The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Follow-up on Playful Historical Thinking Class Experiment

Last fall, I conducted an experiment in classroom pedagogy, building a modern European history course around the concept of playful historical thinking. I wrote about this in a guest post for Play the Past last September, which you can and should read here before continuing. I thought I would take this opportunity to give a quick follow-up on how the experiment went and where I hope to go from here.

For those who don’t want to slog through the previous post, I’ll provide a quick refresher. There were three distinct elements to my playful historical thinking class redesign: 1) a modular course structure designed to emulate loosely a child’s toy playset and to facilitate collaborative group play; 2) different types of assessments designed to encourage personal student engagement with the historical materials in the course modules; and 3) a small competitive grade dynamic to encourage playful competition between the students. The syllabus for the course can be found here. The course wiki, which contains all of the students’ work during the class, can be found here.

The long and the short of it is that the experience was very much a mixed bag, with some elements of the design working well and some not so much. I wouldn’t go so far as to label the effort a complete failure, but I was not particularly happy with how it turned out. And since I’m a big proponent of scholars in the humanities and social sciences publicly and honestly discussing their failures along with their successes, let’s dig into this more, shall we?

The Good

Looking at both the course output and the teaching evaluations, it is demonstratively clear that many students enjoyed the radical class design. These students rolled with the bumps, shrugged off the non-standard format, and engaged with the disparate course materials. As one student summed it up in their anonymous evaluation, “I liked how it was unique. I enjoyed making our own Wiki pages and working together in groups. It was a lot more interesting then getting lectured and staring at PowerPoints.”

In particular, the Personal Interest Essay (PIE) assignments seem to have appealed to some students, who in turn produced interesting and varied work, which was, of course, the intent. As one student put it in their evaluation, “I liked the personal interest essays because I got to learn about what was interesting to me.” According to another student evaluation, “The [PIEs] were a nice change from the standard writings on solely the course material; they made the class more [personable].” Some of my favorite examples from the semester include one student’s look at the nature of work during the Industrial Revolution; an attempt to grapple with the European treatment of native Africans during imperialism; a discussion of engineering during the Industrial Revolution; and an examination of the Cold War’s influence on the video game Metal Gear Solid 3.

Beyond the PIEs, my favorite example of students collaboratively playing with the course materials and creating something interesting was a group that made a video presentation for the European Imperialism module. It explored the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 using paper bag hand puppets; in other words, they made a video puppet show. You can watch it below:

Ken Burns it isn’t, but it’s glorious in its own way. It made my semester.

The Bad

Despite the student successes, there were many students who did not embrace or enjoy the class format. It was perhaps too open-ended and reliant on their choosing to engage with the materials on their own initiative. Some of these students produced average or poor work; made no effort to think outside the box; and generally dragged down the tone and tenor of the course. This is not some unusual occurrence in higher education or anything, but with so much collaborative group work built into the course, the disengaged students were particularly noticeable.

Complaints in the student evaluations tended to cluster around the difficulties inherent in group work and the use of technology in the course, issues I have always struggled with addressing adequately in my classes. Regarding policing group work, I have developed an evaluation that students within a group use to assess the performance of their other group members, which I then base part of their group work grade on. However, even this did not seem to head off the issue of free-riders in groups. One particularly vitriolic student criticism about the group work structure to the class began with this fairly mild statement: “This course has been absolutely ridiculous and by far the worst class I have ever taken and [sic] Grand Valley.” Clearly not a fan….

One other issue that students had difficulty with due to the course design was too little context offered on my part for the historical topics we were exploring. While I did introduce each module with a mini-lecture of sorts and did have other activities sandwiched in between module workshop days, I should have done more to frame better the six module topics.

The Ugly

The pacing and structure to the course was adequate but fragile, meaning if there was one disruption to the normal operation of the course, everything would quickly break down. I did not necessarily realize this when I was building the course, but I sure as hell do now. I had a couple of different disruptions this past semester, including a few minor health issues and the death of my grandfather in October that quickly mucked everything up. And as due dates began to slide and work piled up, triage simply wasn’t enough. As such, I actually had to start jettisoning aspects of the course to keep my head above water. Competitive grading, with students voting for those students whose work deserved a small grade bump, disappeared first (the logistics proved too burdensome for me to keep track of on top of everything else going on). I had to dump the collaborative Google Docs final exam as well, needing the class time instead so students could finish up their other work for module six on the Cold War.

What this reflects is that I probably had too much work in the course for students, which when doubled between the two sections became a massive amount of grading and processing that overwhelmed me. In fact, this was by far my worst semester when it came to returning grading in a timely manner, which I’m sure was as hugely frustrating to the students as it was to me. You would think that, after having taught for a number of years now, I would have figured out this balance issue by now, but I guess not.

So What Now?

In the end, I am glad I conducted the experiment and have already adopted small elements of it into a couple of my courses this semester (namely the modular topic format and a greater focus on non-lecture activities in class to stimulate playful historical thinking). However, in its current form, the class needs more polish to buff out the dents, smudges, and scratches. Should I try anything like this again, I’ll keep you all updated.

[Image by Flickr user Marc Buehler and used under Creative Commons license]


  1. Thank you for sharing the good the bad and the ugly! These sorts of candid assessments of our pedagogy are sorely needed, especially when faced with administrative techno-utopianism (‘another dose of tech will sort those students out’). I do hope you try this again, and I look forward to hearing how that experience turns out.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Shawn. I’m definitely not giving up on it. Many bits of it have migrated to my classes this semester. Hopefully, I can try the full experiment again in a semester when I don’t have so many damn classes to teach.

  2. Thanks for your candid critique of your course. Just like in a game, we need to experiment and not let setbacks deter us from getting to the next level. Good luck in the next iteration, and please keep us posted on the good, bad, and your reflections because this helps all of us learn.

  3. Your willingness to experiment (and to talk openly about the results) is admirable. The radical modifications you made to nearly every aspect of your course really challenge the status quo.
    I’ve used some of the same approaches in my high school History classes. Thus, I find the parallels between our experiences really interesting. Like you, I found that students respond best to choice; student projects have included prezis about the Black Plague, re-enactments of Mongolian fighting tactics using maps and army men, and a digital recreation of the Battle of Antioch using the mod feature of a PC game. The level of engagement is so high that learning seems inevitable.
    I’ve also encountered some of the difficulties you’ve outlined. If, for whatever reason, engagement is an issue on a particular day, the self-directed approach isn’t nearly as successful. Timelines can also become a real issue.
    We’ve experimented with a few different approaches to gaming in the classroom, such as turn-based re-enactments of the past ( Like you, I am still trying to figure out how the competitive, achievement-based reward system of gaming is best leveraged in the classroom.
    I wonder: have you seen this video? It took the teacher featured in the video well over a decade to get his gaming scenario right:

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