Don’t I Know You from Somewhere?
This whole thing started when I played two video games, one after the other, that I imagine almost no one plays in sequence. My partner and I enjoy open-world games that incorporate a number of mini-games and puzzles to discover along the way. Lego Star Wars1 was released in 2005. We played it at my cousin’s holiday party, and we were hooked.
Back in 2005, I was teaching as a remote faculty member in a mega-university’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. My online courses were designed according to the “read and reply twice” design format, then in vogue among instructional designers. The interactions that I had with my learners were largely formulaic, and I was really good at them.2 I responded to my students’ discussion posts and activity submissions within hours of deadlines, and I did my best to move conversations forward by asking learners to make connections and begin new avenues of inquiry. By 2007, I had won Senior Faculty status and a teaching award from my peers.
Fast forward to 2018: several game platforms and dozens of video games later. My partner and I had just finished playing Watch Dogs.3 I initially bought the game because it contained a realistic open-world simulacrum of Chicago, where my partner and I had lived and worked for many years. It was fun to roam through familiar neighborhoods in-game: we even found the virtual doppelgänger to our old apartment building.
In the game, my character was Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker trying to avenge the killing of his niece at the hands of shadowy forces. Was it the South-side gangs, corrupt police, amoral corporate tycoons, or perhaps the hacker community itself? Watch Dogs is definitely intended for adult audiences, dealing with heavy issues like poverty, crime, prostitution, corruption, and systemic racism. It contains challenges that rely on gamers’ skills at driving, solving logic puzzles, marksmanship, collecting partial evidence until a pattern emerges, and social interactions. Over the course of three months, I got pretty good at the game, and eventually completed the main story line, discovering who had killed Aiden’s niece, what forces were behind the murder, and bringing the guilty parties to justice.
Meanwhile, my online courses and in-person training sessions seemed nothing like my experiences in Watch Dogs. I was now working for a large public university in the midwestern United States, teaching teachers how to teach. My online courses, webinars, keynote speeches, and workshops were consistently cited for their inclusivity, practical take-aways, and respect for learners of all kinds. I designed my learning experiences to make sure that learners had choices and control over their interactions with the materials we used, their conversations with one another, their interactions with me, and their inquiries in the wider world. I was an effective online teacher, taking people’s real-world challenges—work, family, military, educational commitments—into account as I designed and facilitated the learning interactions in my various programming.
My partner wasn’t too thrilled with the realistic challenges (mayhem, really) in the Watch Dogs video game, though. In order to complete the game, I had to lie, steal, cheat, rob, and kill my way along, playing on all sides within a very slippery set of situational ethics. To change the mood for our gaming nights, my partner suggested for our next game that we return to a Lego title. We are fans of the Lego video-game series: the puzzles, intended for a younger audience, are often just as challenging as in the more adult-oriented games; opponents, when shot or struck, disassemble into their component plastic bricks with a clinky jangle; and the humor is cheesy, knowingly ironic, and laced with references to events, movies, and books that no 12-year-old today could possibly remember. In other words, the Lego game designers are making games for both kids and parents to enjoy.
So, the next disc we put into our gaming console was Lego City Undercover4, a splendid title in which I played undercover police office Chase McCain, called back into service after being sent away from the force after he accidentally revealed his girlfriend as the witness in the trial of super-criminal Rex Fury, causing her to have to enter the witness-protection program. Fury is out of jail, and McCain is sent undercover to infiltrate Fury’s gang and bring him to justice, despite a corrupt police chief, the South-side gangs, amoral corporate tycoons, and . . . wait just a second.
The entire plot, game structure, and open-world design in Lego City Undercover was eerily familiar, with the only differences against Watch Dogs being the main character’s occupation (hacker versus police officer) and the city in which the action takes place (Chicago versus an amalgamation of recognizable New York and San Francisco landmarks). Otherwise, as my partner and I soon gleefully discovered, they were nearly the exact same game, pitched to two different audiences.
For every steal-and-deliver-a-vehicle challenge in video-game Chicago, there seemed to be an analogous challenge in Lego City. Both games were open worlds with recognizable buildings and elements from real life. Each game had a hidden sub-plot that put the main character’s loved ones in danger. Both games contained subtle replays and homages to famous movie scenes. The games even shared the ability to hack technology and use elements of the environment as weapons and tools. It’s just that one of them was dark, brooding, and dystopian, while the other was bright, shiny, and corny.
