August 18th, 2014

Using “Mulligans” to Enhance Student Participation and Reduce Test Anxiety


When I speak with other professors who work extensively in the classroom, we often find that we share many of the same challenges. Students’ lack of classroom participation in discussion and test anxiety are two of the most common. Many professors try to mitigate these issues through two time-honored pedagogical tactics: a participation grade and extra credit questions on tests. While both tactics can be effective, by applying concepts from gamification research I found a way to both enhance classroom participation and reduce test anxiety with one simple technique.

While many have heard of gamification, it’s important to note that gamification differs from game-based learning. According to a National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report, gamification is “a much newer concept than game-based learning. It uses elements derived from video game design which are then deployed in a variety of contexts” (Perrota, et. al). Gamification focuses on what games do for brain processes and tries to bring that into the learning environment. While reviewing gamification concepts, I discovered two elements I thought would enhance my classroom: flow and fiero. Flow refers to a state of focused, enjoyable attention that has been known to enhance intrinsic motivation and memory. Fiero is a game design term referring to small victories that result in a feeling of accomplishment, which has been linked to greater engagement and attention to the material. (24, 33).

Lecture/discussion sessions rarely result in these learning states even with the instructor providing engagement opportunities. Most students have been trained to approach the lecture as a largely passive activity. I wanted to bring my students out of this orientation, and to improve test performance through reducing anxiety without reducing rigor. By using the concepts of flow and fiero. I found a way to achieve both with the same modality through the use of what I call mulligans.

Trivia nights in the Midwest are very popular. Before the game begins, players purchase small stickers, called mulligans, which are used to reduce the penalty when the team doesn’t know an answer. This sparked an idea that has proven to be successful in the classroom. All it required was a trip to a teacher supply store for stickers and then a bit of explanation on the first day of class.

At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that there are no extra credit or participation points. Instead, they can earn mulligan stickers to be used on tests or assignments. These are earned during class by showing mastery of content, presenting well-thought-out discussion points, or showing improvement in specific skill areas. Each mulligan sticker is worth one point, and students can use a maximum of five mulligans on a single assignment or test. I give out the mulligans intermittently during the term and never tell students when we’re going to have a mulligan day.

Initially, I was worried that this element may be too juvenile for college students. However, by calling them mulligans and equating them with familiar classroom elements, students reacted very well to the idea. Student participation improved from the start of the course and continued even on days when I didn’t distribute any stickers. They were more prepared and more eager to contribute to class discussions, and students actually focused during review since it was a prime earning opportunity. The mulligans also provided a tangible incentive for quiet students to step outside their comfort zone and gave me a quick assessment of which students were contributing.

Moreover, students with mulligans showed less outward signs of test anxiety. They could see their collection of stickers as proof that they knew the material, and when stickers were used on test questions that gave students trouble, it helped me assess places where students struggled most.

Lastly, this small change improved the intangible vibe of the classroom. There were moments of fiero and flow that students could easily see, especially when a student got their first sticker, or ‘beat’ another student to an answer. While it may seem like a gimmick or perhaps juvenile, this one element of gamification has convinced me to look into the research further for other modalities that can improve learning.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Books.

Perrotta, C., Featherstone, G., Aston, H. and Houghton, E. (2013). Game-based Learning: Latest Evidence and Future Directions (NFER Research Programme: Innovation in Education). Slough: NFER.

Lisa Pavia-Higel is an assistant professor of communication at Jefferson College.

  • Marie Hooper

    So passive students get no mulligans? I'd like to see more on this idea!!

    • Marie:
      If students are passive and not engaged, not normally no. Since I teach communication courses, contributing to the course is vital to success. However, I do carefully and gradually encourage passive yet engaged students to be more active, and most eventually find themselves with mulligans. For them, I often reward their work in small groups or one-on-one in workshop sessions. That way, my introverted students get encouragement for practicing their skills in those contexts with which they are more comfortable.

      I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for the comment.

  • Donna Everett

    I agree with Marie. Show me a mulligan! How do you use it when student work is submitted online?

  • InstructDesign

    "flow and fiero" aka scaffolding!

  • Karen

    Thanks for this idea! What does it mean to use a mulligan? Students get a free point without answering the question? Or do they get a second chance at the question? (And if the latter, how does that work?)

  • Deborah

    I like this idea and the tangible reward. It makes students accountable for keeping track of what they earned for performance in class. Although it makes performance earn an extrinsic reward, it's intermittent, which helps learning. It also creates an intrinsic feeling of accomplishment perhaps. I'm going to try it.

  • Karen,

    Usually they stick the mulligans on questions that they struggle with, but I ask them to at least try to answer the question. If they get it right, I count the point somewhere else. It helps me see where they are getting tripped up. However, getting a second chance is an interesting idea…

    Thank you.

  • Deborah,
    Thank you so much for reading!

  • Sarah Brown

    Going to try this in a Composition class. Thinking about using wooden nickels or something similar, and having them turn it in with assignments/papers they don't feel confident on. Wondering if you also keep a separate record of distributing mulligans…worried about students finding, purchasing and using identical stickers just to try and boost their score…

    • Taka

      I echo Sarah's concern. I would also like to know how to keep students honest; do you just trust them?

      • I keep switching up the types. So far, I've not seen any duplicates. I also note when they are used, so it's pretty easy to tell if someone is going overboard…but the honor system is part of it, and we have that discussion. Thanks to both of you!

  • Javier Gomez

    I love this idea.

    Although it's not too clear to me what a "mulligan day" is? Is this when you give out a lot of mulligans or when they can apply them? What would make it different from just giving out mulligans intermittently?

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  • jovive

    Sorry for the delay. I don't always bring the stickers to class, so they are not given out every class period. I should have been more clear. I feel that if you are going to use the method being intermittent is essential or they'll come to expect it.

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  • Pip Ferguson

    I think this is a really cool idea. If there is an online version developed, and only the lecturer has access to distributing them, it would get around the 'buying your own' problem identified above. Thanks for sharing!

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