The care and feeding of tokens
Using made-up currency in your course to give students more agency
Courses taught using alternative grading systems benefit students in part because the rules of engagement are clear. Not fake-clear, as in points-based systems where lots of information about grading hides behind formulas, but actual clarity where what students are expected to do in a course to demonstrate their learning are spelled out for all to see. But, there are still rules, and where there are rules, there will be the need — or at least the desire — to bend them.
This time of the semester — it’s week 11 for us right now — we know all about this. Demands on students, already great to begin with, start to reach their peak about this time, and the laws of probability bend to their breaking point. Students will need, or at least ask for, exceptions to the rules of the course at a record pace. If we care about students and their growth, we’ll take those exceptions seriously. We’d like to let students do what they need to do to finish strong, while also making sure our assessment of their work is a valid measurement of learning. We want freedom, but not a free-for-all.
So how do you strike that balance in a course that uses alternative grading? An answer comes in the form of tokens. We’ve written about tokens here before (David mentioned them at some length last week) but never gotten into the details — until now!
What are tokens?
Tokens are a form of currency, like Monopoly money, given to students, which can be spent during a course to buy exceptions to the rules of the course. Linda Nilson — drawing on the work of Kathleen Kegley, June Pilcher, and William Terry — describes tokens this way in her Specifications Grading book (p. 65):
You allocate between one and five tokens to each of your students at the beginning of the course, and they are free to exchange one or more of them — it is your currency to control — for an opportunity to revise or drop an unsatisfactory piece of work to take a makeup exam or retake an exam, or to get a 24-hour extension on an assignment.
Although Linda states that tokens are “your [the instructor’s] currency to control”, what tokens really do is shift control in the course from the instructor to students by giving them a tangible and measurable means of circumventing some of the course’s requirements. They are free passes — in fact that was the term that Pilcher used instead of “tokens”. (Terry, a geographer, called them “globes”.)
If there is a rule in your course, then you can set up a token system to bend or circumvent that rule. For example, a token could be spent to buy an extension to a deadline or to allow a late submission of work. Or the spending of tokens could be tied to additional revisions or reassessments of work beyond a certain amount. Or if you are using points, a token could be “cashed in” to buy extra points.
In my own courses, students start the semester with five tokens, and there is a menu in the syllabus of items that can be purchased with one token:
A 24-hour extension on any deadline
One point on a Daily Prep assignment1
A third revision of a weekly homework assignment in a given week (the syllabus otherwise limits students to two revisions per week);
An untimed version of an in-class quiz if the student missed the class;
And finally a catch-all that says: “Any other bending of the course rules you might want — just discuss with me first.”
I have extended this menu a few times this semester to allow students to bend the rules even more — for example, ordinarily I do not allow late initial submissions of homework (without good reason), but I recently made up a rule to allow students to do this if they spend three tokens.
So when students want to deviate from the formal rules of the course for some reason, tokens are a simple way to say “yes” without worrying. Of course you can turn something in late, or do more revisions than strictly allowed, etc. — just spend a token.
How do you manage tokens?
Tokens add a layer of bookkeeping to a course that isn’t effortless, but is easily managed. You can keep track of tokens in a spreadsheet or even in a paper ledger. For me, the course LMS is the best option2. I have a column in my class gradebook to hold each student’s current token balance. It’s populated with “5” before the semester starts (because that’s the number of tokens each student starts with). Then, as the semester unfolds, whenever a student spends or earns a token, I update their entry. This uses the LMS as an analog to your bank’s website where you can look up your checking or savings balance at any time, but only you and the bank can see it.
When a student wants to spend a token, all they have to do is let you know. A simple email or a verbal check-in is enough. However, that can lead to a lot of emails to plow through and verbal conversations that you have to remember. I’ve found a better solution is a Google Form that students use for spending tokens. It looks like this:
(Here’s a publicly-accessible copy if you want to play with it.) This form is posted to our LMS on the front page. Students fill out one form per token they want to spend. As you can see, they provide me with their email, section number, and the reason they are spending the token. There’s a followup question on some asking for more details that is further down the screen (for example, which Daily Prep they are referring to).
Once students fill the form out, it puts all this information in a Google Spreadsheet, and I have the form set up to send me an email alert when this happens. Then, once or twice a week, I go through the form submissions and update everyone’s accounts in a batch. Meanwhile, students are instructed that as soon as they submit the form, they have made the “purchase” and can go ahead and do what they need to do — they don’t have to wait for approval.
