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Game On in Algebra: Unexpected Rewards

Game On in Algebra: Unexpected Rewards

If you think back to some games you have played, what can be more fun than an unexpected reward? Unexpected rewards can be fun AND motivating.

On the day that I pass back the first exam, I walk around with a bag of plastic gold coins. I hand one to each student who earned the full 3 points on the exam. (That means they leveled up by meeting the performance benchmarks on each HW assignment and quiz, and also scored 80% or better on the pencil & paper exam.) The classroom starts to buzz. Students are wondering what’s up with the coins. A couple of students will be saddened to learn that the coins are not chocolate. An occasional student will be saddened to find out that the coin is not actually made of gold, but that’s pretty rare.

When I am done giving the coins to the students I explain that they can turn in their coin to open any one assignment or quiz. My theory is that their performance deserves some benefit, and being able to save yourself from a missed assignment is a nice perk. I will not reopen any assignment unless a student gives me a coin.

Daniel Pink in his book Drive explains that expected rewards can actually “de-motivate” students. (If you haven’t read his book, you need to. It will open your eyes as to how to get students to respond.) I believe that this is true. To avoid this problem, I tell the students that there may be other benefits for students who still have coins left at the end of the semester. This way they are never sure exactly what will happen. And I like it that way.

I just passed back the first elementary algebra exam and will write a new post in which I will discuss how I will proceed from here. Spoiler Alert: I gave out 7 coins in a class of 44 students.

Game On in Algebra

Game On in Algebra

This semester I am continuing to use a grading policy in my elementary algebra class that incorporates elements of game design. I begin by telling my students about my discussions with a well-known game designer (who happens to be my son Dylan – check him out on Twitter) that school should be fun, and he challenged me to come up with a grading system that incorporated some of the elements of game design. It took a long time to come up with a system that we both felt would work.

Homework and Leveling Up

Online homework and quizzes do not count directly to a student’s grade. I want students to understand that they must be able to demonstrate their understanding on exams. Homework helps students to learn, and I wanted to reward students who did well on the homework.

Students can level up by scoring at least 90% on each homework assignment during a testing unit (there are 2 assignments per section – a basic HW section that covers all of the topics and a personalized assignment that contains only problems that the student has struggled with) and 100% on each sections 5-question “reflect quiz”. Students are allowed to repeat the quiz as many times as they would like with only the highest score counting.


I give 6 exams, and they are graded as pass/fail. A student who passes earns 1 point and a student who fails receives 0 points. If a student has leveled up that unit they can earn 2 points for a score in the 70s and 3 points for a score of at least 80%.

That means that students can earn up to 18 points from exams.

Other Points

I do have one exam (Rational Expressions and Equations) that is a special double-points test where students who level up can earn up to 6 points. I do not tell my students about this until the end of the semester, and the fun associated with this unexpected reward helps to increase focus on the toughest exam of the semester. The extra 3 points get us up to a possible total of 21 points.

I give 4 points to students who pass a final exam review quiz (34 questions) and score at least 90% on the corresponding personalized homework assignment containing problems that they missed on their first quiz attempt. Adding these 4 points brings the possible total to 25 points.

Students can earn up to 5 points by completing the Real World Math project. This is a project in which students choose a real-world math topic they are interested in, plan a strategy for learning about it, and devise a plan to show me how they learned about the topic. (I will blog about this more in the near future.) These 5 points bring the possible total to 30 points.

Students can earn up 5 points by passing an optional cumulative midterm exam. In order to qualify to take this exam a student must level up on one of the first 3 exams and earn 2 or 3 points on that exam. Possible point total after these 5 points is 35 points.

Final Exam

The cumulative final exam, which is often a common exam taken with several other classes and graded by a team of instructors, is worth 100 points. That means that the final exam is worth 100 of the 135 points that are possible during the semester. My students have a clear goal – they must be able to demonstrate understanding of the course material at the end of the semester and everything they do all semester is to put them in position where they can do well on that exam.

Grading Scale

I have set 86 points as the minimum total to earn a C. That is equivalent to 6 points for passing each test without leveling up, 5 points for doing the Real World math project, 5 points that were possible on the optional midterm, and 70 points on the final exam. Since the midterm is not available to students who have not leveled up a student would need to score 75 on the final exam in order to pass the class (80 if they choose not to do the Real World math project). Essentially students have to pass each exam and score 80 on the final in order to pass the class without doing all of the work outside the classroom.

The choice for B and A are somewhat arbitrary – 98 for a B and 110 for an A. I chose these numbers based on previous semesters where a B required 12 more points than a C and an A required 12 more points than a B.


I will continue to post throughout the semester about this system, as well as share progress and results. I have had a great deal of success with this approach and I hope you will consider adapting it to use with your students.

– George