Deirdre Lee, Communications Writing Fellow

Learning another language can be a daunting task.

“I think it’s difficult to grasp a language that you’re not used to hearing in an everyday setting,” said Mark Ricciardi, a junior at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). “Even if I feel confident in my ability to speak Italian, it’s very easy to lose that ability because there are few ways to practice outside of the classroom.”

He completed Italian 101 in the Fall 2018 term, and he said he dreaded taking four semesters of a foreign language to satisfy the four-term second language proficiency requirement in LSA.

Ricciardi said grammar was the most challenging aspect of Italian 101.

“Present tense, past tense, future tense, these all require conjugating verbs in different ways that are just similar enough to be confusing,” he said. 

He said he considered his GPA before registering for the course, worried his GPA might suffer from a required course. According to Atlas, another software tool developed by the Center for Academic Innovation, the average grade in Italian 101 is a B+.

Foreign language faculty at the university are aware of these challenges and want to mitigate student anxiety, while also increasing student engagement and passion for learning a foreign language.

That’s where GradeCraft and gameful learning comes in.

GradeCraft is a learning management system that helps instructors run gameful courses, a pedagogical approach that is inspired by the practices of well-designed games. Some of the concepts gameful learning emphasizes are increased autonomy, freedom to fail, tangible progress, and earning up. Created by Barry Fishman, PhD, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Learning Technologies in the U-M School of Information and School of Education, and Caitlin Hayward, PhD, Associate Director of the Research and Development team at Academic Innovation, GradeCraft has been used in more than 200 courses at 70 institutions.

Phill Cameron, Instructional Designer at the LSA Language Resource Center, works with U-M language coordinators and other Language Resource Center staff to enrich the learning experience of languages.

Cameron said Chinese, French, and Italian courses are piloting GradeCraft because the gameful framework promotes the idea of productive failure, individualized learning, and the freedom to experiment and express one’s self.

“We think that one of the core GradeCraft philosophies, that of students thinking metacognitively about a course and then building and tailoring their experience to the grade they want to achieve, is very useful for foreign languages,” he said.

Amaryllis Rodriguez Mojica, coordinator for the first-year Italian language courses at U-M and Lecturer IV of Italian, said she chose to implement GradeCraft in her Italian 101 course because GradeCraft gives students accountability.

Rodriguez Mojica said students in the gameful courses she has taught are more creative and employ the language in a different way, since GradeCraft presents them with many options and considers the needs of the students and what they want to learn. 

“With GradeCraft, [students] study the grammar at home. We take class time to actually use and live the language in the classroom,” she said.

Rodriguez Mojica also emphasized the importance of grade recovery for students in GradeCraft. She said students’ perspectives on assignments shift when using GradeCraft, because instead of thinking they failed an assignment by not earning many points, they are able to continue earning points by completing additional assignments.

“In GradeCraft, the sense of being harshly graded, fades,” Rodriguez Mojica said. “I don’t have to grade anyone for not understanding.”

Ricciardi was a student in Rodriguez Mojica’s Italian 101 course and said he never felt discouraged because he didn’t feel like he was losing points.

“GradeCraft was nice because it was the first time I felt like I was gaining points throughout my entire experience,” he said. “I remember taking a lot of pride in doing as many assignments as I could to earn as many points as I felt I wanted to earn.”

Ricciardi also said he didn’t feel forced to learn the language. He said the freedom to choose and complete assignments relieved the pressure of having to perform well, and he didn’t feel stressed if he didn’t do well on a particular assignment.

“GradeCraft never made me discouraged when I was struggling in Italian. Not that I was struggling, but it made it okay for me not to be perfect all the time, which is the reality of learning a different language,” Ricciardi said.

Ryan Hendrickson, coordinator for French 101, 102, and 103, and Lecturer IV of French, said he chose to adopt GradeCraft in his French 103 class because GradeCraft lets students learn through failure.

“I was really drawn to the idea that failure is okay, at least to a certain extent, that students can learn from it and not be punished for the natural process of language learning,” he said.

Hendrickson said instead of forcing students to complete required tasks, GradeCraft gives them ownership of their learning by offering more options to explore their interests and new pathways to bridge connections to the language through optional course assignments. 

Since implementing student choice into his teaching style, he said he won’t teach the same way again.

“I think it would be difficult to go back to a system where you don’t give [students] choice,” Hendrickson said. “Students can self-select activities and certain projects that fit their learning style better.”

Shayna Brown, LSA sophomore, took Hendrickson’s French 103 course in Winter 2019 and said she loved using GradeCraft because she had the freedom to choose assignments as well as view the description of each assignment in GradeCraft before deadlines. 

“I was able to do assignments in advance and pick and choose assignments that matched with my day-to-day schedule,” she said.

Even though Brown originally took the course because of the LSA foreign language requirement, she said GradeCraft made the course engaging because of the ample feedback she received on assignments.

“I think that having the ability to pick the assignments you want to do, being given the opportunity to have optional versus required assignments, and planning ahead leads to better grades and happier students,” she said.

Increased student autonomy and shifting the grading paradigm were reasons why foreign language faculty wanted to implement GradeCraft in their foreign language courses, according to Cameron. 

“Because of the different stance toward points and point scoring, GradeCraft allows instructors to rethink the opportunities their courses afford language learning students,” he said. 

Cameron said additional foreign language courses are currently working on adopting GradeCraft. Chinese is creating a third semester (second year) course, while Vietnamese and Korean programs are starting to design gameful courses to be piloted in Fall 2020.