etc. However, these exercises have no grade. Students can receive feedback on these activities, but these assignments have no visible or direct effect on the class grade. This means that for students, these assignments have no value.

I have talked a bit here and elsewhere before about how achievements and badges create a value system overlaid on the content to which they have been applied. In a class, grades act much the same way. Only those activities with a grade have value to the students. Grades have the value, not the lessons learned.

In such a system, a student begins the class with a potential A. On the first day of term, they have had no opportunities to lose points from an A, their attendance record is spotless, and they have grand intentions of participating in class each meeting. Of course, this rapidly falls by the wayside and over the course of the term, that A degrades into an A-, or maybe even a B+. Only those activities which have the power to maintain or degrade that final letter have value in the class.

This is a negative outlook on achievement. Since we like games and games often work on principles of achievement and assessment, let us use a game as a rough example. In an RPG, I certainly do not start out at level 50 and gradually lose levels as the clock ticks down, perhaps ending still at a 50 if I am particularly lucky (or have a lot of free time). I start at level 1 and in true democratic fashion, everyone starts at level 1 and everyone can get to level 50. In fact, every little level ding makes me want to play just one more turn, just one more quest to get that next level.

I said rough example because a game such as this has no strict time limit and has many other forms of incentive aside from level dings. A class however is much simpler in a way – there is only one ding (that final A) and not everyone is going to get it. Everyone can get somewhere though. Everyone can make some progress. Degrading their achievement (their A-grade) over the course of the term even when they are making progress seems counter-intuitive. Should we not be rewarding them incrementally as they progress incrementally?

Back to my writing class example from above. If this writing class were using a system more closely aligned with a leveling or experience-point system, the students could earn assessment points throughout the term after each activity. The incremental assignments wouldn’t be worth as much as a full paper, but they would still have some value. As the students progressed incrementally in their writing skill, their class grade would also incrementally progress. Rather than being mere busywork and inefficient uses of their time, these activities would now have obvious value.

Not only would a progressive assessment system change the notion of value in class activities, it would encourage students to continually work toward A-level work in a process, rather than work only to not lose their A-level grade. Rather than trying to hold on to grass on the edge of the cliff before they drop precipitously to an E, they are slowly working their way up the hill to the eventual peak and its glorious view. One step up the spiral staircase at a time.

Further, incremental assessment progress equalizes the definition of an A. In many of my writing classes, students will ask what I am looking for. They want to know what an A means for me so that they can mold their work to fit that definition and thus not have their A-grade diminished. In an incremental system, an A is less murky. It is quantitative and attainable through clear means. Not everyone will achieve it – but they will achieve something.

At the end of the class, a student will still either end up with an A or something else. But the means to that A have become different. The perspective has changed, and perspective can change a great many things.

For one rich example of incremental assessment in writing classes, see this middle-school example. My own suggestions here are of course much simpler.


  1. I don’t know whether I agree with the characterization that all students start out with an A and then proceed to lose points. I’ve always imagined students starting with 0 and then building points over the term towards the final grade (I often don’t build exams into my courses). Sometimes though students work out the calculus of potential points awarded vs time to do it vs # of such exercises remaining – and end up not doing the work/handing it in, calculating that the points just aren’t worth it since “I’ve got an exam/midterm/job/hangover that’s more important”. Do you ever come across this situation?

    1. Author

      Yes, definitely. That’s one of the problems with having ungraded assignments. It’s just not worth their effort to do them when they have things for other classes that do have grades attached. Of course, these ungraded assignments do indirectly affect their grade since doing the incremental activities likely helps their eventual papers, but that’s a risk they’re willing to take.

      Oh, I’d also add that there’s also a sense of ‘how much can I not do and still keep/get an A’. Even I as an undergrad skipped as many classes as was allowed before it would affect my grade even though that of course has the additional consequence of causing me to miss information and thus not learn something and be unable to answer it on an exam. It was a risk I took though – missing a couple questions probably wouldn’t be enough points to lose an A so it didn’t matter.

  2. Hi Emily, I have been using a points-based system for a writing intensive class for 10 years now – and the students really appreciate how it works! They are building a website that showcases their class project, and they start the project already in Week 1, building step by step, adding, revising, and each of those incremental assignments is worth a certain number of points, as are all the other writing assignments they do, plus the commenting they do on each other’s writing. Nothing high-stakes, but lots of work every week (about 6-8 hours of work per week; it’s an online class – no seat-time). I am very happy with the whole thing; the course materials you can find here – – and I have a detailed description of how and why I adopted this method not just of grading but also of public student writing here –
    Here’s how I explain the overall grading system to the students:
    It’s not perfect – the students still mistake the grade for learning… but what can you expect when that is the message they have been sent for 16 years nonstop? (I teach college seniors). The points-based, incremental system is a way for me to try to get them to learn some good writing skills DESPITE the fact that their goal is not so much writing but instead to get that A.

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing, Laura! And yes, I don’t expect them to really break from valuing the grade either – that system of value remains past college anyway. Getting them to actually learn in pursuit of that though… yes, that’s the goal. 🙂

  3. I love the idea. Strikes me as really powerful.

    My gut concern is about transferability. If it is about points, are X C-grade papers going to be worth an A? That’s a very input-driven model of attainment, which is what most industries are increasingly moving away from.

    If a student hands in just one paper that shows they are able to function at A-standard in that topic — should they be graded as an A? They should if the grade is intended to show what they know and what they can do.

    I’m sure it could be finessed to get around that issue. But as an employer, I’d be concerned to tell the difference between someone with limited capability who grinded their BA over 8 years paid for by their parents, to someone who did in 2 years aceing everything they submitted.

