Want to encourage participation? Give ’em a mulligan!

Sometimes, in order to reap the greatest rewards, we need to take a risk. Of course, the problem is that risks are risky, and the prospect of failure looms, which we usually don’t perceive as rewarding. If only we had the opportunity for a do-over…

[Check out this short film when you have some time… it’s charming.]

Our students are frequently faced with the opportunity for productive risk — particularly when it comes to in-class discussion. We know that active engagement in the classroom is positively associated with learning gains (Tinto, 1997), and in-class participation is an important component of student engagement (Handelsman et al.,  2005).  For the Millennial students currently in our classrooms, class discussions can be a powerful way to leverage some of their generational traits for learning (e.g., their desire for an active learning environment and their egalitarian belief that all voices should be heard); however, other traits (e.g., their sensitivity to criticism) can make them risk-averse when it comes to the prospect of ‘being wrong’ in the classroom (Roehling et al., 2011).

Our Millennials also crave achievement and can be consumer-oriented when it comes to the cost-benefit analysis of their personal efforts in the learning department. That’s where the innovative advice of Jefferson College’s Lisa Pavia-Higel, recently published in Faculty Focus, comes in.  She suggests that we can stimulate student participation in class discussions by leveraging the current wave of “gamification” of the learning experience (i.e., strategies that “focus[] on what games do for brain processes and tr[y] to bring that into the learning environment”).  In brief: offering “mulligan” credits to apply in subsequent exams can both incentivize active class participation and reduce student test anxiety at the same time.

This strategy, an alternative approach to both “participation grades” and “extra credit,” has the tantalizing possibility of encouraging otherwise risk-averse students to put themselves out there in the classroom, where we want them to engage.  It also fosters the active and welcoming environment for participation Millennials crave.

So… consider going out and buying some stickers???

Handelsman, M.M., Briggs, W.L., Sullivan, N., and Towler, A. (2005). A measure of college student course engagement. The Journal of Education Research, 98(3), 184-192.

Roehling, P.V., Vander Kooi, T.L., Dykema, S., Quisenberry, B, and  Vandlen, C. (2011). Engaging the millennial generation in class discussions. College Teaching, 59, 1-6.

Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistenceJournal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.


AUGUST 18, 2014

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

By: in Teaching and Learning

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.


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