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December 19: Video games and formative assessment

gaming formative assessment

Last month at the AESA conference, Curtis Chandler and I had the opportunity to do a presentation on gamification in education. I always have fun working with Curtis and when we get the chance to talk about games, even better.

One of the things we talked about was how game design and instructional design are very similar. How game developers use brain research to create engaging, profitable games. And how we as educators should be using similar research to plan lesson and unit design but often don’t.

As early educational game researcher James Paul Gee says

Better theories of learning are embedded in the video games many children play than in the schools they attend.

One of the conversations that we especially enjoyed was asking teachers to describe what an effective learning environment looks like. The list ended up looking like this:

  • students make choices
  • students become experts
  • solving problems is required
  • immediate feedback is key
  • there’s always an answer
  • working with others – in and out of the classroom – is allowed
  • failure can be a good thing

We then asked teachers to think about characteristics of engaging games. It ended up looking like this:

  • players make choices
  • players become experts
  • solving problems is required to win the game
  • immediate feedback is key
  • there’s always an answer
  • “cheating” and learning from others is allowed
  • failure can be a good thing

gaming screenshot

One of the things that we didn’t spend a lot of time discussing was the different elements that make up feedback – both feedback to students and from students. This feedback would include formative assessment. Formative assessment — a set of techniques used by teachers to monitor, measure, and support student progress and learning during instruction — is a core practice of successful classrooms.

And a recent study by New York University and the University of Michigan suggests that we probably need to dig into this topic a bit more when we’re discussing video games in the classroom. Titled Empowering Educators: Supporting Student Progress in the Classroom with Digital Games, the results are pretty powerful and provide more reasons supporting the use of games in education.

Key findings of the research?

Game use is related to how teachers conduct formative assessment.
Teachers who use digital games to make instructional decisions on a daily basis are more than twice as likely to check for motivation and engagement during formative assessment than teachers who rarely use games to make instructional decisions.

Game use is related to how teachers use formative assessment information.
Teachers who use digital games daily to document student progress are much more likely to use information from formative assessment on a daily basis to find or create alternative instructional strategies for a particular topic.

Teachers who use digital games for formative assessment more frequently are also more likely to use that information to track student progress and give students feedback on a daily basis. More than half of teachers who use digital games daily for formative assessment track student progress on a daily basis, compared to fewer than 25% of teachers who rarely use games for formative assessment. More than 90% of teachers who use digital games for formative assessment daily give feedback to their students on a daily basis using the information from that formative assessment.

Game use is related to the barriers teachers report to conducting formative assessment.
Teachers who use digital games more frequently for formative assessment are more likely to say they do not face any barriers to conducting formative assessment and less likely to say they lack training or preparation for making use of information from formative assessment. Teachers who use digital games weekly or more often to make instructional decisions are also less likely to report that they lack time to administer formative assessment or to name a lack of materials or resources provided by their curriculum for formative assessment as barriers to formative assessment.

Teachers who use digital games in particular ways related to assessment are also less likely to report facing a range of barriers to formative assessment. For example, teachers who use assessment systems built-in to digital games more frequently to assess student learning are less likely to report lack of time as a barrier to formative assessment.

Basically . . . using video games encourage both more effective formative assessment and more use of formative assessment data to improve instructional practice. And if we can agree that formative assessment is a good thing that can lead to higher levels of learning than using video games to support formative assessment is also a good thing.

And it’s just a little serendipitous that just after I read this research, I ran across an article highlighting a national Mythbusters tour by Adam Savage and his partner Jamie Hyneman. A quote by Savage caught my attention:

Learning any skill is best accomplished through enthusiasm and play is the first and most pure expression of one’s enthusiasm. Play is simply a process of running experiments. We do things because they are fun.

 ‘”Failure is always an option” came up as a joke in season two, when we were screwing something up over and over again, but it’s an awesome way to think about the scientific method. We tend to think about science as a series of facts and absolutes that we need to study in order to understand stuff; a scientist saying, “I want to prove this thing,” and then coming up with an experiment to prove it. Nothing could be further from the truth on both counts. The scientist simply says, “I wonder if?” and then builds a methodology to test whether his theory is correct, or even to figure out what his theory might be. So to think that an experiment could “fail” is ludicrous. Every experiment tells you something, even if it’s just don’t do that experiment the same way again.

Video games are like this. Schools should be like this. Research a problem that you’re enthusiastic about. Try some stuff. Revise it when it doesn’t work. Walk away smarter than when you walk in.

So. Your homework this holiday break? Play some games.

Seriously.

And if you start with some board games and move on to video games, no problem. A game is a game. But be thinking about what that game – and more importantly, what the theory behind the game – can look like in your classroom.

And when you get back to school in 2015, do some more research into the idea of games in the classroom. Need a few places to start? Try these books:

Head over to a page I’ve put together with some gaming resources and poke around. But this move to games and gamification in the classroom isn’t going to go away. You need to stay ahead of the curve on this.

And be sure to have fun!