TYJM: A Better Group Project

August 2011 to Dec 2014: Marketing Plan Project as a Multi-player Game

When we have shared intentionality, we actively identify as part of a group, we deliberately and explicitly agreed on a goal, and we can understand what others expect us to do. Jane McGonigal

We come to the final part in this series.  In Part Four I explained changes made to the individual experience by providing students with compelling, unnecessary obstacles in the form of ‘quests’.  These quests also gave students a clearer understanding of the Marketing Plan Project and their role in it’s successful  completion.  The focus of Part Five is the collaborative process through which groups transformed themselves into teams.

Introducing the “New and Improved” Marketing Plan Project

(1) Team Goal: Epic Team Win! Probably the most important takeaway from Reality is Broken was the need to provide students with the type of motivation they could really buy into. “Successfully Complete the Final Marketing Plan Project” wasn’t going to cut it as a compelling call to action; especially given the high-stakes nature of an assignment.  Students were very aware that their grade on this project would impact their grade in each of the three courses that comprised ICB300.  As with the All-Star Quests, we were going to need to create a sense of excitement that required unnecessary obstacles and a strong narrative arc. This project was a ‘big deal’ and our goal was to have them view it as an exciting challenge, rather than a looming threat to their survival as business students.
(2) Old Rules: The original version of the project was only assessed twice; once mid-semester when students presented their SWOT analysis and their marketing objectives and second, at the end of the semester when each group presented their proposed strategic plan. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea given the importance of the project to student success. To make matters worse, the reward we were offering only served to increase the pressure.  A summary of requirements would be “if you’re group performs better than the other 9 groups all members will be exempt from final exams (their weighted grade would include an automatic ‘A’ for the final exam in all three disciplines.)” 1

The stark reality was that, based on a midterm grade and a final grade, students had anywhere from a one in eight to a one in twelve chance (depending upon how many groups there were in a given class) to earn that exemption.  These are pretty long odds for an assignment that would have that much impact on their grade.  More importantly,  two assessment checkpoints don’t provide students the necessary guidance to navigate a project of this magnitude.

(2A) New Rules: The All-Star Quest, discussed in Part Four, had been designed to provide individual students with more control and agency as they participated in the group project.  It provided a clear path for students that consisted of 7 distinct assessment activities; each relevant to the group marketing plan project.  To provide groups with a similar path we added two additional major group assessment checkpoints.  Now, instead of an assessment at the midpoint and one at the end of the semester, we devised a structure that consisted of four ‘Acts’.  This allowed for a more incremental development of the group projects, a more granular articulation of objectives and more opportunities for feedback.

Along with the four ‘Act’ structure, we added a number of additional activities that were designed to articulate elements necessary for a successful project.  We called these ‘drills’.  All groups would be required to present Acts I-IV 2 along with 3 shorter,  more targeted drills3.  Now students had 7 group checkpoints along with their 7 All-Star activities.  All activities were coordinated to highlight essential parts of the project and, points earned through each of these activities would be added to the groups cumulative point total.

(3) Feedback: Instead of two, very high stakes, high pressure checkpoints, students now had seven opportunities to know whether they were on the ‘right track’.  These were also opportunities for students to see how the other groups were performing on the same tasks.  This way, not only did they benefit from the feedback given by instructors after each of these activities, they could learn from watching the other groups perform.  This was extremely powerful since students often pay more attention to their peers than their instructors.

(4) Voluntary Participation: I concede the fact that ‘voluntary’ is a relative term; particularly the it comes to required courses.  However, by creating a more manageable series of activities, a clearer path to success, and more opportunities for students to improve through practice and learn from each other, the once overwhelming project became a challenging, yet achievable goal.

The Power of Drills
Drills were not a random addition.  They followed Jane McGonigal’s description of ’emotional activation’. “By undertaking a difficult challenge, so just trying to finish a task in a shorter time than usual, we can produce in our own bodies a rush adrenaline, the excitement hormone that makes us feel confident, energetic, and highly motivated.”

Drills were delivered as ‘just in time’ activities when we introduced important concepts that were crucial to their marketing plan project.  Drills were not announced in advance.  Students would arrive on a drill day and the drill objectives would be explained.  They would be given the first half of the class to research and prepare a presentation.  The second half would be devoted to presentations by each group and feedback.  This was an extremely effective way to introduce a topic and ‘kickstart’ a group’s research efforts.

