As we approach the end of the Fall 2015 semester, we are gearing up to bring GradeCraft to more courses on the University of Michigan campus. We have begun to schedule a first round of consultations with instructors who are interested in making their courses gameful and are looking to add more courses to our list for the Winter 2016 semester.

When considering using a tool like GradeCraft in your classroom, it is important to first examine some of your key philosophies to determine whether or not a gameful course design will work for you and your students.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the gameful environment is allowing students to take the focus off of grades by building up their score from zero points rather than through the traditional system where student grades start at 100% and can only decrease. Our experience and data indicate that the point-based system  encourages students to take more risks in their learning by allowing them to fail with fewer consequences than the traditional system. This does not mean, however, that courses are easier. Rather, the intent is to create an environment where students are more engaged with the course material and become more self-motivated and resilient to failure.

Another key feature of gameful design is providing multiple pathways to success. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways –  offering an array of assignments or tracks for students to choose from, enabling students to select different modes of completing the same assignment (for instance writing a paper versus creating a video), or even designing their own assignments.  

GradeCraft helps to support the logistical issues that come from giving students choices over their assignments and more transparency in the grading scheme. It also allows students to visualize their progress in a course and strategize about their choices in order to plan for their future. If you are still not sure you are “ready” for gameful course design, we have put together a short guide with questions to ask yourself which can be viewed here.

Our goal is to build a campus-wide community dedicated to reimagining course design to support autonomy, belongingness and competence. If you are a University of Michigan professor and are interested in what it may take to make your class gameful, we would love to meet with you! Please sign up here and we will be in touch with you to schedule a meeting.


GradeCraft has been growing and changing rapidly during the past year. We thought it would be fun to take a moment to talk about the team behind the scenes.

Before GradeCraft existed, Professor Barry Fishman had designed his Videogames & Learning course so that students started at zero and built their course grades up over the course of the semester. He gave students the choice to complete a wide range of assignments and to work together on team challenges throughout the semester, but these proved difficult to manage within a traditional LMS; students had trouble knowing whether they were actually making progress. Support for autonomy is a fundamental principle behind GradeCraft’s design, but autonomy requires good information! Enter Cait Holman and Scott Tsuchiyama (two of Professor Fishman’s teaching assistants at the time), who were convinced they could design a grade prediction tool to support students with this new approach, and the rest is history. Over the past four years, we’ve been lucky enough to receive support from various organizations at UM, including the Learning, Education & Design Lab (LED), The Learning Analytics Task Force (LATF), and the Office of Digital Education & Innovation (DEI). During that time, we’ve had 18 developers work on the code at different times, and 8 students engaged in research, design, and support for the app.

In May 2015, our incredible crew of masters students, Stephanie Wooten, Adam Levick, and Michelle Fiesta, and our phenomenal undergraduate intern, Elana Graf, all graduated from UM. Stephen Aguilar, a PhD student who has been integral to the research side of the project, has shifted to focus on his dissertation work investigating how students respond to learning analytics visualizations. Jeff Stern, another PhD student who has been instrumental in helping us assess the workflows within the app, received an NSF fellowship to study how to support learning in STEM courses and has transitioned off working primarily on GradeCraft (although we hope he’ll still consult on the project as we continue to perfect our user experience).

After receiving the Third Century grant award in May we knew we needed to bring in some new support. We were able to renew our partnership with AlfaJango, the local development shop that has been core to building out GradeCraft thus far, and bring on Jamie Wright, Jonathan Gabel, Max Langensiepen, and Mike Zazaian full time, with Shekhar Patil and Prabode Weebadde part- time as our server team.  

In September we hired Marie Hooper as our Project Coordinator, Christine Yu to help with support and social media outreach, and brought Rachel Niemer on as our Communities of Practice lead. Cait (now a PhD student and the GradeCraft Project Lead) and Ben Plummer (another PhD student) are continuing their research on different aspects of gameful learning. All of this is only possible due to continued support from the DEI, as Erin McCann and Mike Daniel help us navigate the process of establishing a full-fledged company. And we’re all privileged to be working under the guidance of our grant PIs. Led by Barry and Rachel, they represent some of the most innovative thinks about the future of educational technology on the Michigan campus: James DeVaney, Liz Keren-Kolb, Mika LaVaque-Manty, and Scott Taylor.

