Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

The Trap Of Certainty

The Trap Of CertaintyStudents like to know where they stand in relation to each other, and in relation to their grades. The ability to see where you currently are, relative to your skill in a subject, provides excellent feedback and goal setting opportunities. However this knowledge can be a double-edged sword when it comes to student performance.

This blog post will look at some of the problems associated with a student being certain of the results of a course prior to the course being completed.

Students can be certain of the outcome of their performance in a course in two potential ways, a negative or a positive view of their performance.

Negative View

It’s obvious that no one likes to lose or to feel that they are failing.

In gamification terms, this produces a state called “perceived elimination” where a player realizes or thinks that it is impossible to win in the given scenario.

In teaching terms, this would be a student who realizes that it is impossible for them mathematically to pass a course, so there is no longer any incentive to expend effort on it.  Students who become convinced they have no chance at success will become disheartened and possibly even disruptive.

High-stakes standardized testing is especially prone to this condition.

When a student knows that a test is worth 60% of their final exam, they can make a final score estimation based on their score and perceived position in the class, especially when this is coupled with a limited number of opportunities to influence their score, i.e. two high-stakes tests in a semester. This causes a long time gap between “games”—in this case I am using the term game to stand in for an opportunity to influence the final score through the students actions—leading to a high level of student disengagement.

Other possible behaviors can include king-making or griefing.

King-making is where they decide to boost the scores of others, instead of trying to get the highest score themselves. This can be seen in the sharing of information on test questions with students who are not taking the test at the same time, or in other behaviors to improve the scores of others.

Griefing is where students attempt to cause as much disturbance as possible in an attempt to pull down the scores of their classmates, or get them to quit. The logic behind it is that if the students who have better scores drop out, the grade curve will shift in my favor. Griefing tactics can also include appeals to the teacher based on things outside of the scope of the course. If you have ever had to sit through a series of appeals days in a university, this process is very familiar to you.

The case for negative certainty being bad is very clear, but why is it bad to be certain in a positive way?

Positive View

First, it is important to remember that confidence in your ability in a subject does not always correlate with student achievements. U.S students have a higher confidence in their math abilities than students in Singapore, but perform worse on tests.

The second thing to consider is that high achievers in a subject often become brittle and insecure when they are confronted by problems they can’t instantly solve. A student who is certain that they will get top marks in an exam is more prone to going to pieces when a test includes a question they are unprepared for. This fragility in their learning is reinforced by being certain of success or used to easy success. To read more about this check out Self theories: Their role in Motivation, Personality and Development by Carol Dweck.

Finally, students who feel they have already achieved their goals do not need to make any effort to continue with the course.


There are a number of potential solutions you could employ, individually or in concert, to address these issues.

  1. Increase the numbers of assessments and limit the amount of down-time between assessments. This will increase the opportunities for students to engage with learning and reduce the situations of lag.
  2. Try to provide opportunities for students to come from behind and make up for missed work.
  3. Provide feedback to students based on what they need to do to achieve their goals, not on their relative grades.

Final Thoughts

Educators have to balance the difficulty of courses, making them strenuous enough to be interesting, while still providing opportunities for learners to succeed. The balancing of courses is very similar to balancing levels in game design. Some of the techniques of game design are very useful in the design of educational activities.

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