Super Mario in a one-room schoolhouse: The myth of a singular college experience

I have mastered my shield and sword become familiar with the labyrinth. More confident than ever, I sneak up behind an ogre, weapon drawn. But in the split second before I strike, the creature steps backward, knocking me into a chasm I’d taken great care to sidestep. The fizzling, “game over” music that accompanies my death mocks me. I have been hacked, zapped, and crushed to death, and, each time, I have tried again, determined to complete this sequence. This time, though, I save and quit, eager to play something easier. But five minutes into the “relaxing” tedium of a new game in which I scoop up gems while summarily dispatching lethargic foes, I have had it. I have gone from feeling demoralized by the challenges of the first game to annoyed by the childish ease of the second.

My fickle petulance in the face of such shifting levels of challenge invites me to think about the critical role that “appropriate difficulty” has in creating satisfyingly rich learning experiences in general. Of course, successful video game designers have mastered the nuances of manipulating obstacles, rewards and pacing to create engaging challenges. They know how to offer guidance that does not devolve into handholding, and small, consistent rewards along the way such as new weapons or abilities. In short, they create a world in which patient hard work will be rewarded.Though they may sometimes be very difficult, these challenges still feel ultimately fair. Because conscientious video game designers must so closely consider individual user engagement, they can provide key insights for instructors and students of all sorts. How many of us have stewed in the frustration of classes that felt rudimentary and plodding? And haven’t we also been left floundering in our own stupidity by courses pitched too far over our heads?

As a professor at an increasingly open access, mid-tier public university, calibrating difficulty is a task I find more daunting each year. While my strongest students’ level of preparation seems to be about the same as always, the college-readiness of everyone else is more and more of a mixed bag. My introductory classes are a motley blend of motivated readers, writers, and problem solvers combined with folks who lack basic skills, resources, and persistence. In recent years I have even begun thinking of myself as a plucky teacher in a one-room rural schoolhouse, charged with simultaneously facilitating grades K-12. I must stoke the fire and help the young’uns learn their letters while still ensuring that the older kids are pushing through their geometry problems. In short, I must be sensitive to individual ability and opportunity but in a fairly uniform environment.

It’s a principle that seems to underlie successful video game design as well in that they are typically aimed at cultivating individual interests and abilities, focusing on self-paced success and exploration. Games with mass appeal create a single world in which noobs can progress in their dawdling way while hard core gamers leap along, experiencing facets of play of which novices might never even become aware. In short, it is the layers of possibilities for individuals — of both reward and frustration — that allow one and the same gaming experience to be appropriately challenging and satisfying to a wide range of players. Such game design is possible only because no one is pretending that players will, should, or could leave with the same “results” or rewards; certainly, the success of the game does not depend on all players gleaning the same “benefits.”

By contrast, the notion persists that college classrooms can and should aim for the same reproducible outcome for each student, though this goal has perhaps never been more elusive at non-selective publics. And, though, of course it has always been the case that individual learners’ outcomes vary wildly, universities have also continued to prioritize assessment methods that treat our classes functionally and our students as interchangeable variables. The professor’s success continues, by and large, to be measured by the degree to which she impacts students across a narrow set of uniform assessment goals/outcomes despite the fact that professors at open access publics are increasingly being called upon to facilitate one-room schoolhouses.

Instead of continuing to pretend that there is one definition of college-readiness and a singular college experience, we would be better off acknowledging that, by and large, many of our college classes are, at best, like Super Mario Odyssey, a game that attracts and entertains a remarkable gamut of players, from small children, to bored subway commuters, to deadly serious gamers. A casual player with sluggish reflexes might while away many satisfying hours, exploring here, butt stomping there, but unlocking only a tiny fraction of the game’s secrets and leaving many of its rewards unclaimed. In a way, it may not even make sense to say that the noob and the skilled gamer are playing the “same game” though they are operating in the same facilitated virtual space.

To be sure, I am appalled that our public education system has been so stratified along economic class lines for so long that is a simple fact that lots of students arrive at college not at all what we like to call “college ready.” But even as we fight for saner, more egalitarian K-12 public education policies, we must deal with the astonishing mix of abilities, motivations, and resources streaming into our college classrooms. After all, our universities have a pretty good idea what these students’ capabilities are and have accepted their tuition payments, invited them in, and made lots of promises. Rather than wringing our hands over the impossibility of teaching across such a broad range of ability, maybe we can imagine new ways for Mario to progress, whether he bounds, rolls or crawls. The reality is that, whether I like it or not, I have been charged with lighting the wood stove, clapping the erasers, and preparing to die again and again and again.

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