    1. Author

      Going back to the game analogy, this would be like grinding level 1 boars and trying to get to 50. 🙂

      They wouldn’t get an A with C-level work simply because there are only so many activities that can earn points and C-level work won’t earn as many points as A-level work.

      It really doesn’t change the end result at all – it just changes the approach the students take toward the material. It allows for more variety in assessing class activities so a) they can feel like non-major assessment points play into their grade and have value, and b) I can have a way to give value to the smaller work they’re doing. This is especially valuable for the C-level students because presumably they want to improve their grade so they do the smaller, incremental assignments, learning those lessons and progressing along the way. Those won’t ever equal a term of all A-level work, but it will give them a boost, not only in points, but in their ability to write better papers. Maybe they only get up to a B- but they’ve practiced more along the way and picked up strategies they can use in the future.

      If they do C-work all term, they won’t have progressed as far as a student who did A-work and their final grade will still reflect that.

      1. Ah, the exponential problem.

        Let’s do it in numbers. In an RPG you have two limiting systems.

        So a boar might give you 1xp. You need 10xp to get to level 2, whereupon you’ll be able to fight wereboars for 3xp. At 10th level, you’ll be gaining 1000xp per battle (for example). Thus the rewards are exponential. But if this were the only mechanism, then it would be literally pointless to ever fight a boar, and nobody would do it. In fact you get precisely the de-motivation issue you mention.

        So on top of that you make it so that characters are incapable of beating higher level enemies. Either because they never see them (areas of the game are out of bounds until they get there) or because of other flags that need to be set (need a silver weapon before fighting undead).

        So if nobody is going to grind C-level work to get an A, I assume that’s because there is some exponential system at work. But how do you stop the low-level work being utterly pointless again? I can miss all that stuff, because the outcome is only based on the mega-points available for the later work?

        Exponential point inflation gets used (in all genres, actually, from racing games to shooters) because it is much, much easier to game balance.

        So back to education, what could the point system actually look like, and what additional gating requirements do you need to make sure it isn’t either irrelevant, or grindable?

        (if this sounds negative – it isn’t at all – I am really enjoying your thoughts about this — something I’ve not thought about before — and I think there’s got to be a solution in there somewhere).

      2. Author

        The site I linked to at the bottom is one example of an exponential points system.

        You can still ‘gate content’ (not sure how else to describe it) by requiring that some assignments be completed before others. One can also just use levels or other means (achievements perhaps, badges, whatever you want – the class example linked above gives students an ‘item’ that increases xp gain from later assignments). One could give a bonus if every incremental assignment leading up to a keystone assignment is completed. However, there can also just be extra assignments that A-level students can freely skip (if they are already doing A-level at the beginning in a writing class, it’s likely that some of these exercises are a waste of their time anyway). C-level students could ‘grind’ out some of these assignments to boost but it’d have to be balanced in such a way that they don’t add up to a class A. Maybe the assignments are different depending on the xp level someone is at so that C-level students have different assignments than B-level (else you have people doing things that aren’t teaching them anything). For the already-A students, it’d be nice to have the other kind of optional assignment (heroic mode ya know) that lets them challenge myself and have a shot at an A+ or some kind of badge. I do want to talk about how badges play into this but that will be next time.

        As in any system, there will be players who exploit to their advantage. If that means A-level students skip lessons they already know, maybe that’s ok. The system allows for other options for them, ways they can improve past the ‘cap’ and earn something special.

  4. The tough part about grades or points in the classroom is that they are always going to hade an evaluative frame associated with them. In an RPG advancing through levels, learning spells, etc. is a reflection of the progress, mastery, and in many cases the specific kind of character you want to create. To this extent, I remain skeptical about ways to reframe grades as points or advancements. I’m to some extent conflicted here on the juxtaposition between credentialing and education, but on the education front I generally side with the idea that *all* metrics get in the way of learning.

    1. Trevor hit the nail on the head. When you are merely grafting an xp system on top of the existing set of assessments, you are only replacing one form of extrinsic motivation with another — you aren’t going to foster the good kind of intrinsic motivation to delve deeper into the material. Shawn is completely right to express concern over ‘gaming’ the system, but it isn’t any different than what students do with the existing grading structure.

      What needs to come to the forefront of the discussion is not the grading mechanism, but rather the actual assessments themselves (and no, an assessment is not limited to a paper or a test.) Games provide continuous formative assessment every step of the way and once you start designing courses with that in mind, the question of whether “low-level tasks” should receive xp awards or not goes away — everything becomes an integral part of the learning experience. You can award xp for any task because the play objectives align with the learning objectives.

  5. Author

    I hesitated to use the term experience points or levels at all since I don’t actually want to impose an RPG system onto the class. (I got a bit sidetracked in the comments). What I really want to do is change the perspective on class grades so that foundation assignments have value to the students who care mostly about that final grade. I’d like there to be an option besides graded or ungraded.

    I completely agree Kevin that a true game-based system would involve play in the process. When such an approach isn’t an option though, are we left with only final and milestone grades? Is there some middle-ground we can perhaps find that offers a different perspective on the class without changing the core system?

    It doesn’t seem to me that an incremental system needs to be necessarily game-based. It’s still a system, so it can still be gamed, but I’m not actually trying to copy over the incentives of leveling to the class. It seems like there should be another way of assessing work than just giving a grade at the end, whether the end of the class or the end of a major assignment, especially when the working process is a major part of assigned work.

    For this class, the students have had six small assignments (daily homework) and 3 weekly assignments leading up to their first paper. One of those weekly assignments was a full draft of the paper. However, the only thing they get a grade on is the revised version of that draft. It’s true that all these assignments lead up to the final product, but it would be really helpful to be able to assess the individual parts and have it matter in some way.

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