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Integrating Role-playing Gamification into Programming Activities to Increase Student Engagement

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Computers in Education Division Technical Session 3: Digital Learning Part I

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Computers in Education

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Paper Authors

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Zhiyi Li


Stephen H. Edwards Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Stephen H. Edwards is a Professor and the Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, where he has been teaching since 1996. He received his B.S. in electrical engineering from Caltech, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer and information science from The Ohio State University. His research
interests include computer science education, software testing, software engineering, and programming languages. He is the project lead for Web-CAT, the most widely used open-source automated grading system in the world. Web-CAT is known for allowing instructors to grade students based on how well they test their own code. In addition, his research group has produced a number of other open-source tools used in classrooms at many other institutions. Currently, he is researching innovative for giving feedback to students as they work on assignments to provide a more welcoming experience for students, recognizing the effort they put in and the accomplishments they make as they work on solutions, rather than simply looking at whether the student has finished what is required. The goals of his research are to strengthen growth mindset beliefs while encouraging deliberate practice, self-checking, and skill improvement as students work.

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A number of gamification approaches have been used to encourage greater student motivation and engagement in the classroom. This paper examines a gamification strategy that is less common in the classroom, despite its prevalence in successful games: role playing. Role playing games (RPGs) use a combination of character traits, experience points, and character leveling to illustrate how a character evolves and grows stronger as the character progresses through the game. By providing strong connections between the player's behavior and choices and how their in-game character develops, RPGs encourage players to identify with and develop a sense of ownership over their in-game character or persona. In order to encourage adoption of positive student habits and encourage belief in positive values of student behavior, we describe how RPG elements such as experience points, leveling, and character traits can be adapted for use in computer programming activities. By providing feedback on time management behavior, use of incremental software development practices, and consistent self-checking of one's work, gamification elements can be strategically structured to reinforce specific behaviors and to communicate that specific student practices or work habits are valued. By structuring RPG character traits to convey an implicit model of ``desirable'' or ``strong'' student behavior, students can use their character development status to track how well they are modeling these behaviors. Further, by providing a way for a student to identify with an empathize with an ``in-assignment'' representation of their personal behavior, RPG elements promote greater student ownership over their own experiences and greater personal investment in improving their work habits. We rely on existing measures of student effort as they develop their solutions that are intended to measure productive work the student invests, and to promote growth mindset beliefs. We show how these measures can be used to provide gamification-based rewards for target behaviors, such as time management choices, incremental development, and self-checking. Finally, we show how these elements can be embedded in an automated grading tool to provide a platform for embedding RPG-like experiences in assignment feedback. We apply these techniques to a historical data-set of student activities including 257 students to verify the feasibility and suitability of the design.

Li, Z., & Edwards, S. H. (2020, June), Integrating Role-playing Gamification into Programming Activities to Increase Student Engagement Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34847

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