Fair Play—Gaming to Identify and Understand Racial Bias

A colleague recently attended an academic conference during which he had an opportunity to attend a workshop demonstrating Fair Play. Fair Play, a video game developed at the University of Wisconsin with awards from the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Millennium Foundation and supported by the University of Wisconsin System Administration’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin grant program, allows players the opportunity to simulate the complex experience of a graduate student. Specifically, according to the website, “Fair Play provides players with the opportunity to take the perspective of Jamal Davis, a Black graduate student on his way to becoming a renowned professor. In this game, players experience racial bias during interactions with other characters, as well as in the virtual environment.”

Screen shot taken from the Fair Play website showing the four main characters and a link to the Fair Play Game Trailer.Players move through five chapters experiencing typical graduate school challenges (identifying an advisor, managing funding, making friends, publishing, and attending conferences); these are magnified through the lens of being an African American confronting biases. The goal is to identify and name biases.

While workshops, such as the one my colleague attended, are available, it is easy to download and play the game on your own. You can view a trailer to get an idea of the content. Even novice gamers will pick up the navigation quickly as the interface is straightforward and explanations are provided along the way. The exercise is enlightening. Although the game centers around graduate student activities, the lessons to be learned are universal, and would benefit faculty and graduate student future faculty alike.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Fair Play Screenshot: http://fairplaygame.org/

Rethinking Oral Examinations for Undergraduate Students

Oral examinations, also called viva voce, have long been associated with graduate studies, but many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, oral exams were not unheard of. All undergraduates at my university were required to write a thesis, and many of us took comprehensive written and oral examinations in our fields. I had several courses in my major field, art history, which held oral examinations as the final assessment of our work. At the time, this practice was not uncommon in British and European universities for undergraduates. Since then it has become a rarity both here and abroad, replaced by other forms of assessment for undergraduate students.

Stack of triangular, caution-type road signs with red border and the word TEST in the white center.Recently I learned that Richard Brown, Director of Undergraduate Studies and an associate teaching professor in the JHU Department of Mathematics, had experimented with oral examinations of his undergraduate students in Honors Multivariable Calculus.

Some background: Honors Multivariable Calculus is designed to be a course for students who are very interested in mathematics, but are still learning basics. Students must have the permission of the instructor to enroll. They are likely to be highly motivated learners. In this instance, Brown had only 6 students in the class—five freshmen and one sophomore. For the freshmen, this fall course was their first introduction to a college math course. They came in with varying levels of skill and knowledge, knowing that the course would be challenging. The course format was two 75 minute lectures a week and one hour-long recitation (problem solving) session with a graduate student teaching assistant. This is the part of the course where students work in an interactive environment, applying theory to practice, answering questions, and getting an alternate point of view from the graduate student assistant instructor.

Assessments in the course included two in-class midterms (written and timed), weekly graded homework assignment (usually problems), and the final exam. As Brown thought about the final exam, he realized that he had already seen his students approach to timed and untimed “mathematical writing” in the midterms and homeworks. So, why not try a different environment for the final and do an oral examination? He discussed the concept with the students in class and allowed the students to decide as a class which option they preferred. The students agreed to the oral exam.

Brown made sequential appointments with the students, giving them 20 minutes each for the exam. He asked them different questions to minimize the potential for sharing information, but the questions were of the same category. For example, one student might be asked to discuss the physical or geometric interpretation of Gauss’s Theorem, and another would be given the same question about Stokes’s Theorem. If a student got stuck in answering, Brown would reword the question or provide a small hint. In contrast, on a written exam, if a student gets stuck, they are stuck. You may never identify exactly what they know and don’t know. Another advantage, Brown discovered, was that by seeing how a student answered a question, he could adjust follow up questions to get a deeper understanding of the student’s depth of learning. He could probe to assess understanding or push to see how far the student could go. He found the oral exam gave him a much more comprehensive view of their knowledge than a written one.

In terms of grading, Brown noted that by the end of the semester he knew the students quite well and had a feel for their levels of comprehension, so in many ways the exam was a confirmation. He did not have a written rubric for the exam, as he did for the midterms, but he did take notes to share with the students if they wanted to debrief on their performance. He saw this as a more subjective assessment, balanced by the relatively objective assessment of the homeworks and midterms.

Following up with students after the exam, Brown found that four of the six students really liked the format and found it easier than anticipated. Only two of the students had planned to become majors at the start of the course, but ultimately four declared a mathematics major. Brown noted that he would like to use the oral examination again in the future, but felt that it would not be possible with more than 10 students in a class.

