Gaming the System – Part 1: Making It All Add Up

At the Information School (iSchool) at the University of Washington we have been using the Canvas Learning Management System by Instructure since 2011. Recently a number of faculty members mentioned that they would like to “gamify” their courses. This is the first of two posts that talk about what I have learned over the last few weeks in regards to adding some simple game elements to Canvas courses.

We are looking at the game elements of choice, points, and levels as a method of motivating students to engage more in a course. I should note that for this project we are looking at ways we can use existing tools and processes native to the Canvas environment. We may also look at other game elements like leader boards and badges but these require some kind of external intervention in order for them to work.

This post focuses on a request from a faculty member interested in using a series of required assignments alongside a series of optional assignments, choice, to allow students to explore the content that is most interesting and relevant to them in their personal studies. I was asked to find a way to have the gradebook show student progress as points, showing current points out of the total possible for the course. Normally, Canvas only shows student scores as a percentage of the assignments submitted and not of the course total. So if only four assignments have been submitted, Canvas will calculate a grade based only on the scores attained on those 4 assignments. Using the four assignments just mentioned, we were looking for a way to have Canvas show the points earned from these 4 assignments and then show those points in relationship to the total possible points for the entire course.

Getting the total score column to show as points was the easy part. Go into your gradebook, find the total column and click on the small down arrow in the lower right of the total column header. I should note that there won’t be a small drop down arrow until you mouse over the header in the total column. After you click on the small arrow you will see the menu in figure 1.


To convert the total scores to points just click the “Switch to points” option. You can also use this menu to move the total column to the front of the gradebook. It should be noted that moving the total column to the front of the gradebook doesn’t affect the student view at all.

Unfortunately, when I tried this out in my demo course I didn’t have the option of switching to points. After a short period of research I found that you can’t use points in the total column if you have ticked the “Weight final grade based on groups” option. This option can be found on the assignments page by clicking the gear icon at the top of the page, figure 2:

or by accessing this same setting from the gradebook page by clicking on the gear icon at the top right of the page and selecting the “Set group weights” option, figure 3.


Awesome, I now have a grade book that shows students scores as points! This was great until I realized that Canvas will still only calculate the grades based on currently submitted assignments and not the overall total for the course. The reason for this is in the way Canvas deals with ungraded assignments, those with a “–“ in the score box. Ungraded assignments are not counted towards a final grade in any way and their “points” won’t ever be a part of the total points until a student has a score for that assignment. There are a couple of ways around this, one to manually create a list of the points required to attain a certain level and post it on a wiki or syllabus page and let Canvas calculate grades in the normal way. The second option is to get Canvas to do as much as possible automatically. We really wanted something like the second option.

The only way to get the results I was looking for was to assign a score of “0” to every assignment for every student. There are two ways to accomplish this task, both of which can be a bit time consuming. The first way is best if you only have a few students in your course and can be done relatively quickly. In this method, go into the gradebook and click in the first cell of the first assignment for the first student until you see something like figure 4. figure04
Once you get this image, press the zero key and then press the tab key. Repeat the “tab” “zero” process until you get to the end of the row. Do the same for each student. I did this in a course that had six students and 37 assignments and it took less than a minute to complete. If you have a lot of students and a fair number of assignments, method two, Set Default Grade, will be a bit faster. To use the “Set Default Grade” option go to your gradebook and mouse over the column header for each assignment. As soon as you mouse over the header a small triangle appears, click on the triangle to get a menu of options. From this resulting list click the “Set Default Grade” option as shown in figure 5.


Once you select the “Set Default Grade” option you will see the popup in figure 6.


Assign a grade of “0” in the grade value box and then tick the box if you want to overwrite existing grades and then click the “Set Default Grade” button. Now all scores for the assignment are set at zero. Do this for all assignments in the course.

Your course will now be configured to show students their grades in points out of total points possible. Figure 7 shows a screenshot of the gradebook now that things are configured. Figure 8 shows what a student will see on their grades screen.figure07


I should note that both instructor and student will see the percentage form of the grade if they mouse over the scores. For students, the scores show up at the bottom of their grade page and in the top right corner. The percentage only shows when they mouse over the score at the bottom of the page.

This ends part one and I hope you found it useful. Stay tuned for part two, “Leveling Up.”

2 thoughts on “Gaming the System – Part 1: Making It All Add Up

  1. Hello Vivat,

    Unfortunately, there is no way to just give the course a set number of total points and then add new assignments as the course goes along.The total number of points in a course is controlled by the total combined points of each graded assignment, hence the need to have all assignments listed from the beginning.

    One thought that did occur to me is that you could create a single assignment at the beginning that is worth the entire total for the course. You would then explain to students that this assignment is a placeholder for the total amount of points in the course and is only used as a place holder to help configure the levels in the gradebook. Now, as you add assignments to the course you will need to reduce the total points of this “master” assignment by the same amount of each assignment as it is added. So, for example, your “master” assignment starts out at 900 points. You add an assignment that is worth 40 points. Now you go back to the “master” assignment and reduce the total score by 40 points. You would do this each time you add a new assignment. It is a bit clunky, but it would alleviate the problem of adding every assignment for the course at the beginning.

    I haven’t actually tested this, but I am 100% sure it would work just fine. Hopefully, this idea helps as you look at structuring your gamified class. Please let me know how it goes 🙂

  2. I love this. It was very helpful. However, I would like to know if you’ve come up with a way to set the total number of points for the course without entering all of the assignments.I’d like to be able to have a leveling system, but would like the option to add in assignments as we go along.

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