There are now 18 of us currently who actively work on GradeCraft in various capacities! We each bring a unique skillset and background to work everyday (everything from finance to psychology), the common thread we share is certainly the passion for teaching and learning, and it is this passion that makes our team so effective.

A lot has happened in the last year! In May the GradeCraft team was awarded a grant of $1.88 million from the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative. The Gameful Assessment in Michigan Education (GAME) project aims to enhance the engagement of Michigan learners through broadening and transforming U-M’s campus vision for how classroom learning and assessment are organized. Are those lofty goals? We think so, and we couldn’t be more excited to take them on! The 2014-15 academic year was a blur, as GradeCraft was used by approximately 2,000 students in 19 different courses from 6 different schools at U-M. This fall, we have added another 850+ students, raising our total to nearly 4,000 since we launched nearly four years ago. Our goal for the next three years is for gameful courses to reach 20,000 students. What are we doing to get there?

To begin, we continue to grow the conversation regarding best practices for gameful teaching and learning. This project has been a journey of discovery for us and the instructors we have partnered with so far. We have all learned a lot during this transformative period regarding the best practices of running a gameful course. We plan to keep this collaborative spirit alive by holding regular get-togethers for gameful instructors on the U-M campus to discuss teaching practices and learn from each other.

Next, since we are committed to developing knowledge about gameful learning through disciplined inquiry, we are continuing to conduct research on gameful course design and GradeCraft itself. Work investigating student motivation in several early courses using GradeCraft was recently published in Games & Culture, and we presented on student behavior when using the grade predictor at the Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference last year. We continue to work on designing new learning analytics elements to better understand how students interact with GradeCraft and how we may improve the design to increase motivation and engagement in the course material.

Finally, we continue to make improvements to GradeCraft. Our list of recently added features include: assignment and badge unlocks, improved assignment rubrics, maximum point caps per assignment categories, analytics around students’ reading of feedback, and improved grade import features. As interest from Michigan instructors and instructors from other institutions grows, we want to make sure that we can support a range of different gameful course designs.

We look forward to continued growth this year, and are gearing up for further expansion in the winter term. Stay tuned for more updates!

The GradeCraft Team

South by Southwest Edu is a conference that connects passionate people who care about the latest innovations in education. GradeCraft has a unique opportunity to take part in this community by hosting their own panel at the 2015 SXSWedu event in Austin, TX, March 9-12.

But we need your help! A huge portion of the panel picking selection is decided by you—the public! You can help us have a presence at SXSWedu by voting for our panel! Registration is required, but free and simple.

Thank you for your support as we strive to create the best tools to afford gameful instruction and learning. We hope to see you at SXSWedu next spring!


Last month the GradeCraft team went to the Games + Learning + Society (GLS) conference where we immersed ourselves in the world of educational games (and plenty of cheese curds). Our strategy at the conference was to divide and conquer: different team members went to different sessions, and we met up afterwards to debrief and discuss. We wanted to share a few important takeaways we gained from our time at the conference.

Learning games are typically highly targeted tools, supporting a learner’s ability to develop a mental model on a specific topic. We saw amazing games that helped learners understand a range of things.Build-a-Tree teaches about taxonomic identification by breaking the differences between different taxonomic categories down into easy to understand differences, then ramping up the complexity to give learners an idea of how we group life. Turn up the Heat! took advantage of innovative home climate control technology to teach players about the way thermostats work and how they can be more sustainably used. SimCityEDU also targets the subject of sustainability, but through developing a students ability to critically think by taking control of managing a city. All built for a different context (museums, family, and classrooms respectively), we thought these were great examples of good games that paid attention to the context that they were being implemented in.

The conference pushed for designers to think of learning games as context-dependent products. One of the most relatable sessions we attended was led by Center for Games and Impact, which put forth the idea that games for learning are most effective when designed as a “service”. When delivered to the instructors (or parents) in this way, the technology also gives the teacher tools to understand the game, why it’s played, and exactly how it should be helpful to students. From this perspective, the delivery of the game by an instructor is just as important as the game itself.