But they were very much the same game. The skills I had practiced repeatedly in Watch Dogs made challenges in Lego City Undercover not only easier, but predictable. More than once, my partner would say, as I climbed to the top of another Lego building, “I’ll bet the clue is hidden underneath those planters,” and darn if it wasn’t right there—where we had found similar clues in Watch Dogs.
About the same time that we were playing Lego City Undercover, I was discovering that my “great” online courses could be strengthened even further by paying attention to barriers that I hadn’t previously understood well—or hadn’t even noticed at all. One of those barriers is grades. Numerical, percentage, and letter grades, especially when assigned for every tiny activity that learners do throughout the progress of courses, actually interfere with learners taking our feedback in the spirit of coaching that most of us actually mean.5 Grades, I learned, reinforce fixed-potential mindsets among learners, and removing them (but keeping the formative feedback) led to many good outcomes.
I was skeptical of the ungrading movement, but I tried it, found good results, and discovered the neuroscience behind why it actually works. To my chagrin, we’ve collectively known this about the negative effect of grades for decades.6 I needed to be experienced with the fundamentals of teaching, first, though. I probably couldn’t have moved in the direction of ungrading without having confidence in my teaching skills to begin with. In other words, I discovered that the very practice at which I thought I was an expert—online teaching—had a secret beyond-expert bonus level.
Speaking of bonus levels, I don’t mean to say that one set of video-game designers literally copied from the other. In fact, both game companies probably took quite a few pages from the Grand Theft Auto7 franchise’s playbook. But it was as though, playing the Lego game, that we knew what was coming next, how to approach the challenges, and what to look for to help us move through the game—and we were right often enough that we started to keep a log of the similarities. I even shared my thoughts about it on social media:
By the time I had finished both games, I was ready to play Watch Dogs 2, and I eased right in to playing the new title. Why? Because I had accidentally followed the second-best way8 to study and learn any new practice or content: spaced practice.
Spaced Practice is Expert-Level Teaching Design
In addition to exploring ungrading, I also learned that spaced practice is one of the best ways to study and remember information and techniques.9 We reinforce our learning when we can re-visit concepts and ideas just before we shift them out of short-term memory and forget them. Spaced practice is
a technique for efficient memorization which uses repeated review of content following a schedule determined by a spaced repetition algorithm to improve long-term retention.10
Back in the day, I did spaced practice by studying with flash cards. If I encountered Concepts A and B in the first week of a course, and then two new concepts every week thereafter, I would study Concepts A and B again during Week 2. Any cards in my study deck that I wasn’t familiar with after a short delay were kept in the deck into the following weeks. Familiar concepts would arise every few weeks, just to keep the concepts fresh.
Today, language-study apps like Duolingo use spaced repetition to help learners absorb words and grammar based on the concepts that they have the most trouble remembering.11 When my partner and I were preparing to spend four months teaching and researching in Budapest for a grant, one of us turned to a series of CD-based “traditional” language-training recordings: we learned entire phrases that would be useful. Köszönöm szépen, thank you very kindly. Várom válaszodat, I hope we’ll see each other again soon.
But I also downloaded Duolingo, and I soon realized that I had trouble remembering direct objects because they don’t work in Hungarian like they do in English: they come near the beginning of sentences, and they are marked with endings that can indicate direction, temperature, mood, time of day—one, some, or all at once (don’t even ask me for an example). But the app knew that I had forgotten the words and phrases from previous lessons even as I forged ahead with new words and situations, so those old direct-object questions kept popping back up, even ten and twenty lessons in the future. Just as I was about to forget about direct objects, they came sliding back into the front of my mind thanks to spaced practice. I am proud to report that in the last month of our time in Hungary, I was able to say “taxit kerem a vasútállomásra” to a hotel front-desk clerk (literally, “a taxi I would like in the direction of the train station”) and watched him make a phone call for a taxi—and to the right place!
In all of the scenarios above, I benefited from spaced-recall practice. I recognized that my familiarity with the rules of the game in Watch Dogs not only prepared me for success with the tasks in Lego City Undercover, but that my re-encounter with basic skills in the Lego game reinforced my memory and practice by moving my memory backward on the “forgetting curve.”12 I went back to my teaching and design practices and started to see that too many times, activities I asked learners to do were “one and done”: we would cover concepts, talk about them, practice a bit with them, and then learners never saw them again, or encountered them only on the final project or examination. I built in some spaced-recall practice opportunities: asking learners to identify some of their nearly-forgot-them concepts and relying on test performance and class-wide confusion in previous versions of courses to guide some heavier-handed designs for recall practice.