How do students earn more tokens?
So, spending tokens is easy. Earning tokens is also easy, and you can attach token values to anything you want in your course. Tokens can be used in place of “extra credit”, for example, to incentivize activities that are outside the normal scope of coursework — filling out surveys, coming to Math Club talks, and so on. Or, you can use them to reward behaviors that strike you are particularly noteworthy — for example, particularly good discussion board posts, or people who come to class on the Monday before Thanksgiving, etc.
Especially big accomplishments can carry a multi-token bounty. For example, my Discrete Structures class, populated mostly by Computer Science majors, includes a lot of programming activities in Python. Some students already know Python very well, while others are completely new to the language, and many are in between. Rather than force every student to complete a Python onboarding activity, I created a “Python crash course” for the students and offered three tokens for completing it before the end of week 2 of the course. This way, students who already know the language can skip the activity without being penalized, and students who don’t know the language can get a reward for taking initiative to learn it.
Although as the instructor, you can give tokens for whatever reason you want, it’s a better for students if you keep token-earning items limited to relevant activities for the course, particularly if they reward good habits. For example, you can give a token if a student submits a revision of work in the first two weeks of class, or completes a syllabus quiz, or attends a departmental seminar talk relevant to the class. Additionally, opportunities to earn tokens should be equally accessible to all students, including those who attend class remotely, have family obligations, and so on.
We want the students’ grades to reflect their genuine understanding of course content and not be artificially boosted by things like participation or filling out surveys. But we can certainly give additional opportunities for doing these things, and that’s what tokens are for.
What are the downsides of using tokens?
I’ve been following Linda Nilson’s blueprint for tokens since starting with specifications grading seven years ago, and in my experience, there are not many downsides to using them. The added bookkeeping layer is well worth the minimal effort. But, I’ve seen three noteworthy issues with using tokens:
Students seem to have a hard time understanding tokens. I’m not sure why this is the case, but often, even when students grasp the weirder concepts of specifications grading — there are no points, there’s no partial credit but unpenalized revisions on everything — tokens elude their understanding. They have a hard time grasping what they are for, and they forget that they have them at their disposal. Definitely I have to have a conversation at regular intervals each semester to remind my students about them and re-explain what the syllabus says about them. Maybe they are so used to have zero flexibility in traditional systems that tokens seem too good to be true?
What to do with unused tokens? This is more of a difficult choice than a “downside”, but if students stockpile tokens through the end of the semester, does it do them any good? You could set up your system so that unused tokens could be cashed in at the end of the semester, for special allowances on the final exam, a “plus” on a grade, or even for something in real life like a gift card. Or you can not do this, and just say that unused tokens expire at the end of the semester like unused coupons for the grocery store. On the one hand, allowing unused tokens to be cashed in, might disincentivize students from actually using them for their intended purpose. On the other hand, perhaps students who don’t request exceptions to the rules often should be rewarded. There’s not a clear answer to that question in my view. My own practice is not to allow cashing in, but your mileage can vary.
Tokens can encourage a transactional approach to our courses that we are trying to eliminate. You may not care for the capitalist-inflected nature of tokens and the “token economy” they create. Or, you may worry about students engaging in “token grubbing” instead of “point grubbing”. Or, you may wish to allow students to alter the rules of the course at their discretion and not erect artificial barriers to doing so.
These are all valid issues or questions about tokens. If you share in these, then think carefully about whether tokens make sense for your course design. Tokens are certainly not considered “required” for a functioning alternative grading system, and you can minimize them or do away with them entirely if you want.
However, you do probably need to have a plan for dealing with students wanting or needing exceptions to the rules of the course. So if it’s not enacted via tokens, decide how you will handle these and make the “rules for breaking the rules” simple and visible to students.
As with all good teaching, flexibility and sensitivity to students’ needs is essential. Being a stickler for course rules may feel like “rigor” but as we’ve noted, the concept of rigor is overrated and undefined. Far better to have a clear, predictable means for allowing students the means to adapt the course to them, rather than the other way around. Tokens provide this.
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Daily Prep assignments are the pre-class work for my flipped class structure. They consist of exercises done after watching video and submitted before class, and then an in-class quiz over those assignments done in the first five minutes of class. Each part is worth 1 point. A token can be used to flip a “0” on any one of those items to a “1”, up to three times in a semester.
You will not see me say nice things about LMS’s very often, so take notes.