Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash.

This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

  1. We generally avoid failure.
  2. We experience failure when playing games.
  3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid. (Juul, p. 2)

As a continuation from my last blog post considering grades and Self-Determination Theory, I wanted to take a brief side-quest into considering what it means to experience failure. Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games will provide the main outline and material for this post, while I add what lessons we might learn about feedback and course design in online settings.

Dealing with Failure

Juul outlines how games communicate through feedback using the theory of Learned Helplessness. Specifically, he focuses on Weiner’s attribution theory, which has three dimensions:

  1. Internal vs. External Failure
    1. Internal: The failure is the fault of the player. “I don’t have the skills to defeat this enemy right now.”
    2. External: The failure is the fault of the game. “The camera moved in a way that I couldn’t see or control and resulted in a game over.”
  2. Stable vs. Unstable Failure
    1. Stable: The failure will be consistent. No recognition of experience gained or improvement. “No matter what I do, I can’t get past this challenge.”
    2. Unstable: The failure is temporary. There is a possibility for future success. “I can improve and try again.”
  3. Global vs. Specific Failure
    1. Global: There is a general inability preventing success. “I am not good at playing video games.”
    2. Specific: Poor performance does not reflect on our general abilities or intelligence. “I’m not good at flight simulators, but that doesn’t mean I’m bad at all video games.”

In general, a combination of Internal+Stable+Global failure feedback would contribute most strongly toward a player adopting a learned helplessness mindset. There is a potential parallel here with course design: when a student does not do well on an assessment, what kind of feedback are they receiving? In particular, are they receiving signals that there is no opportunity for improvement (stable failure) and that it shows a general inability at the given task (global failure)? Designing assessments so that setbacks are unstable (offer multiple attempts and a way for students to observe their own improvement over time) and communicating specific skills to improve (make sure feedback pinpoints how a student could improve) would help students bounce back from a “game over” scenario. But what about internal vs. external failure? For Juul, “this marks another return of the paradox of failure: it is only through feeling responsible for failure (which we dislike) that we can feel responsible for escaping failure (which we like)” (p. 54). This importance of internal failure aligns with what we know about metacognition (Berthoff, “Dialectical notebooks and the audit of meaning”) and the numerous benefits of reflection in learning.

Succeeding from Failure

Now that we have an idea on how we deal with failure, let’s consider how we can turn that failure into success! “Games then promise players the possibility of success through three different kinds of fairness or three different paths: skill, chance, and labor” (Juul, p. 74):

  1. Skill: Learning through failure, emphasis on improvement with each attempt. (This is also very motivating by being competence-supportive!)
  2. Chance: We try again to see if we get lucky.
  3. Labor: Incremental progress on small tasks accumulates more abilities and items that persist through time and multiple play sessions. Emphasis here is on incremental growth over time through repetition. (Animal Crossing is a great example.) (This path is also supported by Dweck’s growth mindset.)

Many games reward players for all three of these paths to success. In an online course, allowing flexibility in assignment strategies can help students explore different routes to success. For example, a final project could allow for numerous format types, like a paper, podcast, video tutorial, interactive poster, etc. that students choose strategically based on their own skills and interests. Recognizing improvement will help students with their skills and helping students establish a routine of smaller, simpler tasks that build over an entire course can help them succeed through labor. Chance is an interesting thing to think about in terms of courses, but I like to think of this as it relates to content. Maybe a student “gets lucky” by having a discussion topic align with their final project topic, for example. For the student in that example, that discussion would come easier to them by chance. Diversifying content and assignment types can help different individuals and groups of students feel like they have “lucky” moments in a course.

Reflecting on Failure

Finally, how do games give us the opportunity to reflect on our successes and failures during gameplay? Juul outlines three types of goals that “make failure personal in a different way and integrates a game into our life in its own way” (pp. 86–87):

  1. Completable Goal: Often the result of a linear path and has a definite end.
    1. These can be game- or player-created. (i.e., Game-Driven: Defeat the ghost haunting the castle. Player-Driven: I want to defeat the ghost without using magic.)
  2. Transient Goal: Specific, one-time game sessions with no defined end, but played in rounds. (e.g., winning or losing a single round of Mario Kart.)
  3. Improvement Goal: Completing a personal best score, where a new high score sets a new goal.