Drills also brought teams closer together and connected them more closely with their projects; fulfilling four of McGonigal’s other ‘fixes; stronger social connectivity, wholehearted participation, meaningful rewards when students most needed them and better hope of success.  We also found that the larger the class, the more energy was generated through these activities.  Unlike seminar classes where 16-20 students might create a great environment for optimal participation, we found that 60 students would help build a high degree of positive enthusiasm as groups would feed off one another.

Jane McGonigal tells us that there are four intrinsic rewards that are most essential to our happiness: “First, satisfying work. Second, the experience, or at least I hope, being successful. Third, social connection and fourth, we crave meaning.” By restructuring our marketing plan project around the game design principles in Reality is Broken, we were able to create conditions that promoted these intrinsic awards. Student engagement increased and the quality of student work improved considerably. Groups of student turned into teams as we promoted interaction within and among groups. Students obsessed about the amount of work; but in a good way. Winning, and even just competing at a high level became a badge of honor.

Even the All-Star Quests, which considerably increased each students work load as well as their responsibility for the group outcome were held in my regard. In Fall 2013 I was advising a student who would be taking ICB300 the following semester. The project’s reputation was, by then, well established and he was expressing some trepidation about the course. Just then, an ICB300 alum stuck his head in my office. I asked him if he had any advice for my advisee. In a reassuring tone he said “just make sure you finish all your quests and you’ll be okay”.

The hard work of the instructors, who had worked hard to make all of this happen, had paid off in a big way. Students saw the project as an epic challenge and embraced the experience as a badge of honor. They even created “I survived” t-shirts to commemorate the experience.

Final Thoughts
Speaking of hard work, there is no question that this was hard work for the instructors who were committed to the success of this integral part of our curriculum. It is also no surprise that there weren’t other instructors clamoring to teach sections of ICB300. Those of us teaching this integrated course enjoyed the challenge and excitement that was engendered by incorporating game principles into our course design.  In the end, however, there is a major difference between designing a good game and designing a good course built on solid game design principles.

Once a game designer has finished programming his game, it’s ready to play.  The player doesn’t have an expectation of interacting directly with the game designer during game play and the game designer isn’t concerned if some players haven’t mastered a prescribed list of objectives.  Players choose how to interact with the game and decide how they want to play and how far they want to progress.

Our marketing plan project wasn’t plug n’ play.  We were interacting with the students every step of the way.  Incorporating game-design elements such as a larger number of assessment checkpoints meant we had increased the amount of feedback we needed to provide.  That was okay with us.  It was a rewarding experience and I don’t believe any of us would have changed it for the world.

In the long run, however, the solution doesn’t scale and thus it isn’t sustainable if the next wave of faculty or administrators don’t see the return on investment.  Now I haven’t come all this way to end on a down note.  It is inevitable that many innovative solutions will get to this point.  But giving up, or not bothering in the first place, isn’t the answer.  The benefits for students are too overwhelmingly positive.

So we are faced with yet another challenge.  How do we retain the benefits of incorporating game design elements while, at the same time, not increasing the instructor’s work load.  It isn’t realistic to ask faculty to buy into accepting any more unnecessary obstacles as part of their reality.  Perhaps there are other ways to incorporate game design elements so that the designed process can do some of the heavy lifting that instructors now need to handle.  This would be a win-win and I will be exploring the possibilities in future articles.

  1. This didn’t guarantee students an ‘A’ in each course since the marketing plan project and final only accounted for 50% of their grade. A student with a ‘B’ average would likely get to an ‘A’ but not so for students with a ‘C’ or lower. One of the side effects of this policy was that students who were otherwise failing, might pass. We tried to address this in the redesign.
  2. In Act I students developed their SWOT analysis, in Act II they identified their marketing objectives, in Act III they articulated their preliminary strategic plan, and finally, in Act IV they used all  feedback to that point and honed their strategic plan while creating a multi-media presentation articulating that plan.
  3. 3-minute drill (company profile), a 4-minute drill(analyzing market research data), and a UVP Drill (unique value proposition)

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