What Can We Learn About Assessment From Video Games?


Through the ongoing debate about assessment via Purposed I came across this presentation from last year by Derek Robertson at the eAssessment Conference in Scotland.

There are a few points that I wanted to highlight that are worth drawing out and discussing further. Just to say that, if you didn’t already know, I am an advocate for games based learning and how it can positively impact on the work we do in school, so it was great to see Derek sharing some of what he has learned regarding assessment.

Derek outlines in his presentation what we can learn from games and what they are very good at:

  • Giving dynamic and ongoing feedback
  • Presenting incentivised learning experiences
  • Using meaningful profiles and reports
  • Trusting in the ability of the player/learner
  • Nurturing growth mindsets
  • Maximising the potential of peer assessment
  • Presenting purposeful and relevant learning intentions
  • Ensuring assessment is not “done to” learners
  • Giving the players the best chance of success

If you notice from Derek’s points he uses the terms player and learner interchangeably as we have to learn to be successful and progress through a game. So it is natural extension that just about all game mechanics pivot around a player being a learner.

The first of Derek’s points: “Giving dynamic and ongoing feedback” is what in my opinion refers to formative assessment. It is the “ongoing” assessment that takes place. Lots of the examples he shared in the presentation were in fact summative assessments, goals scored, points in total, notes correct. You may even argue that unlocking badges or bonus material is summative as it is the result of a set of actions within the game; on the other hand it signals progress and is provided on the course to an overall goal. Perhaps here is where the definition becomes a little blurred.

During his Slash-like demonstration on Guitar Hero Derek referred to the summary score sheet including notes completed correctly, but it is the feedback during gameplay that interests me the most. The types of “dynamic and ongoing feedback” that help a player improve at the point of learning – the summary sheets help us to reflect on how we scored but this is the same as what grade did I get.

Guitar Hero gives all sorts of feedback during gameplay that encourages a player/learner to adjust their play – this comes through visual cues such as simple traffic light dials, auditory signals from the sound of the correct or incorrect notes being played and of course points and mini-goals that further enhance what can be seen.

These are all straight forward and can be seen throughout many games – perhaps it is the timing and overall strategy of ongoing feedback that would reveal something inherently more valuable to teachers. Not just seeing the individual method of feedback in isolation but placing it within the whole picture, the whole plan for supporting new players and helping them to be successful.

Incentives are also important with regard to learning experiences and Derek makes this point in his summary. This is illustrated in more detail by Girlie Delacruz’s work on” Games as Formative Assessment Environments” in which she conducted some studies with regard to how formative assessment and feedback affected maths and game performance. They used a purpose built game to learn about fractions and various parts of the game feedback were altered and presented to different groups (see the study detail in the presentation below).

Delacruz summarised the outcomes, explaining that: “Incentive + Scoring Information is superior to minimal scoring information, with better performance on:

    • Math achievement measures
    • Game play”

In the game their is a simple structure to work within and normally a game “currency” that can be used to incentivise a player – in the work from Delacruz it was simply points (see Slide 18) but what would that be in the classroom? Perhaps something meaningful within the topic or project? In a previous post the debate shifted to these short term incentives and Oliver Quinlan pointed out in a number of comments:

Unfortunately points scoring and rewards are in the short term ‘easy’ ways for teachers to motivate pupils to do what the are told. Look at the number of ‘team points’ and ‘star charts’ that exist in primary schools. This may get them to behave in the required way, but it teaches pupils that only things that are worth doing are things that get them a number score…

I think it is worth bearing in mind always whether we are rewarding children or just bribing them. That is just behaviour, let alone the potential implications for motivation and dispositions to learning that happen if children are trained to only value tangible and quantifiable outcomes like rewards and grades. Dylan William’s work has shown the impact that losing rewards and grades can have for intrinsic motivation, and focusing attention on learning rather than just the outcomes.

Once more it seems we need to strike a balance and create a system that makes best use of incentives for learning as per game design but perhaps addresses what Oliver points out, making them more meaningful and broad so that they do not remain Pavlovian nor isolated within that context.

It would seem that the role of the incentive is crucial in game mechanics and how a player progresses and indeed learns using a game. The question for me would be how do I use these ideas within my own teaching? Do we try and design an incentivised curriculum project? What practical ways can I implement such a system with not only one player but potentially 30?

10 Steps to Take Games Based Learning to the Next Level

If you carefully choose the right sort of game it will engage the children in your class – in my opinion you have to take that as a given. It is what you do with that engaged group of children and how you make a difference to their learning that counts.

  1. Games can be used in isolation – they can be just as effective in single lessons.
  2. Don’t dwell on just the game – think beyond it, how can you leverage that enthusiasm.
  3. Make time for your own play. Set up a different save profile, that way you can stay one step ahead.
  4. Plan ahead, but also decide not to plan! Discovery in gaming is an important part of the experience – sharing the unexpected with your class is amazing.
  5. Explore the literature surrounding the game, online walkthroughs and game manuals are a great way to encourage reading and writing.
  6. Mimic the immersive nature of the gaming environment in your classroom.
  7. Build displays that develop with time as the unit/game progresses.
  8. Allow the children to play independently as well as in small groups.
  9. Step back and watch the community of practice develop – you will see children exploring things together, explaining and sharing.
  10. Consider using the game in a different room with a small focus group, which sometimes allows them to have a much more in depth experience.

The clearest message from my experiences I can offer is to leverage the children’s enthusiasm into other areas of the curriculum.

Pic: get big! by Don Solo – Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Is the Label “Games Based Learning” Useful?

Whichever way you look at it the words Games Based Learning create a very neat little box. In that box we are meant to see all “learning” that is centred on, or “based” around a game – which invariably and most recently refers to a console or computer game.

In the recent few days I have come to question the terminology we use. Two things have sparked such curiosity. The first was reading Doug Belshaw’s book “Best of Belshaw” – in which he includes a blog post titled “The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies“. The term “literacies” intrigued me and Doug’s quote from Doyle (1994) made me think about the term “games based learning”.

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed, including cultural, computer, scientific, technical, global and mathematical. All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved (Breivik, 1991). In attaining information literacy, students gain proficiency in inquiry as they learn to interpret and use information (Kuhlthau, 1987).

If we continue to use the term Games Based Learning are we just perpetuating a compartmentalised aspect of learning?

Ewan McIntosh underlined my thinking in reference to his recent blog post about the lack of mainstream attention gaming receives and how this impacts negatively upon the use of it in education:

The potential to learn in the game, as well as learn from their production, is lost to all but the most culturally open and connected of educators

In reply to a question on Twitter Ewan said we have to be careful that the terminology doesn’t compartmentalise what is going on when using a game in the classroom- in much the same way the rhetoric of “literacies” has done.

I am undecided, for two reasons.

Part of me knows that when I am explaining about gaming in the classroom to people who have no prior experience, the term “Games Based Learning” helps to succinctly phrase what I mean. It also puts the words “games” and “learning” together.

On the other hand if we set it apart from everything else, if we make the neat little (x)box for it to go in, are we missing the point? Surely it is all really just about learning, in all of its polka-dot and peanut butter flavours and forms – no matter whether it is from a game or from a film.