For Juul, each of these goal-types have different “existential implications: while working toward a completable goal, we are permanently inscribed with a deficiency, and reaching the goal removes that deficiency, perhaps also removing the desire to play again. On the other hand, we can never make up for failure against a transient goal (since a lost match will always be lost), whereas an improvement goal is a continued process of personal progress” (pp. 86–87). When thinking about your courses, what kinds of goals do you design for? Many courses have single-attempt assignments (transient goal), but what if those were designed to be improvement goals, where students worked toward improving on their previous work in a more iterative way that replaced old scores with new and improved scores (improvement goal)? Are there opportunities for students to create their own challenging completable goals?

I hope this post shines a light on some different ways of thinking about assessment design, feedback types, and making opportunities for students to “fail safely” based on how these designs are achieved in gaming. To sum everything up, “skill, labor, and chance make us feel deficient in different ways when we fail. Transient, improvement, and completable goals distribute our flaws, our failures, and successes in different ways across our lifetimes” (Juul, p. 90).

red lightbulb

Photo by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

Last Time on SDT & Online Education…

This post is a continuation of my previous blog posts on Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and Online Education and a companion post to Chris Lindberg’s series of posts, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement.

In my last post, I posed some difficult questions to consider as you start thinking about how you use grades and motivation in your courses. In case you missed that post, here are the questions—I invite you to spend a few minutes, hours, or days with these questions before moving on with the rest of this blog post:

  • Do you use grades to create external regulation of behavior in your course?
    • Are you grading a behavior or the demonstration of a skill?
  • Do you want to emphasize performance goals or mastery goals?
  • Are there ways to help students identify and integrate the activities and assessments in your course?
  • Do you need to grade this activity/assessment/task?

Why are you grading?

“The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much.” (Kohn, 1993, p. 50)

When I first started teaching, I remember asking a colleague if they would review my syllabus draft. They read the attendance policy and asked me something along the lines of, “Why are you grading this? Does it have anything to do with the outcomes of your course?” I probably spewed the usual talking points that students do better in class when they attend, I wanted them to come to class, etc. The reply: “So, do you want to grade learning, or behavior?” That question rocked my world as a young teacher. And made me question everything.

Why do we use grades? Numerous studies have shown that grades and rewards, especially for intrinsically motivating activities such as learning, have detrimental effects. And what do these grades communicate? In terms of SDT, “grading in educational contexts has two functions. One is providing competence-relevant feedback to students, presumably as an aid to enhancing subsequent performance … A second is gatekeeping. Grades can be used to make sure that only students who have mastered material and are thus qualified are eligible for higher training…” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 371). What does an A, B or F communicate to you? For Ryan & Deci, grades by themselves provide little in the way of relevant feedback. (For more on effective feedback, see Wiggins, 2012.)

So can a “grade” be useful? In the context of SDT, there needs to be important information communicated to students about how they’re doing and where they need to spend more attention and effort. In order for this to be autonomy-supportive, it should be informative for the learning process and not judgmental, pressure-inducing, or a social comparison, both in terms of being a reward or a punishment. For example, “Great work. You might consider adding an example in your third paragraph.” is not informative toward the learning process; “You do a great job of defining the problem in your third paragraph, which is an improvement from your first draft. Adding an example would do even more to help your readers relate to this problem.” is an example of feedback that informs a student about where they have come from and where they still need to go.

Performance vs. Mastery

“There do, indeed, seem to be few empirical or theoretical supports for the motivational or competence-building advantages of classical grading schemes. Yet, in most school settings, grades and evaluations are employed as if they were the key to motivation, when, in fact, especially for those who need competence supports, they are likely to be undermining influences.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 371)

Is it possible to see a letter grade of your work in a course outside the context of social comparison? How often is a B simply viewed as “better than average” or “in the top half of the class”? Focusing on performing a certain way relative to others is a performance goal, while focusing on increasing competence or learning is a mastery goal. (For more on this topic, see Elliot, 2005.) Additionally, each category of goal has an approach type (seeking to achieve something) and an avoidance type (seeking to avoid something). Multiple studies have found that the performance-avoidance combination has the most detrimental outcomes for both learning and student well being, and that this combination is adopted most when students have expectations of being graded (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 373).

Ungrading

“…the grading system that higher education in the United States has relied on for many decades has serious problems. It does not work in anyone’s interests, and it genuinely hurts those most directly associated with it: the faculty and the students. In fact, the system is broken.” (Nilson, 2015, p. 23)

At this point you might be asking, “what am I supposed to do?” There are numerous tools, resources, alternatives, and considerations when thinking about using or eliminating grades in a course, such as self-assessment, student-created rubrics, or specifications or criterion-based grading. (Several more are listed in the Reference & Resources section below). One option is to eliminate grading all together, which some institutions have done. If you aren’t ready to eliminate all your grades, try focusing on providing students with feedback in an autonomy-supportive way and empowering them to learn the valuable skill of self-assessment. Without rewards and punishments, students will feel a greater sense of competence; self-assessment and valuable and informative feedback will give students a greater sense of autonomy—that they’re in the driver’s seat for their own learning; with an increased focus on communication about learning, students will also gain a greater sense of relatedness.

