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.”

Gaming the System – Part 2: “Leveling Up”

Welcome back to part two of Gaming the System! So you have your Canvas course showing student grades as points out of the course total. What next? One of the most popular game elements used to motivate players is “leveling up.” Players work their way through a game and at certain points along the way they complete a task that allows them to ascend to the next level. As I looked at designing game elements using Canvas I wanted to find an easy way to automatically signify when a student reached a new level in the course.

As I thought about the “leveling up” concept it occurred to me that I might be able to use a “grading scheme” to automatically assign a level to students when they attained a certain number of points in the course. With this in mind I started looking into what I could actually do with a grading scheme. I learned that setting things up can be a bit tricky if you are using choice as one of your gaming elements. Because students can pick and choose from a menu of optional assignments, the first thing I had to do was decide how many points out of the total possible would be required to get an A, or in the case of the University of Washington, a 4.0.

After deciding how many points is required to get the 4.0 I now had to convert all point scores into percentages so I could build a grading scheme that reflects the desired grades. The professor that I was working with set up the course so that the total points possible is 249. After a great deal of thought it was determined that in order for a student to attain a 4.0 they must receive a minimum of 140 points or 56% of the total possible. Based on this number I could now put together a grade scale. Because this course is a graduate level course, students get no credit below a 2.0 so I needed to put a scale together that goes from a 2.0 to a 4.0. The table below shows this scale as it sits at this point in the process:












































































You will notice that this scale has four 4.0 grades. The thinking here is related to the question regarding competition in the course. Will those students that are highly motivated through achievement type game elements, go above and beyond the first requirement for a 4.0 just to attain the highest level? Now I must be clear, I have not had a conversation with the faculty member about this kind of scenario and am just tossing it in here for the sake of discussion.

For those that haven’t played with grading schemes in Canvas, you can create and assign a grading scheme for the course and whatever you assign as the grade will show up in the gradebook after the total points or percentage accumulated, depending on which way you choose to show grades in the final grades column. So as an example, if Frank earns 95 points the total column in the gradebook would show “95 3.6” indicating that he received 95 points which equates to a 3.6 grade on a 4.0 grading scale. Read more about grading schemes on the Canvas Community site at:

Now for the fun part! When creating a grading scheme in Canvas you don’t have to just use numbers in the grade column. You can also add text to this field too! This opens up the door to the use of word based levels within your course. So you could use level names from your favorite game or create level names appropriate to your course. Taking the example of Frank from above, Frank’s grade could now show up as “95 3.6 | Titan” or could just show up as “Titan”. You can use whatever format you like but if you just put the text based grade you will want a page that lists the numerical or letter grade equivalents. An example of a level based grading scheme can be seen in the figure 9.


You can see an example of what the teacher will see in the gradebook in figure 10 and an example of what a student will see in figure 11.



In figure 10 you will notice that the final grade column doesn’t display correctly when using longer grade names. As far as I know this is a bug in Canvas and I have submitted a bug report to get it fixed.

There are lots of variations in the way you could configure the grade scheme. You could use fewer levels and only create a text based level every third or fourth row in the chart, leaving only the number or letter grade on the other rows. It’s only limited by your creativity.

To end this post, I should say that if you are interested in using badges in your course you can install the Canvabadges LTI integration and create badges that will align with your levels or create badges for specific accomplishments. If you do decide you want to use Canvabadges and have those badges show up on student profile pages you will have to have your institution’s Canvas administrator add some javascript to your main account’s javascript file.

Hopefully you found this post helpful.