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To Leaderboard or Not: The Art of Motivating and Monitoring Performance

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A few years ago I walked into an elementary school and all of the assignments for all of the students were displayed on a public data wall. I appreciated the focus on achievement and the commitment to transparency, but it made me wonder if the practice produced positive effects. Could it actually be a serious detriment for many struggling students?

Last year I spotted a string of progress charts hanging over the coat racks in a New England school where kids see it coming and going. Is it a great reminder that growth matters or a constant reminder that some kids are way behind?

Last fall I visited NOLA schools and saw an extensive example of publicly posted graded written work product. It created a very clear picture of what good looked like but also made clear which students were struggling with writing or English language.

Down the hall from the writing was a GPA Wall where student names were listed in order. Probably a great incentive for top students, perhaps a source of discouragement for struggling students.

Leveling up or public humiliation?

Most kids grow up playing video games these days, so they're always somewhere on a leaderboard. But that's different, it's a voluntary environment with avatars and nicknames. What can we learn from gamification about motivating growth?

Steve Kamb created Nerd Fitness to turn life into a game. His book, Level Up Your Life, describes how gamifying things can increase engagement and turned self-improvement into a game using the same techniques that real games employ (listen to an interview).

Noel Fernando at Nerd Fitness said, "Leaderboards motivate some people. So having that option is really great for the members of our community with more competitive personalities. For others, it's totally humiliating, and they opt out of participating."

Your Fitbit and iPhone track your steps. Matchup allows you to join a fitness challenge. Strava tracks and benchmarks your runs and bike rides against other enthusiasts. Like games, is the key that these are voluntary and (generally) anonymous leaderboard applications?

Does the measure matter?

Schools that value deeper learning encourage authentic work product and public presentations. The documentary Most Likely to Succeed features a High Tech High student that fails at public presentation of learning. How is that failure like or unlike notated academic failure on a GPA wall?

Positive versus negative motivation. Do they both lead to results? Do they have other impact in a student's development, such as their feelings toward school and their ability to do well? How does this connect to growth mindset? Do the gold stars below motivate future performance? What about the students with little or no progress?

Math measures

Because intermediate math appears to be the most frequent use of public leaderboards, we surveyed the adaptive math providers. Alex Khachatryan with adaptive middle grade math program Reasoning Mind said, "Our teachers use [leaderboards] in most of our 500+ schools." (Watch for an interview with Dr. Khachatryan on performance monitoring.)

Other providers are more cautious. Here's a representative response from an adaptive learning provider, "We aren't big fans of leaderboards given concerns about public humiliation but some of our sites do use them."

"Student leaderboards can be problematic on a number of different levels," according to Tim Hudson from DreamBox. "Not everyone is motivated by competition so if they're used at all, they should probably be opt-in." Tim is worried that they they can create resentment. "Some math programs with competitive aspects show students getting excited and giving each other high-fives when they win; but in the background you can see the losing students are devastated. Similarly, leaderboards publicly show winners and losers, which can negatively impact a student's growth mindset and agency."

DreamBox doesn't have student leaderboards, but does sponsor a school-based Math Challenge every March. "When classrooms set collective goals for completing a high number of DreamBox lessons, students encourage each other," adds Hudson. Because students are working on different grade level content in DreamBox, it's important to focus on a metric like "completed lessons" rather than how far students have advanced in the curriculum. Hudson thinks, "Any measurement used for a leaderboard should give everyone a reasonable shot at being in the top spot. That means the leaderboard should re-set frequently enough that it's attainable for anyone. It's demotivating and demoralizing to be so far behind that you have no chance of catching up."

It's pretty common to see a penguin progress charts in the 3500 schools that use ST Math (representing the mascot penguin JiJi). Sometimes it's individual students, other times (like the picture below) it's a class competition.

"We've seen DreamBox schools create their own leaderboards at the classroom and/or grade level," said Tim Hudson. "When the first graders complete more lessons than the fifth graders in a week, it gets interesting. That approach helps peers encourage each other more than an individual leader board."

This series will attempt to answer these questions:

  • What forms of performance monitoring best promote persistence and performance?
  • When and how are public data displays productive?
  • What differences exist between formal/compulsory and informal/voluntary environments?

  • Have advice on leaderboards or performance monitoring? Questions? Examples? We'd love to hear from you. Comment below or email our [email protected].

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