There is much more to the topic of grading and ungrading than can be covered in a single blog post, so I’d like to invite you to check out the references and resources below, add your comments, suggestions, and experiences in the comments, contact your instructional designer, or keep an eye out for other opportunities to continue the discussion at various upcoming Ecampus events!

References & Resources

Center for Self-Determination Theory (CSDT). (2019).

  • This website is a treasure-trove of resources on SDT and its application in numerous fields, including education.

Elliot, A. J. (2005). A conceptual history of the achievement goal construct. In Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.) Handbook of competence and motivation (52–72). New York: Guilford Press.

Flaherty, C. (2019). When grading less is more. Inside Higher Ed.

Kohn, A. (2018). Rewards are still bad news (25 years later). New York Times.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Serling, VA: Stylus.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Stommel, J. (2018). How to ungrade.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership 70(1), 10–16.

image of several birds sitting and one is moved to fly Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

My interest in learning about motivation in education began many years ago when I started learning about motivation in game design. In order to better understand motivation, in a classroom, while playing a game, and in an online learning environment, I am turning to the body of research that has grown from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This blogpost will be a continuation of my previous SDT Primer and an excellent companion to Chris Lindberg’s Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement series of posts.

While I had intended to use this entry for discussing grades and assessment, an important piece of SDT and its application is understanding the different types of motivation explored by the SDT community of researchers. This post will define and expand on the numerous types of motivation in preparation for a discussion on grades and assessment.

Before we begin, take a brief minute to explore and reflect about what moves you to do something? As an example, what moved you to open this blog post and begin reading it?

The Autonomy-Control Continuum

The types of motivation you might be most familiar with are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, while extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome. I might be moved to read a chapter of a novel over lunch because it is inherently enjoyable (intrinsic), or I might be moved to run errands over lunch because of external factors, like visiting the bank or post office due to their limited open hours (extrinsic). While these opposites are often displayed and discussed as an either-or, they are really just two ends of a spectrum that contains more nuanced gradations.

(Gagné & Deci, 2005, p. 336)

The autonomy-control continuum (Ryan & Deci, 2017) is an outgrowth of the intrinsic-extrinsic spectrum, representing the spectrum between autonomous regulation, or a feeling of complete volition and controlled regulation, or a feeling of being externally or internally compelled to act. While intrinsic motivation would fall under the category of autonomous regulation, extrinsic motivation can sometimes come close to the autonomy end of the spectrum for personally important or valued tasks, or can swing all the way to the controlling side with external rewards or punishments for tasks. And on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from intrinsic motivation is amotivation, or the complete absence of intentional regulation. Ideally, we hope that students will feel autonomous motivation, which has also been shown as optimal for learning.

Internalized Motivations: External vs. Internal

Now let’s explore some of the murky gradations between feeling autonomous and controlled. The first step is to compare two degrees of controlled regulations: external vs. internal regulations. External regulation is motivation that is controlled by external factors—a student might experience external regulation when they have to complete a group project in a course. External factors, the instructor in this case, dictates that students collaborate in groups for this project. Internal regulation (or introjection), occurs when internally controlling factors are at play, e.g. shame, guilt, or fear. Continuing with the group work as an example, a student might feel moved to complete a task for the group project by placing internal pressure on themselves, resulting in feeling guilty if they don’t perceive that they’re pulling their weight, or shame in being the last group member to respond to a discussion assignment, or fear that their lack of activity will punish everyone in the group with a lower grade. In both cases, the student feels controlled, either by an external factor or internal pressure.

Identified & Integrated Regulations

As we move closer to the autonomy end of the spectrum, we run into identified regulation, or the acceptance of extrinsic value. Our student from the example above might feel extrinsically motivated to complete the group project, but through the use of a rationale statement from the instructor, might accept the value of this group work, thus feeling more of a sense of autonomy than with external or internal regulation. Lastly, and moving even closer to autonomy, is integrated regulation, or adding the value of a task to one’s own beliefs or sense of self. Perhaps through reflection or a particularly well designed group project, a student comes around and now believes that group work is an essential part of their desired educational experience. While integrated regulation is not the same as feeling autonomous, you might be able to imagine a situation where an identified or integrated regulation would feel more motivating than an external or internal regulation.

