Summit Reflection: Grading, Gamification, and the “Game” of School

In early October, LILE hosted the inaugural Emerging Pedagogies Summit for Duke faculty and staff invested in teaching and learning. The Summit’s goal was to promote ongoing conversations about the future of education in hopes of shaping a future vision of pedagogy. In this blog series, we will revisit each session to reflect on the lessons shared by the presenters and envision how these emerging pedagogies may take root at Duke.

Conventional perception tends to see game and learning as opposing concepts. Learning is often seen as rigorous intellectual labor, while games are viewed as mere entertainment for the mind. However, this perspective isn’t necessarily true, especially when we gain a deeper understanding of how learning functions. In the summit panel titled “Grading, Gamification, and the ‘Game’ of School”, Barry Fishman, a Professor of Learning Technologies from the University of Michigan, shared how games can be used as an engaging and transformative pedagogical approach, eliminating the negative impact from the traditional grading system.

Click the image below to watch the entire session:

Fishman started with the topic of grading. While educators want students to be deeply engaged with subject matter and take risks to try new things, our education system employs grades to prioritize sorting and ranking above learning. Additionally, grades tell us limited information, because they focus on outcomes and hide the learning journey. So, what could we do instead? Among a range of approaches being experimented as alternatives to traditional grading, Fishman was particularly attracted to mastery-based grading, and found that well-designed games actually share a lot of similarities with this approach.

According to Salen & Zimmerman’s (2003) definition of games, “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” Thinking through this definition, our education system is also a game with rules and quantifiable outcomes, but its incentive system creates undesirable outcomes. That leads to a main idea of the panel: improving the game of school.  

Doing so isn’t about playing games in the classroom, or adopting gamification in courses such as using tokens, avatars, or leaderboards. Fishman argued that gamification and being gameful are different. Gamification is usually adopted in a superficial way, such as transplanting elements of games to courses, but doesn’t actually encourage student motivation. Instead, Fishman encouraged instructors to plan their courses in a “gameful” way: applying principles of good game design to make the learning environment more engaging and transformative. He then introduced 10 principles of designing good learning environments and shared examples of how instructors used GradeCraft, a LMS tool, to help deploy gameful courses.

Following his presentation, Fishman had a public conversation with Victoria Szabo, Research Professor at Art, Art History, & Visual Studies, and Shai Ginsburg, Associate Professor at Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Szabo discussed her insights on gameful learning, sharing her course that adopted the gamification principles by creating a structured, interactive experience for students. She also raised questions about implementing the gameful course, including how to address point-based grades, and how to move beyond the general teaching purpose to create specific sub-learning goals. 

Ginsburg shared his experience of adopting GradeCraft, which prompted him to rethink and shape his own pedagogy. In Ginsburg’s classroom, games create certain classroom dynamics, where both him and students enjoy the class and become part of the game. However, he found students in his gameful course were usually more anxious at the beginning of the semester due to their unfamiliarity with the system. 

The panel concluded with a Q&A session, during which Fishman offered insights into implementing gameful learning practices. He emphasized the benefit of monitoring student learning based on data so that the instructor can understand student learning progress and provide customized support. Regarding implementing gameful learning in traditional settings, Fishman advocated the shifting to a mastery-based system, and suggested ensuring a safe environment to encourage students to take challenges.


It’s impressive how Fishman differentiates gameful from gamification. While both terms are valid, their nuanced contexts are worth considering: gamification usually involves directly adopting game elements to the course, while “gameful” stresses principles of creating challenging and engaging learning experiences. While it might be a lot to innovate the entire course with a gamification mechanism, adopting a principle of good game design in an assignment can be a good starting point.

Also, just as Fishman mentioned in the presentation, the essence of gameful learning has similarities to other alternative pedagogical approaches such as mastery-based grading and ungrading:

  • Mastery-based grading provides students with learning objectives for course content, allows students opportunities to show mastery on assessments that are aligned to the learning objectives, and gives students multiple ways to demonstrate mastery of each learning objective (Kenyon, 2022). 
  • Ungrading is a practice which eliminates or greatly minimizes the use of assigned points or letter grades in a course, focusing instead on providing frequent and detailed feedback to students on their work, in relation to the course learning goals (Larson, 2023). 

All three approaches have one commonality: they center the assessment on the student learning process. Instead of giving students grades to compare against an external credential, these approaches prioritize providing feedback and improvement opportunities, empowering students to focus on their own learning. 

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ChatGPT-3.5 was used to review and improve the word-choice for an early draft of this blog post.