A Rumination on a Teaching Practice Borrowed from Tabletop Gaming

In a post I recently made to my personal blog, I make reference to some of the teaching and gaming I did as a graduate student. I remember both fondly, at least at this point, and I have done what I can to take the best parts from both into future iterations of my work in the classroom and at the table; I’ve had less success than I might hope, to be sure, but I have still had some success. And some of that success has focused on a single practice that came from the tabletop gaming I administered into some of the teaching I’ve done. It doesn’t always translate into a given class, of course; different courses call for different assignments and different techniques. But that a tool is not universally applicable does not mean it is of no value, and because I think there is some value in the practice–having students overtly commend one another in private reports to the instructor–I think it fitting to spend some time discussing it more formally than my personal blog admits.

Related image
Not atypical, this…
Image from Wikipedia, which I’d not normally use.

To explain the activity a bit: When I was in graduate school, I ran a large tabletop roleplaying game. Normally, such games will have a referee and four to six players; I was the referee, and I had thirteen to fifteen at my table. It was not always a ruly bunch, to be sure; so large a group in which individuals need longish periods of devoted attention tends to go that way. But we got on more or less well, and the players enjoyed what I gave them (I think; please don’t tell me if I’m wrong). And part of that, I think, was that I gave them encouragement to play well–beyond the intrinsic value of participating meaningfully in an ongoing extemporaneous story. For I had each player vote at the end of each gaming session for the player other than themself who had done the best job of playing at the table that night.

By asking them to do so, I encouraged them to more fully inhabit their character and the narrative milieu in which those characters were enmeshed, and to do so in a way that helped the others at the table. And I encouraged them to attend to the performances and participation of others to reward behavior that, through authentically developing and communally-determined practices, was optimal for the group as a whole. In effect, the players came to agree on community standards for behavior and participation, and they looked for ways and reasons to praise one another, rather than make mock of one another as is common at gaming tables and in too many other places in the world.

To apply that idea to classroom practice took a bit of doing. For one, it only works well in group settings, and I tend to shy away from group assignments when I can. My experience, as both student and teacher, has been that one or two group members will do all of the work, while the others coast by on the labors of the diligent. (A rant threatens to emerge; it may do so later.) However, much of the teaching I have done has been of classes that have institutional mandates for group projects (the public speaking class at DeVry was one such; the technical writing class at Oklahoma State University was another).

In the latter, particularly, I had some success with having students report on their group’s and individual group members’ progress in the assigned projects; I made it part of assignment guidelines, requiring them to submit progress reports as daily assignments, so that there was extrinsic motivation to address the tasks. (Most of the students in that course were in another writing class only reluctantly; the extrinsic motivation was needed.) But I noted with some annoyance that, while I would see participation and submission from several group members, I would not see accurate assessment of those participants who weren’t; a few noted to me that they were reluctant to “throw [another student] under the bus,” even when the group’s work as a whole suffered because of such a student.

I understand the impulse, to be certain. I’m not along in having heard that “snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches,” or other words to that effect, and I was not immune to the shame of being a tattle-tale. And, at one level, I was content to let students undercut themselves; if they did not care more about the work and their reward for it, I saw no reason I ought to do so. But, as one of the students who was exploited by group work, I hated the idea of such exploitation continuing even when students had a mechanism to prevent it (part of the students’ grades came from the mutual assessment, so they could have excluded non-participating group members).

When, instead of asking students to identify the group members who had done least, I asked them to identify those who had done most, I saw a much better response rate from them. Additionally, I received much more detailed feedback on student performance from the other students’ perspectives, which was of great help. Some of that did run to specific notes about other students’ non-compliance with the standards of their groups, which also helped me to make the adjustments I needed to make as I oversaw the groups’ work. In essence, it worked in more or less the same way with my students as it had with my players, for which reason I commend the practice to use in other classes.

It is not universally applicable, of course. Not all classes require or admit of group projects, at least not conveniently. And there are courses that operate under stricter institutional mandates, obliging specific assignment sequences and lecture topics. But where it can be deployed, the practice of having students cite and justify each other’s excellence is a useful one.

 Care to send a bit my way?

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