How to Begin Thinking About Grades

In a recent Q&A with Richard Ryan, one of the authors and lead researchers of SDT, responded that “there has been no empirical justification for why we have grades in schools at all.” My next blog post will dive deeper into the role that grades and assessment play in SDT and motivation. In the meantime, I would like to pose some questions to get you started thinking about how you use grades in relation to motivation in your courses:

  • Do you use grades to create external regulation of behavior in your course?
    • Are you grading a behavior or the demonstration of a skill?
  • Do you want to emphasize performance goals or mastery goals?
  • Are there ways to help students identify and integrate the activities and assessments in your course?
  • Do you need to grade this activity/assessment/task?

These are big, difficult questions! And thinking about motivation in terms of a spectrum is complicated! If you find yourself wanting to continue the discussion of motivation in course design, check out the companion blog series mentioned in the introduction above, contact your instructional designer, or keep an eye out for other opportunities to continue the discussion at various upcoming Ecampus events!

References & Resources

Center for Self-Determination Theory (CSDT). (2019).

  • This website is a treasure-trove of resources on SDT and its application in numerous fields, including education.

Gagné, M., & Deci, E. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 331–362.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Dog running through water with a stick
Image by Wolfgang Horvath from Pixabay.

My interest in learning about motivation in education began many years ago when I started learning about motivation in game design. In a way, while this blog post will follow a different format, it is an outgrowth of my previous post on how game design can influence course design. In order to better understand motivation, in a classroom, while playing a game, and in an online learning environment, I am turning to the body of research that has grown from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

What is Self-Determination Theory?

Deci and Ryan’s theory stems from the larger investigation of human needs for well-being. While physiological needs like food, water, and shelter may be obvious, what are our psychological needs? SDT posits that the three basic psychological needs of humans are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. “Like physical needs, these needs are said to be objective phenomena in that their deprivation or satisfaction has clear and measurable functional effects, effects that obtain regardless of one’s subjective goals or values” (Deci & Ryan, 2017, p. 10). In addition to the basic needs, each is also associated with a dichotomy of social environments.

  • Autonomy: “the need to self-regulate one’s experiences and actions” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 10). A feeling of autonomy is not simply being able to make choices, but feeling that your actions and behaviors are in alignment with your own values. Being able to independently make your own choices is certainly one way to feel volitional engagement, but not the only way to fulfill the need of autonomy. Social environments vary between autonomy supportive and demanding/controlling. When was the last time you were able to engage with a situation or action wholeheartedly and felt fulfilled?
  • Competence: “[the] need to feel effectance and mastery” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). This need is often paired with receiving positive feedback, seeking and overcoming challenges, and following curiosities. This need has received the most research in motivation and psychological studies, especially in education research. Social environments vary between effectance supporting and overly challenging, inconsistent, or being otherwise discouraging. When was the last time you sought a challenge and positively progressed (or achieved) mastery?
  • Relatedness: “[the need to] feel socially connected” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). Feeling relatedness isn’t just about feeling cared for or taken care of, it is also about feeling valued in a community and having a sense of belonging. Social environments vary between relationally supportive and impersonal/rejecting. When was the last time you felt a sense of belonging and valued in a community?

These needs are essential for optimal motivation, well-being, and vitality (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). The research on how SDT promotes more intrinsic motivation is significant, as well as helps empirically establish different types of motivation (autonomy-control, intrinsic-extrinsic, and internally regulated-externally regulated) (Ryan & Deci, 2017, pp. 14–15).

Designing and Teaching with SDT in Mind

If we want our learning spaces (no matter the modality: face-to-face, hybrid, online, etc.) to promote optimal student (and teacher!) motivation and overall well-being, how can we design these spaces to fulfill these three needs?

  • Autonomy: allow students to make meaningful decisions about their learning, which may include students pursuing objectives in an order of their choice, providing students with additional relevant applications and rationales for activities and materials, providing students with opportunities to roleplay or act through a scenario.
  • Competence: balance the challenge/difficulty of a given task with student ability/skill, set clear goals, scaffold materials or activities, have a system for transparently communicating student progress, provide positive feedback.
  • Relatedness: foster an inclusive learning environment, instill a value of learning, design activities and interactions for peers to share and collaborate their knowledge and experience, provide instructor-to-student interaction.

“In fact, classroom climates supporting autonomy, providing high structure [competence support], and conveying relatedness and inclusion foster personal well-being and feelings of connection to one’s school and community” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 18). Many of these goals may already be met in your courses. However, there are actions and elements of design that can negatively impact need satisfaction as well. For example, overly difficult challenges, overwhelming negative feedback, and social comparisons can inhibit a sense of competence. The role of assessments and grading will need to be covered in a follow-up blog post, as these can have both negative and positive impacts depending on how they are implemented and designed.

