Taking Student Motivations Into Account

Great session at TLC this year, with lots of interesting papers and ideas for simulations and games, including another wonderful workshop by ALPS’ own Victor Asal.

My own paper (with Nina Kollars) dealt with the issue of student motivation and engagement.  Our previous work was on the first principles of simulation and game design: that is, the instructor’s purpose for the game and its function within a classroom.  This new paper is on the next stage of design: taking student motivations into account.  Students approach our classrooms with different skills and motivations.  On the skill side, some may be expert, experienced gamers, while others may have little knowledge of how to work with the rules of the game; they may also differ in their teamwork abilities.  These differing skills–which may have nothing to do with our material or content–may impact the play of the game and the readiness and ability of students to learn from it.

Just as important is the differing motivations that students bring to the classroom.  This is not a groundbreaking observation by any sense of the word–psychologists have known this for decades. To use their terms, some students may be intrinsically motivated–interested in mastery of the material for its own sake–while others may be extrinsically motivated by a grade or some other reward or fear of punishment.  Such students will approach a game very differently, and our design of games should take these differing motivations into account.  An ungraded simulation or grade may fail to elicit full participation or learning in an extrinsically motivated student, but a game that IS graded may focus the intrinsic learner on external rewards, and perhaps lessen their intrinsic interest (see Deci 1971 and 1972 amongst many others).

Our point is that our knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations should impact the way we design our games.  We should not assume that a grade–even one of participation–is necessary to engineer participation in our games.  Games that are used in place or supplemental to lecture should be graded no more than attendance at a lecture.  Grades in fact might produce perverse incentives for students in a game, where they respond to the external motivators and not the game as we have built it.  Thus we must carefully consider how grading and other extrinsic motivators might influence the way students interact with our sim, and design accordingly.

Best of Both Worlds Model at APSA

We make our students work in groups to learn from each other right?

Michael Brintnall has done amazing things for the APSA conference in a way that few appear to realize. There are, in fact, working groups at APSA, and although I was uncertain what might be helpful about attending one…I quickly learned.

“Understanding Terrorist Change” was the working group to which I assigned myself. At first we stood around, admittedly some of us had other papers written, and were somewhat uncertain as to what exactly we needed to do.

Our moderator treated the first meeting like a social. He told us to go out and listen, talk, and report back on the last day about what we saw and heard. Then we ended the formal part of the meeting. And the magic began…..We began to talk, and talk, and talk. What we found in our first meeting, was a vast spectrum of scholars who had expertise or curiosity for some part of thinking about the title.

In our second meeting we managed to synthesize the panels we all observed and in doing so capitalized on the multiple eyes and ears in the rooms.  Rather than having to pick and choose what I might find interesting, we got to distill what was being presented at all the APSA panels concerning terrorism.

From here we talked more.  We all became excited about the collaboration and contributions each member had to offer. We resolved to create an edited volume of papers that celebrated the interdisciplinarity, the vast array of perspectives, and approaches. Moreover we agreed that our moderator would assign us a set of definitions from which to begin our work. (Please do this, it will help create a cohesive project)

In short, something actually productive, collaborative, and important came out of the APSA working group.

More importantly, also in the room were professors of classes on terrorism, seeking to bring home the insights generated from the working group.  They were tasked with developing syllabi that rest on the forefront of of research, rather than exemplifying the coattails of a dusty old literature.

The working group.  What a novel idea…. It seems that teaching has taught us once again, how to learn from one another and it took Michael Britnall to show us that.

Next year, make a working group, or join one. It will make your APSA worth it.


Though I suspect that this activity is applicable much more broadly than an introduction to methods class, next week I will be trying an exercise I call the Archaeologist’s Quandary.

Class size : 10-50 students

Time required: 30 minutes at the end of one class bridging to the beginning of a second class.

Purpose: Ice Breaker that helps students think critically about interpretation and facts.

Break class into several small groups, likely 4-5 groups ( will be trying this next week so I will let you know how it goes).

Supplies: Ideally, a couple sets of markers and one big sheet of paper for each group.

Instructions: Tell each group to create an imaginary civilization, to imagine themselves within it….to think about every aspect of how those people lived and governed.  Then, have them imagine their civilization was wiped out and is being rediscovered in an archaeologist’s dig. Have them draw a map of the dig site and all the artifacts that the researchers will find.  Give the students 20 minutes to plan and develop their dig site. Assign them homework to continue working on the map and the details of each artifact.

At the beginning of the next period, have the students trade their maps for someone else’s map. Now ask each group to study the new map very closely.  Ask them to develop a narrative of what that map represents and what each of those artifacts means.

Each group will present their narrative of the other group’s dig site.  Then the original groups provide their original meanings.

Takeaways: It is my hope that this lesson gets my students thinking carefully about the kinds of ways we try to represent the social world, the ways in which artifacts can be interpreted differently, and discuss ways in which we need to talk to the original society members in order to get clarification.  This is first and foremost a way to get a foot in the door about qualitative methods, but also a way to think about research and interpretation in an exercise that helps the students become familiar with each other while being creative.

Although the exercise may be more fun than functional, its higher points about interpretation should stick with the students as they struggle with methods concepts.

Leaving the Room Open to Unexpected Learning

Several weeks ago while playing a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma I came across an opportunity to learn from my students.  The game went in this way: Students were to play one round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (rat out your partner in order to win more, or cooperate to reduce a prison sentence).

A pair of women in the corner simultaneously cooperated.  For those unfamiliar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the standard of the game is for both people to rat out their partners.  Sometimes people do cooperate but normally they don’t.

We discussed the gave at some length and then I began the standard social scientific move to iterated repeat games.  I asked the students to play 9 rounds of the game. After 9 rounds the two african american women were still cooperating though they had never talked before in class prior to this game.

Here is where it got interesting.  I explained that in general we should expect people to cooperate some but not all the time.  The students nodded along.  The two women in the corner looked at me quizzically. So I knew there were potentially different explanations for why cooperation and defection were good or bad strategies.  So I asked the students: “ladies, why were you constantly cooperating?” Another student, a while male, tried to explain to them how they were being irrational.  That they needed to realize that they weren’t maximizing their opportunities.

And one of the pair said, “You people don’t really know what it is to grow up in an environment where security really is a problem.” She said: “In my part of town you don’t cheat people or rat them out.  You can’t, no matter how much money you might get from it, because you don’t know if the person you cheat is going to show up and shoot up your mom’s house, or kill your brother.”

The classroom recoiled in horror.

I could have shut this down.  Clearly we had entered a space in which the student offered up a lived experience to question the theoretical conclusions. A lived experience that ran close to being socially, economically, and racially charged.

It is at these moments that we must decide whether to let it ride or to embrace it and try to dig deeper into it.  At once, here were two women presenting the room with an entirely different perspective.  One that most had never been privy to.  The learning was shifting immediately beyond the theoretical importance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to understanding a diversity of perspectives, to how to think about who was in the room, to try to consider what truth and the imperatives of action really dictated.

I was reminded that active learning isn’t always planned learning.  Control is the purpose of the rules in a game, but what exactly we are trying to control is the question.

My challenge to reader is to consider the way in which control is leveraged in active learning, and to question just how much we really need and for what purpose.

My thoughts keep going back to that awkward silence and the exasperation of the male student toward the continued cooperation of the two females. It was such an eerie and powerful thing to say….so much so that I’m not even certain what we learned exactly, and I suspect that this is the point of exposure to new perspectives.  Not so much that we come out with clear conclusions, but that we throw them into a controlled disarray.