Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Project Retrospective and a Final Exam for the 2016 Spring Studio

I announced the release of Traveler's Notebook: Monster Tales a few days ago. This was the semester project of Studio 368, a multidisciplinary undergraduate team that I mentored during the Spring semester. After each of our four iterations, we held iteration retrospective meetings, during which they contributed answers to these four questions:

  • What did we do well that if we don't write down, we might forget?
  • What did you learn?
  • What should we do differently?
  • What still puzzles us?

I am fond of this format, and I use it regularly with my student teams. (In fact, I've written an empirical evaluation of this approach, should you care to read it.)

Studio 368 finished production on April 27, and on our final meeting of May 2, I led the team in a project retrospective. First, we collaborated on drawing a timeline of significant events from the semester, including production schedules, guest visits, important decisions, external playtesting, and dissemination opportunities. Then, I challenged them to think about what they had learned--their answers to the second reflection question above--and to annotate these on the timeline with sticky notes. Unlike a normal retrospective meeting, where people work individually and then find clusters, this time I encouraged them to post items as soon as they thought of them, and to talk to each other about refining the articulations where appropriate. I circulated some colored dots, which could be used to affirm or agree with items others posted.

The result looked like this:

That's too small to read, but it gives you the overall shape. Below, I have transcribed each note, attempting to maintain the orthography while prudently fixing spelling errors. If an item had dots affixed to it, I mark this in parentheses.
  • Don't be afraid to step out of your bubble and try something NEW (2)
  • Narrative-driven games are really interesting and redefine regular games (2)
  • FOOD is important (1)
  • game design for academic research is DOUBLE hard
  • Slack is AWESOME (1)
  • Articulating how we record qualitative data is difficult
  • Getting qualitative data is important to understanding the project (& how it meets its goals)
  • Github and feature branching is amazing (1)
  • How to integrate my artwork into a working platform / game (1)
  • The importance of physical space (2)
  • The usefulness of the React library
  • How to build a game efficiently in an interdisciplinary team (1)
  • How to communicate with a team consisting of members of various disciplines (1)
  • How a culture's "monster" represents a real fear or threat to that culture (5)
  • Monsters are windows into culture (1)
  • Everything we make will be remade. Care about it but don't get attached. (2)
  • Pair programming accelerates production while minimizing errors (2)
  • How to adapt to a new set of programming libraries in a timely manner (2)
  • Implementing creative limitations makes for richer encounters (character limit, cultural implementation, multiple encounter reactions, etc) (1)
  • How to condense my writing to successfully meet character limits (1)
  • Design log is law... Design Lawg
  • Establishing visual metaphors as game mechanics (3)
  • In game design, the best idea wins! (1)
  • A good paper prototype takes time, but adds great clarity to the project (3)
  • Lack of specific roles in Agile/Scrum
  • It's okay to call a sprint a failure (5)
  • Jumping in on what others have been working on is difficult, yet a great learning experience (that should be had)
  • Don't throw up (1)
  • Going to events with the team really helps us bond (3)
  • I'm interested in game academia (1)
  • What we are making is something refreshing but innovative (3)
  • Google analytics: how to implement it
  • Sound design enhances the gaming experience (2)
  • Kids will find the limits of whatever you're developing (2)
  • We learned a lot (1)
I think this is an excellent list, full of beautiful learning outcomes for an interdisciplinary undergraduate course. The students seemed to enjoy the activity as well, engaging in the process with both quiet thoughtfulness and friendly laughter. 

One of the intentions behind this activity was to get them ready for their final exam. I have tried several different approaches to giving final exams for this kind of immersive learning class. This semester, I went back to our essential questions (on the course description) as well as the learning outcomes from my project proposal. I wanted to crack these open and expose the various ways that students can start to tease apart the lessons from the context. I am including the final exam verbatim below, which includes both prompts and a justification for itself:

What is the final exam?

Most of our work this semester was bound up in the making of Traveler’s Notebook: Monster Tales. Our team has built a shared understanding that is necessarily bound up in the context of our collaboration: the people, the problems, the places, the donuts, etc. The main point of the final exam is to help lift our thoughts out of the particulars of this context, to improve our ability to draw upon our understanding as we move on to other endeavors.

Choose two categories from those given below and respond to one prompt in each. If you think of a different prompt, or even a new category, let me know, and we can negotiate how to move forward. If you spent at least an hour at the Immersive Learning Showcase talking to guests about our project, then you only need to choose a prompt from one category, although you are always welcome to write more.

Transformative Games
  • Consider one or more of these essential questions:
    • How do games encourage or discourage the development of literacy?
    • What is the role of player culture in transformative game design?
    • What is the role of theory in research and development projects like ours?
What do you know about it now that you didn’t before the semester started? (Note that you don’t need to answer the question per se: the point of an essential question is to guide inquiry because it doesn’t have a closed-form answer.)

Expectations and Reality
  • What was your biggest surprise of the semester? Delve into it in an essay, considering: why was it a surprise (that is, what knowledge did you have or not have coming a priori)? When did you realize you were surprised? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Compare and contrast the final product to how you initially thought the game would turn out. What accounts for the differences?
  • If you could improve upon the game in one way (including game design, asset production, and technology platform), what would you improve, and why?

Reflective Practice
  • What was your biggest mistake of the semester? How did it come about, what did you do about it, and what do you think you learned from it?
  • Reflect on what you have learned this semester that is related to your involvement in the game studio, and choose one outcome that is most important to you. Write a reflection about the context of this outcome: Who was involved? In what places did it happen? Over what period of time? Was the experience mediated by technology writ large---software, designed spaces, furniture? What were the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, and the tactile experiences involved? How did these factors contribute to this outcome?

  • Write an orientation document for future game studio students, something that could be given to them at the start of the semester to help them succeed in their work.


  • Produce an artifact in accordance with your academic focus that represents something significant you have learned this semester.
One of my students responded to this by sharing, “That moment when @paul.gestwicki makes the most reasonable final exam I've ever taken :raised_hands::clap::pray:"” I am not sure that reasonable is the first adjective most people use to describe my approach to teaching, but I am glad this student thought so.

I may write up a longer project retrospective of my own now that the semester is winding down, but for now, I wanted to share the list and thoughts about the final exam. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section.

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