In summary, striving to create a learning environment that fulfills all three needs of SDT can be positive and rewarding for everyone in the class, including the instructor. While this is only a brief introduction to Self-Determination Theory as a whole, I hope it has inspired you to consider how your courses can be designed with SDT in mind.

References and Resources

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry 11(4), 227–268.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

Self-Determination Theory. (2019).

  • This website is a treasure-trove of resources on SDT and its application in numerous fields, including education.

game controller on work desk

What can instructional designers learn from video game design? This might seem like a silly question—what do video games have to do with learning? Why might we use video games as an inspiration in pedagogy? As instructional designers, faculty often come to us with a variety of problems to address in their course designs—a lack of student interaction, how to improve student application of a given topic, and many more. While there are many tools at our disposal, I’d like to propose an extra tool belt for our kit: what if we thought more like game designers?

Video games excel at creating engaging and motivating learning environments. Hold on a minute, I hear you saying, video games don’t teach anything! In order for games to onboard players, games teach players how to navigate the “physical” game world, use the game’s controls, identify the rules of what is and is not allowed, interpret the feedback the game communicates about those rules, identify the current outcome, form and execute strategies, and a large variety of other things depending on the game, and that’s usually just the tutorial level!

What is the experience like in a learning environment when students begin an online course? They learn how to navigate the course site, use the tools necessary for the course, identify the assessment directions and feedback, identify the short-term and long-term course outcomes, learn material at a variety of different learning levels, and large variety of other things depending on the class, and that’s usually just the first week or two! Sound familiar? What are some things that video games do well during this on-boarding/tutorial to setup players for success? And how might instructional designers and faculty use these elements as inspiration in their classes?

The following list includes nine tips on how game design tackles tutorial levels and how these designs could be implemented in a course design:

  1. Early tasks are very simple, have low stakes, and feedback for these tasks is often very limited—either “you got it” or “try again”. Consider having some low-stakes assignments early in the course that are pass/fail.
  2. If negative feedback is received (dying, losing a life, failing a level, etc.), it is often accompanied by a hint, never an answer. If you have a MCQ, do not allow students to see the correct answer, but consider adding comments to appear if a student selects an incorrect answer that offers hints.
  3. If negative feedback is received, the game does not move on until the current outcome is achieved. Allow multiple attempts on quizzes or assignments and/or setup prerequisite activities or modules.
  4. Game levels allow for flexible time—different players complete levels at different rates. Design tasks with flexible due dates. Many courses already allow some flexibility for students to complete activities and assessments within weekly modules—can that flexibility be extended beyond a weekly time frame?
  5. Tutorial quests usually have predetermined and clearly communicated outcomes. All objectives are observable by both the game and the player. Create outcomes and rubric conditions/language that are self-assessable, even if the instructor will complete the grading.
  6. Tasks and game levels are usually cumulative in nature and progress using scaffolded levels/activities. Consider breaking up large assignments or activities into smaller, more cumulative parts.
    • For example, the first quest in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a great example for Nos. 5 and 6 above. It consists of four required objectives and two optional objectives:
      • Make your way to the keep.
      • Enter the Keep with Hadvar or Ralof.
      • Escape Helgen.
      • Find some equipment (Hadvar) / Loot Gunjar’s body (Ralof).
        • Optional: Search a barrel for potions.
        • Optional: Pick the lock of a cage.
  7. There are varying degrees of assumed prior knowledge, but no matter what, everyone participates in the tutorial levels. They are not optional. Consider saving optional “side quests” for later in a course or having an introductory module for everyone, regardless of skill level.
  8. The “tutorial” process usually ends when all skills have been introduced, but some games continue to add new skills throughout, inserting mid-game tutorials when necessary. Return to some of the design ideas on this list if a course introduces new topics throughout.
  9. After a requisite number of skills are mastered and players are able to fully play the game, the only major changes in design are increases in difficulty. These changes in difficulty are usually inline with maintaining a flow state by balancing the amount of challenge to the skill level of the player. As course material and activities increase in difficulty, make sure there are ample opportunities for students to develop their abilities in tandem.

Games are a great model for designing engaging learning experiences, with significant research in psychology and education to back it up. By understanding how games are designed, we can apply this knowledge in our course designs to help make our courses more motivating and engaging for our students.

Additional Resources

Want to know more about the psychology of why these designs work? Start with these resources: