Special Report
Student Well-Being

Video Game ‘Stealth Assessments’ Gauge Social Skills

By Benjamin Herold — June 02, 2014 2 min read
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When it comes to measuring social and emotional skills such as persistence, traditional assessments are often “too simplified, abstract, and decontextualized,” according to Valerie J. Shute, a professor in the educational psychology and learning systems department at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

That’s why Ms. Shute promotes the idea of “stealth assessments” that are unobtrusively woven into the fabric of video games in order to measure in real time how players are progressing toward a variety of targets—not just for content learning, but also for checking progress on so-called 21st century skills.

“There’s no better system than games to provide challenging problems without completely overwhelming people,” Ms. Shute wrote in an email. “Stealth assessment considers [the] process of failing and trying again as a source of evidence for persistence.”

Here’s how the process is intended to work: First, a game will track in real time how long a player spends on a difficult problem or how often a player is willing to retry a problem at which he or she has previously failed. Based on that information, the game can then offer encouragement or adjust the types of problems presented to that player, seeking to find the sweet spot that will be challenging enough to promote learning but not so difficult as to discourage continued effort.

The result, Ms. Shute and others believe, will be digital games that can not only measure qualities like persistence, or grit, but actually nurture them.

The first round of such games have already been developed, including Newton’s Playground, a digital game created by Ms. Shute with support from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Newton’s Playground aims to improve high school students’ conceptual understanding of everyday physics—and to help bolster their conscientiousness, a long set of factors that includes persistence and creativity. A recent research study published by Ms. Shute found solid evidence in support of the first goal. Her team also found evidence that the measures of persistence woven into Newton’s Playground were valid when measured against traditional indicators.

Gauging Tenacity

Another video game example is Tenacity, which was developed by the Games+Learning+Society center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That game aims to help students regulate their attention and awareness by monitoring their own breathing. Researchers say that skill is a key building block of learning.

There are barriers to using games to assess social and emotional skills: For one, the games themselves are expensive to build, at least if they’re meant to be engaging to the typical teenager. There are also questions about traditional psychometric concerns: How do educators know if developers’ claims about what their games can assess are in fact true? And perhaps most significantly, said Kurt Squire, an associate professor at UW-Madison and the director of Games+Learning+Society, questions remain about the extent to which the type of persistence shown in a video game is relevant in the real world.

“Grit seems to me to be an interaction between a person, a context, and a particular task,” Mr. Squire wrote in an email. “There may be limits in how well a game can measure or foster a ‘generalized grit'—although there may also be a very clever or brilliant game designer who can do just that.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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