A great example of service-oriented design discussed in this session was the ability for teachers to experience a game before using it with their students. In GradeCraft, we plan to implement features that accomplish similar goals. We want to demonstrate to an instructor what the experience of having multiple routes feels for a student at any given point in the semester right when they create their course. This could be done by allowing the teacher to take the perspective of multiple different students (generated by GradeCraft) who chose different routes at different points over the course of a semester for their specific game setup. Giving instructors the ability to walk in their student’s shoes could give them a better understanding of their own course design and how to support different types of students within it. To us, this is part of what it means for a game to be defined as a “service” for education.

At GradeCraft we see “playful learning” both as a tool to improve instruction and improve the educational experience for learners. We hope that by improving the educational experience for students, we can more broadly increase their motivation towards learning both in the immediate classroom experience, and also towards future learning. We are currently researching how specific features of gameful course designs work to motivate students, and we plan to use the results of those studies to better build support for intrinsic motivation into the GradeCraft experience. Recently, we have been exploring the best way to visualize the multiple routes that students can take to complete a course, and what tools are best at supporting the discovery and planning that goes into selecting those routes. With more autonomy in the classroom, we believe students will be more willing to take control of their overall learning experience. [Look for posts from us on some of these explorations and designs.]

The team had a great time at GLS, and these are just a few of the many ideas and design explanations we found valuable. We look forward to similar opportunities in the future to both share what we’ve learned from GradeCraft and to pick up knowledge from the learning game community!

To be continued…

The GradeCraft Team

Welcome to the shiny new GradeCraft blog! While GradeCraft has been alive for two and a half years, we are just beginning to share our work more broadly with the community. We hope to use this space to document our experiences, development, and share what we discover about gameful learning and educational technology along the way.

GradeCraft is a learning management system (LMS) designed specifically to support game-inspired courses. In reality, all classes are a sort of “game,” with rules (the course design), a challenge (the coursework), and a score (the grade). We claim that most courses resemble a bad game, with structures that foster poor engagement and afford little opportunity for personalized pathways toward mastery. We believe that designing courses using good games as a model offers a new and inspiring way to think about how to create an engaging learning experience. Like any adventure, we’ve learned that the tools that you use are key to creating a good experience. Specifically, we hope to GradeCraft to augment student motivation, enhance their sense of belongingness in the classroom, and help increase their feelings of competence as a learner.

We began with the simple idea of building a progress tracker that would keep students informed of their course progress, and a grade prediction tool that would allow students to test different strategies of engaging with their course work. In order to power these tools, we realized complete information was needed regarding the course structure and all of the data about how students have performed on their coursework (grades). To get this information we either needed a pipeline that could connect the data that exists in the course LMS to our displays, or we needed to take on the role of being the primary LMS (we could have asked the instructors to enter the data twice – but that is something we try very, very hard not to do). Given the technical limitations around pulling the data from our core LMS, we decided our best option was to build a more robust tool that could truly act as the center of the course experience, and thus the GradeCraft LMS was born.

Each semester, in conjunction with the instructors’ whose classrooms we support, we’ve added new features, which now include:

  • an assignment weighting system that allows students to establish unique grading schemes
  • interactive rubrics and quick grading features
  • a badging system that encourages the recognition of student achievement in a way that can be shared amongst students
  • opt-in leaderboards
  • custom levelling system
  • analytics displays to help students and instructors track and understand progress

Where to next? We always have a long wish list :)

Interface-wise, we’re looking forward to improving our mobile experience, as well as honing our overall user experience. Game-wise, our next implementation targets are unlocks and power-ups, which will require students to complete certain sets of work and in-system tasks before they’re allowed to access others, and having students earn tokens that they can use strategically for different purposes. Even more complex, we want to allow instructors to add a rich narrative to their games, but we’ll talk more about that in a later post…

Check out this video to hear a little bit more about how we think about gameful course design:

Would you consider making changes to your course to turn it into a better game? What holds you back? What elements would you want to include? What features haven’t we thought of that you would love to have available? We’d love to hear from you!