It was all because I played two video games in sequence and noticed a weird similarity. I’ve had a number of such a-ha moments, where I realized that even my expert-level teaching and design techniques can benefit from beyond-expert bonus-level practices. I’m looking all over my everyday experiences for hints about how our minds work when we learn things, and everywhere that I can take down barriers to learning, I’ll do so. After all, if I can thwart gangs and corruption to bring peace to an entire city, how hard can it be to strengthen my teaching, too?
Join Thomas J. Tobin in an online seminar, Online Learning That Sticks: Strategies to Shift Student-Centered Learning, on November 12. Here, he will share his knowledge about spaced practice, authentic-learning, and assessment-shifting techniques that go beyond expert teaching approaches into “bonus level” techniques.
Thomas J. Tobin is the Program Area Director for Distance Teaching & Learning on the Learning Design, Development, & Innovation (LDDI) team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as an internationally-recognized speaker and author on topics related to quality in technology-enhanced education.
Bjork, Elizabeth L., & Bjork, Robert. (1994). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. New York: Worth Publishers: 56-64. https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/04/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf.
Darby, Flower. (2019). How to be a better online teacher. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching.
Grand Theft Auto. (2019, September 29). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theft_Auto.
Kohn, Alfie. (1994). Grading: The issue is not how, but why. Educational Leadership, 52(2): 38-41. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct94/vol52/num02/Grading@-The-Issue-Is-Not-How-But-Why.aspx.
Lego City Undercover. (2011, April 11–2019, September 22). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego_City_Undercover.
Lego Star Wars: The Video Game. (2005, April 12–2019, September 16). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego_Star_Wars:_The_Video_Game.
Sonnad, Nikhil (2018, February 23). The scientific, efficient way to learn languages: Spaced repetition. Quartz. https://qz.com/1211561/how-to-learn-a-language-use-spaced-repetition/.
Stommel, Jesse. (2018). How to ungrade. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/.
Tabibian, Behzad, Utkarsh Upadhyay, Abir De, Ali Zarezade, Bernhard Schölkopf, & Manuel Gomez-Rodriguez. (2019, March 5). Enhancing human learning via spaced repetition optimization. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences], 116 (10) 3988-3993. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1815156116.
Watch Dogs. (2012, June 4–2019, September 19). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watch_Dogs.
1 Lego Star Wars: The Video Game. (2005, April 12–2019, September 16). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego_Star_Wars:_The_Video_Game.
2 “Faculty on the Front Lines: Producing Confident and Motivated Online Faculty [Powerpoint].” Bellwether Award Finalist. The Community College Futures Assembly. Orlando, FL. 17-20 Feb. 2002.
3 Watch Dogs. (2012, June 4–2019, September 19). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watch_Dogs.
4 Lego City Undercover. (2011, April 11–2019, September 22). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego_City_Undercover.
5 Stommel, Jesse. (2018). How to ungrade. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/.
6 Kohn, Alfie. (1994). Grading: The issue is not how, but why. Educational Leadership, 52(2): 38-41. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct94/vol52/num02/Grading@-The-Issue-Is-Not-How-But-Why.aspx.
7 Grand Theft Auto. (2019, September 29). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theft_Auto.
8 The best practice for learning anything is getting enough sleep. Surprise! See http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory.
9 Darby, Flower. (2019). How to be a better online teacher. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching.
10 Tabibian, Behzad, Utkarsh Upadhyay, Abir De, Ali Zarezade, Bernhard Schölkopf, & Manuel Gomez-Rodriguez. (2019, March 5). Enhancing human learning via spaced repetition optimization. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences], 116 (10) 3988-3993. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1815156116.
11 Sonnad, Nikhil (2018, February 23). The scientific, efficient way to learn languages: Spaced repetition. Quartz. https://qz.com/1211561/how-to-learn-a-language-use-spaced-repetition/.
12 Bjork, Elizabeth L., & Bjork, Robert. (1994). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. New York: Worth Publishers: 56-64. https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/04/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf.