What are Achievements?
Achievements are an overarching structure found in most modern video games. These are goals that go above and beyond normal game play; you can complete a video game without completing a single achievement in many games, and you can also complete many achievements without completing the game. Achievements provide a way to explore a game environment in new ways, and in exchange players get “achievement points” which they accrue outside of the game structure. The most important thing to know about achievements is that they are optional. There is never a requirement to complete achievements in games. If they were required, they would no longer be achievements, they would just be part of the game requirements. Taking this idea to the classroom, achievements are an optional, asynchronous way for students to engage in classroom content beyond regular assignments or assessments. They are not graded, and do not contribute to student grades in any way. Students complete achievements outside of regular class time (at lunch, passing period, before/after school, etc.). Achievements, just like in games, are individual tasks, however in my classroom students are grouped into “houses” so that when students complete them, they receive individual achievement “points” and also points for their “house” group so they are always feeling related to other students.
Why use Achievements?
Achievements invite gamers to dive deeper into a game, explore it in a new way, and/or cultivate a unique form of mastery. But most essentially, achievements are optional. You can complete a video game without ever completing an achievement. Achievements are a game’s way of inviting gamers to do more, try harder, play longer- all things we want students to do in academic forms. Bringing achievements into a classroom brings that same invitation to our students. Achievement structures activate specific aspects of intrinsic motivation known as “self determination theory” (Deci and Ryan, 2000). Specifically, the motivational aspects fall into three aspects: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Ibid.). When students feel invited to engage in content, instead of required, students begin to engage in our classrooms in ways they previously had not. From there, we can harness those connections with students to further engage them in our content areas. In my research and experience, I have organized achievements into four overarching types that we can harness in our classrooms. Please note that the categorization of achievements and their motivational structures is my original work. Please cite it accordingly, and note I am under a Creative Commons License.
Types of Achievements
“Perfunctory achievements” is my term for achievements that a gamer would complete no matter what: completing the first level, learning certain basic movements, etc. Sometimes these seem silly but perfunctory achievements introduce the achievement structure to the gamer. This allows subsequent achievements to reinforce the structure and scaffold up in difficulty. Perfunctory achievements are also reassuring; they send a message of “you’re doing it right! Keep going!” which encourages gamers to keep playing. In a classroom, a perfunctory achievement allows students to immediately feel like they are contributing to classroom culture, and can be a great way to increase connection between a student and their teacher. They also allow students to be reassured that they are doing things right and they should keep going.
An “exhaustive achievement” asks gamers to get all of something: collect all coins, all Korok seeds, etc. Players who take this on often have to play a level multiple times in order to complete an exhaustive achievement, which increases their feelings of competence. Once again, this also increases autonomy by choosing to complete this achievement. In a classroom, an exhaustive achievement can piggyback on something students are already doing, and take it to the next level. For example, if students are learning multiplication tables from numbers 1-9, an exhaustive achievement might be to learn 9-12, or 1-12. What is important to keep in mind is that every time a student attempts this achievement- even if they fail- they aren’t receiving a grade, and we are there to help them and give advice so they can practice and try again, without fear of failure.
“Difficulty achievements” ask gamers to perform to a higher standard: beat a boss with no damage; beat a level with only one life remaining; complete a level without a certain power, etc. These increase feelings of competence, as well as autonomy; when students choose to take on a challenge, their autonomy increases their intrinsic motivation. A difficulty achievement can have a parameter set by a teacher (6th graders learn a 1-octave scale, 7th graders a 2-octave scale), or it can be self-imposed by the student (write a biography for a fictional person living in WWII era Japan). Students can choose to take on more difficulty if they so choose, further increasing their feelings of competence and autonomy.
“Exclusionary achievements” are those that allow a user (player or student) to exclude themselves from all others: being the best, the fastest, having the most of something, etc. Obviously this requires a high level of competence and autonomy in students; they have to know content (gaming or academic) very well, they have to practice the skill over and over, and they have to encounter failure, since they likely won’t be the best or the fastest the very first time. However, exclusionary achievements also increase feelings of relatedness in students by putting them in a semi-competitive state. After all, you cannot be the best unless it is in relation to others, which increases those feelings of relatedness and makes students more likely to engage. There are non-competitive ways to bring in exclusionary achievements as well, such as achievements that all students to be unique.
How to Implement Achievements
Ready to bring achievements into your classroom but not sure of the details? Here’s how I do it
Group students. Decide on large cross-class groups in which you will organize your students; I refer to these as “houses”. I tend to choose 4-5 houses for my overall class load of 130-150 students. Each of my students is placed into a “house” that aligns with my content area (composer house, historical figure house, mathematician house, etc.) Each house has an important historical figure associated with it, which I also try to ensure are inclusive and present students with a wide range of race, gender identity and sexuality, religion, ability, economic background, and culture. Why group students to begin with? It engages all students in the structure of achievements from the very first day, which makes it more likely that students are more likely to complete achievements! How you assign students to houses is up to you- choose randomly, be intentional, let them choose- but make sure the houses include students from across all class periods, so that students are collaborating in an asynchronous way.
Decide on your achievement timeline. Achievements should be things that appeal to students for a length of time that is appropriate for your content area. In an elective class like music, my achievements lasted for a term- trimester, semester, etc.- but in a core classroom like social studies, my achievements last for a unit. This way, they turn over quickly, so students can routinely come back to check for new achievements. This is particularly important for lower and higher achievers, who might need perfunctory or difficulty achievements, respectfully, to help them stay engaged. If in doubt, a little too short is better than a little too long; if students complete all the “semester” achievements in four weeks, the appeal will wear off by the time new achievements roll around.
Write your achievements! Especially at the beginning of the year, aim to have a healthy mix of the four achievement types. I try to have 8-10 achievements at a time, and make sure I have at least 1-2 achievements of each “type”. At the beginning of the year, I might have 3-4 perfunctory achievements; by the end of the year, I will likely only have 1. This is intentional, so that students are scaffolded through the achievement structure and begin to challenge themselves. Here are a few examples:
Perfunctory: “Outside of class, find Mx. Brandin and tell them a joke/content-related pun/fact about yourself/etc.” (10 points)
Difficulty: “Choose a demographic (age, height, transportation to school, pets, siblings, or anything else you can think of!) and measure that demographic for your social studies class period. Must provide the answer for each student in the class (but please keep it anonymous) as well as the class-wide average.” (40 points)
Exhaustive: “Learn all the capitals of all countries in Asia” (30 points)
Exclusionary: “Get the fastest completion time in the Middle East map online study quiz- winner declared on day of test” (40 points)
Assign achievements point values. Just like achievements in games, perfunctory achievements earn players fewer points than exhaustive ones. But wait, isn’t this about intrinsic motivation? Yes! But think about achievements in games- you might complete an exhaustive achievement just to be able to say that you did it, but you still need the game to acknowledge it, and points are the way that happens. For me, my points range from 10 (perfunctory) to 40/50 (difficulty). An achievement will tend to be worth more points the more exhaustive, exclusionary, or difficult it is. Sometimes, you can even give your achievement an additional difficulty level and point value, to really reach kids who need a challenge. These points are assigned to individual students when they complete an achievement, which brings us to….
Make sure you know how houses come into play. Remember, your students are grouped into houses. When they complete an individual achievement, what happens to their house? Well, their house gets points. How many? I go with a static number for this, and for me it’s always 5 points. If a student earns 10 points for a perfunctory achievement, their house earns 5 points. If another student earns 50 points for a high-level difficulty achievement, their house earns 5 points. Why differentiate individual points but not house points? Think of what this tells kids- if we gave the houses the same number of points as the individual, it outs our students, and breaks the anonymity that the achievement structure brings. Also, remember, this is asynchronous across classes. If Jane completes a 50 point achievement in period 3, when period 6 rolls around, students would be clamouring to know who gave their house 50 points. But by keeping all house points equal across achievements, it allows all students to contribute to their houses and feel relatedness. This sends an important message to kids- every effort matters, and every effort is valued. This also prevents high-level students (the “go-getters”) from taking over the achievement structure.
Decide how you will keep track. I have personally tried lots of ways of tracking student achievements: honor system, writing it down in my plan book, giving them a certain color check mark or stamp for certain kinds of achievements, etc. Honestly, they all worked equally well/poorly, which means they all had advantages and disadvantages. My plan this year? Keep a column on my class roster for achievements, and just check off as they are completed. No matter what you decide to do, do not make individual achievement scores public! The moment achievements become a ranking, a competition, or the equivalent of a public sticker chart, they won’t work anymore. Why? Because achievements aren’t required and making them public will take the autonomy away from students. The part that is public, are the house scores; those should be public for everyone to see! Mine are laminated for easy editing throughout the day. I simply change the scores (5 points per completed achievement) when a student completes one, but never divulge who completed the achievements to other students.
Decide what students will get. This is about intrinsic motivation- they shouldn’t be getting anything, right? Well, yeah, in principle I agree with you. In practice, I do give very small prizes to students when they complete a certain number of achievements. We’re talking a single Hi-Chew, (or a positive behavior coupon for the school store) at 25 individual achievement points, another at 50, maybe something special at 100. What about when the unit ends and a whole house has won? Again, feel it out for yourself. The biggest thing they should receive is pride, and a feeling of control and personal achievement. This is not the time to break out a pizza party. We want them doing this because they chose to do it, not because we dangled a carrot in front of them. Maybe they get to leave a few minutes early, maybe they get first pick of something that day, but make sure it is nothing that will feel punitive to other students- after all, achievements are optional. If you start handing out ice cream, students who chose not to engage are going to feel short-changed.
Want more details, more examples, or have questions? Please contact me for more specific examples of achievements- I am happy to share but do not want to publish them publicly. You can also follow me on Instagram @thegamereducator where I talk more about these ideas