After talking with Brown, I searched to find recent literature on undergraduate oral exams. Two papers are worth reading if the concept is of interest:

Oral vs. Written Evaluation of Students, Ulf Asklund and Lars Bendix, Department of Computer Science, Lund Institute of Technology, Pedagogisk Inspirationskonferens, Lund University Publications, 2003. A conference paper detailing advantages and disadvantage of the two formats. The authors, based on their experience, found that oral examinations are better suited than written for evaluating higher levels of understanding based on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Oral versus written assessments: A test of student performance and attitudes, Mark Huxham, Fiona Campbell, and Jenny Westwood, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 37(1):125-136, January 2012. This study of two cohorts of students examined “…[s]tudent performance in and attitudes towards oral and written assessments using quantitative and qualitative methods.” Many positive aspects of oral examinations were found. See also a SlideShare Summary of this paper. Possible benefits of oral assessment included: “1) Development of oral communication skills 2) More ‘authentic’ assessment 3) More inclusive 4) Gauging understanding & Encouraging critical thinking 5) Less potential for plagiarism 6) Better at conveying nuances of meaning 7) Easier to spot rote-learning.”

A site to explore is the University of Pittsburgh’s Speaking in the Disciplines initiative. “…committed to the centrality of oral expression in the educational process.” Detailed information for those considering oral examinations is provided, including benefits (“direct, dialogic feedback,” “encourages in-depth preparation,” “demands different skills,” “valuable practice for future professional activity,” and “reduced grading stress”) and potential drawbacks (“time,” “student resistance and inexperience,” “subjective grading,” and “inadequate coverage of material”).


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Pixabay.com

How Do We Learn?

One of the online educational news sources that CER staff follow is Tomorrow’s Professor, edited by Rick Reis, a professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University.  Tomorrow’s Professor is a newsletter with twice weekly postings. covering a range of topics having to do with faculty development, including academic careers, the academy, research, graduate students and postdocs, and teaching and learning.

Close up view of university students in a lecture setting.A recent posting (#1495) was a reprint from Ralf St. Clair, “Engaged and Involved Learners,” chapter two from Creating Courses for Adults: Design for Learning, Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. In it St. Clair poses the questions, how do we teach people to learn and how can we design education that will facilitate learning. To get at the answers, he examines how people learn. St. Clair discusses two groups of ideas on learning, behaviorism and sociocultural learning approaches.

Theories of behaviorism share the concept “…that all learning always produces a change in behavior.” It’s precision appeals to educators “…because our actions as educators have demonstrable results and the outcome is absolutely clear.” Behaviorism has provided educators with valuable tools for curricular development (i.e., backward design) and assessment. The perceived downsides are that its approaches can seem mechanistic, and that it may appear to discount learning without a defined outcome. And, behaviorism does not give much guidance for social aspects of learning.

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.Another area of learning theory addresses those concerns. “Sociocultural learning approaches represent an attempt to understand the ways that people learn from others.” The key points are that “learning is always social,” communities of practice play a critical role, apprenticeship is an important model, learning is a dynamic process, and teaching should be flexible to accommodate differing applications. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an example of sociocultural learning.

St. Clair also mentions the theory of transformative learning. “In this model of adult learning, people possess schema, or ways of looking at the world, that help them make sense of what they see… .” When things change, the person experiences a “disorienting dilemma.” The only way to resolve the dilemma is “…to learn so that their world makes sense again.”

In this chapter, St. Clair proposes taking aspects of each of these ideas to create a new model for learning. “Such a model would have these beliefs at its core:

  • Learning is a social process conducted, either more or less directly, with other humans.
  • People begin to learn by trying peripheral activities, then take on more complex activities as they grow in confidence and see other people perform them.
  • Individuals will repeat actions that are associated with a reward, including the approval of peers.
  • Even if the aim of the learning is not behavioral, having an associated behavioral outcome can make it easier to communicate and assess.
  • People learn most, and most profoundly, when faced with a dilemma or need to understand something relevant to them.”

St. Clair goes on to describe what teachers need to do to support learning under this model. Using active learning exercises, scaffolding content, and encouraging student understanding and mastery are crucial concepts. He notes that this model allows students to have control over their learning, to build connections and move from simple to more complex ideas, and encourages collaboration.

Suggestions for adhering to the model are offered. St. Clair notes that “The primary role of educators is to create the relationships and the context that can bring about this type of engagement.” The article is well worth reading in its entirety.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Pixabay.com