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1:58pm on Saturday, 14th February, 2009:

Non-Game Uses of Game Design


Earlier this week, I had to sit in on the lecture of a senior professor in our department and afterwards tell him how much I thought his lecturing style sucked.

This is called the "Peer Review of Teaching". We used to have it in the Electronics Department pre-merger, and not once in that time did I ever actually go and see someone's lecture or have them come see mine: we just told the Departmental Administrator that we'd done the reviews, and that was that. When the Electronics Department merged with Computer Science, the whole scheme was quietly dropped. However, this year it was restarted (which is the kind of thing that happens when you appoint someone as Deputy Head of Department for Teaching). Worse, this time round we have a bunch of forms to fill in, so it's not easy to pretend you've been to the lectures when you haven't.

There are three things about this peer reviewing thing that I (and most other lecturers) don't like:

  1. It involves too much process. I have to sit down beforehand and discuss with the person I'm reviewing what it is they want me to look out for, and we're supposed to arrange a meeting afterwards to go through the lecture and appraise it, making reference to the minute-by-minute breakdown of what I observed in the lecture. Then we fill in some forms and hand them to the Departmental Administrator who will check they pass muster and cross our names off the list of People Who Need To Be Hassled For Not Having Done Their Peer Review Of Teaching Task. It's a lot of unnecessary hassle, the main purpose of which seems to be to ensure that we're not merely pretending we did a peer review, but that we actually went through the motions.
  2. When you're being reviewed, there is an implicit assumption that your lecturing style must be inadequate. All the forms are about how you can "improve" what you do. Some of our members of staff have been lecturing for 40 years — there's nothing that someone with less experience than they have can meaningfully tell them that will improve their teaching. People don't like it when their competence is questioned (even when it needs to be).
  3. The people doing the reviewing don't like telling their colleagues how they might improve their lectures. Why would you want to annoy a friend, or someone who can influence whether you're in line for promotion? Yet the forms we have to fill in practically force you to say negative things about the person you were randomly assigned to review.

Is it any wonder that many lecturers don't like either reviewing or being reviewed by peers? Some resent being reviewed, some are frightened of giving reviews, and all don't like the thick layer of process involved. If I were designing a game where I wanted to promote conflict, then assigning people random opponents and making them have reason to dislike them would be a good way of doing it.

Hmm, game design...

What happens when you don't eat? Well, you get weak and eventually die. In many of the early text MUDs that implemented food, this is exactly what happened. People would have to eat every once in a while or they'd get a debuff. This isn't fun. As a result, players wrote macros that triggered every time they got the "you are feeling hungry"; they took some food out of your backpack and ate it automatically, hiding the text so you didn't even have to know it had happened. Today's MMOs don't do that, though: if you don't eat, nothing awful happens. If you do eat, well you may get some health back quicker, plus a buff.

Now hitting someone with a buff when they eat is functionally identical to hitting them with a debuff when they don't eat, but the players are much happier to be given something than to have something taken away — it's just a matter of how you pitch it to them. So, maybe something similar could be done with this peer review of teaching thing?

Here's an idea: the aim of the review is not for the reviewee to be told how their lectures can be improved, but it's for the reviewer to learn how theirs can be improved. Instead of focusing on the negatives of the lecture, you focus on the positives. This means that the reviewee is not assumed to be a lousy teacher — the pressure is entirely off. The reviewer doesn't have to say bad things about the reviewee, they get to be self-critical instead. There's no need for so much process, because the reviewer doesn't have to make their observations known to the reviewee in a formal setting — the reviewee is not the one under the microscope.

For example, the person I was reviewing on Tuesday was Huosheng Hu, our senior robotics professor. Could I have criticised his lecture negatively? Well yes, quite easily: his English is heavily accented and not easy to understand; his slides show formulae too small to read; he spent the first 7 minutes of the lecture trying to get the projector and ethernet connection to talk to his computer. However, he knows his accent is strong, and my telling him would make no difference; he gives the students some hand-outs with the formulae on them, so they can read them there; his students helped him out with the set-up when he had problems, and it seems they have a genuine affection for him. Neither I nor he would have gained anything by my telling him any of those faults, even though I had to identify them on the form I filled in. What was of use was that I did notice that while he was lecturing he would stop every 10 minutes or so and ask his students if they had any questions. I don't do that in my lectures — but it's a good idea! I'll try to do that myself in future.

The aim of the Peer Review of Teaching is for lecturers' lecturing style to improve. It doesn't matter whether it improves because you tell me I'm doing something bad or I observe something you're doing that 's good (or, indeed, bad) and take it on board. In terms of acceptance, though, it's better if I feel I'm getting a buff from you than if you think you're getting a debuff from me.

I put this to the Deputy Head of Department for Teaching, who asked the outgoing and incoming Head of Department what they thought, and it's been approved. Next year's Peer Review of Teaching will focus attention on what the reviewee learns from the reviewer, rather than vice versa.

Ah, game design in action...

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).