Chance, Skill, and Grading Classroom Games

An academic hill I die on periodically is being adamantly opposed to assigning grades to classroom games.

A game’s win conditions are based on varying blends of chance versus skill. Pure chance games (such as roulette) are simply bets against which players cannot build effective long-term strategies. Monopoly, for example, is almost pure chance–stripped of the optional auction rules, the most effective strategy for winning Monopoly is consistently rolling a dice score of 7. Barring weighted dice or building a dice-rolling wrist over 10,000 hours, winning or losing Monopoly comes down to the luck of the dice. It might be a good game for illustrating wealth inequality in the classroom (which was the original designer’s intent), but if you grade students based on winning rounds of Monopoly, then you’re grading them based on almost pure, uncut chance.

On the other end are games of pure skill: think Go or Chess. In a game of pure skill, masters will almost always defeat amateurs (note that I said “almost always”). In classroom games based on pure skill–especially without repeat play opportunities–your most prepared students will not just almost always defeat your least prepared students, they will almost always crush them.

A well-designed classroom game leans heavily towards skill, as the game presents students with an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. But to avoid the “crush them through pure skill” problem, the game should include elements of chance. Students should feel as if they can win all the way up to the last minute of class. However, the key remains chance. Students can also still lose at the last minute to a close competitor, even with well-prepared and overall effective strategies. If you grade them based on even a fraction of chance, it has a chilling effect on students taking risks and diminishes their sense of course mastery. Losing without a grade penalty encourages students to reflect on future strategies and thus remain engaged with the material. But with a grade applied? All the students might remember is that they received a B- for the course because “they lost a stupid game.”

Instead, I have my students write short reflection essays (say, 2-3 pages) about the course learning objective that was measured in the game: what the game’s win condition was, their processes for crafting a strategy to achieve it, and how they either overcame obstacles to succeed or what they would change if they failed. You can also use reflection essays for pure chance games, such as the above-mentioned Monopoly, for students to reflect on what the game was intended to illustrate (or ask, “what would you have done differently if you could have applied a viable strategy?”). I’ll do a longer post in the future on debriefings and after-action reports.

All that said, I do know educators who place small point values on their games: negligible for the student’s overall course grade–think 10 points in a 1,000-point course–yet enough to inspire a sense of meaningful competition (particularly useful in games with more than one winner or multiple proportional win-conditions, which encourages students to scrap over every last point. They might lose but still walk away with 5/10 points). Even knowing that, however, I want me student to remember the game’s lesson points, not the game’s grade points.