Education Opinion

New Research on Games and Classroom Assessment Practices

By Justin Reich — February 28, 2015 2 min read
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Over recent years, advocates of games in classroom settings have argued that games have great features for assessing student learning. Games present students with a series of challenges, and they can be instrumented to capture richly detailed data about how students deal with those challenges and how successful they are. What if instead of having students take tests, we had them play games with “stealth assessments” embedded within them that captured similar data about student learning.

To inform this conversation, researchers from the University of Michigan, NYU, and the GlassLab have been investigating the question: when games are actually used for assessments purposes in classrooms, what does that really look like? Researchers fanned out over 30 middle school classrooms to investigate how teachers make use of eleven different games, and specifically how they used these games for formative assessment. They’ve released their report this week, “Case Studies of Game Features Used to Support Formative Assessment Practices.”

Two findings stood out to me. The first was the main mechanisms for tracking student progress in games often didn’t provide enough information about student learning. Most games include some form of points, stars, levels, or other mechanism to quantify game progress, but it was often unclear in games how points corresponded to learning. In some games, students and teachers couldn’t at all figure out how points were awarded (which offered a kind of teachable moment for reverse engineering, but that wasn’t really the point), where as in some games points were not necessarily clearly related to learning goals. While points are what most people think of as the main mechanism for games to communicate progress to students, teachers seem to be finding barriers to using these quantitative metrics to evaluate student progress.

The researchers also investigated practices related to screenshots and documentation of process. If points and stars were surprisingly less informative than might be expected, screen-shotting proved to be more effective than researchers expected. For games where player progress involves building a visual representation of a system (as in Guts and Bolts), screenshots can be used by students to demonstrate their solutions and progress. As one teacher explained, “I can just go on the computer and take about 20 minutes to look at everyone’s snapshots, and I can tell more or less if they understand it or not.” Especially when combined with written annotations, the screenshots provide a window into student understanding and progress that might not be captured by simple points or levels.

The study concludes:

Effective instruction and assessment go hand in hand. Yet getting accurate and continuous information about students' learning progress is an ongoing challenge, particularly in large classrooms. It is not surprising that teachers' use of games in instruction is on the rise, as it is in the nature of games to present players with challenges, to allow for failure as well as success, and to provide ongoing feedback. It is also not surprising that educators recognize these features of games and increasingly turn to them as part of how they teach and how they assess students' learning in the classroom. But to have a positive impact on student learning, formative assessment demands information that is both useful and used. Our study documented some of the ways teachers are indeed utilizing games for formative assessment purposes, and the potential value of these uses for these important classroom practices. These case studies explored common features in games that teachers could use for formative assessment. In addition to identifying ways these features are useful to teachers, we also identified many areas for improvement. The utility of games as instructional tools will continue to expand. Our hope is that this study provides useful information to teachers about the ways games can inform and support their practice, and to the game development community about ways to continue to strengthen the support for learning and teaching provided by their games.

There is much more learn about how games can support classroom instruction and student learning, and close observational studies like this one help us understand how we can improve game design and classroom practice to make games a powerful part of schooling.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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