Why Game-Based Assessment?

Information obtained from game-based assessment tells us where children are, so we can help them get where they need to go. In the school environment, there’s an increasing push to integrate technology to better assess children’s knowledge and progress in a number of domains, and  using games for measuring interpersonal skills can provide significant benefits to educators!

Games are engaging and motivating

game-based assessment

It’s not surprising that children prefer to participate in games rather than in traditional classroom activities. Digital games are especially appealing to children today because technology is a ubiquitous part of their lives. The tide of professional opinion is beginning to turn from viewing digital games as a distraction in the classroom to an understanding that gameplay through virtual or simulated environments can be a great motivator and a valuable part of learning and development.

In particular, there is an increasing emphasis in education on social emotional learning and 21st century skills. Why? Content knowledge is no longer at a premium – kids can Google content knowledge. What’s far more valuable is what children DO with that knowledge. Children need to be able to collaborate and communicate with others, integrate and evaluate information, effectively and appropriately use digital technology, and solve real-world problems.

Dynamic assessment of these high-level skills is very difficult with traditional methods but a natural fit for game-based assessments, which give children the opportunity to demonstrate strategic and critical thinking in authentic environments. Games enables us to measure what children know, and what they can do with that knowledge.

Games are ideal vehicles for formative assessment

Formative assessment (assessment while learning is ongoing) helps educators and counselors to adjust, inform and plan instruction. When we know where children are having difficulty, we can intervene and provide more focused attention to problem areas. If a particular lesson or instructional method isn’t working for a child, we can present it differently, adjust the difficulty of a task, or provide more opportunities for practice. Conversely, if we see that a child has mastered a concept, we can offer new or more advanced challenges. Using this adaptive strategy improves children’s achievement.

Games provide unique opportunities for “stealth” assessment

When children are aware they’re being evaluated, they may behave differently than they would in typical circumstances. For example, if a child struggling with impulse control knows she is being evaluated, it’s likely she will demonstrate greater control than what teachers see on a day-to-day basis. If that same child is playing a game in which cognitive, social, and or physical impulse triggers are “invisible” as part of the play, the child is more likely to demonstrate her true behavior pattern. Assessment embedded in gameplay is called “stealth assessment,” and by using game-based assessment, we eliminate observer effects and test anxiety, and ultimately get a more accurate result.

Adaptive assessment

The technology used in computerized adaptive assessments tailors the level of difficulty by adjusting the specific item presented based on how the child has responded to that point. The advantage of this technology is that it uses an underlying measurement model of proficiency—or aptitude—to individualize each student’s testing experience.

In this way, adaptive assessment addresses one of the major challenges of assessment, namely, creating a measure that appropriately addresses the needs of a group with varying abilities. An assessment that is too easy will not provide good information on the high performers, one that is too difficult won’t tell you much about the low performers, and one calibrated to the average child will miss important information about both the high and low performers. Similarly, a game that is too easy or too challenging will quickly lose the engagement of a child. To address this challenge, we can use games to employ adaptive assessment, changing the game to meet the needs of individual children.

4 Myths about Using Games for Learning

Technology has become a fundamental part of everyday life, whether we are checking emails, using GPS to navigate, or scrolling through Twitter, we engage with technology in order to easily accomplish everyday tasks. However, if technology is such an integral part of life, why are schools hesitant to embrace technology to improve academics? Interestingly, computer games in particular could be an asset to meeting the needs of all learners but are often forgotten in the shadow of Common Core and curriculum goals in spite of their ability to improve academic performance.

However the horizon is bright.

In his book, The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, Greg Toppo writes:

“After decades of ambivalence, suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility, educators are beginning to discover the charms of digital games and simulations, in the process rewriting centuries-old rules of learning, motivation, and success.”

Toppo touches on the apathy and reservation toward using games for learning, and as a former teacher, I would speculate that he is not wrong.

There are several fallacies circulating about the use of  computer games that simply are not true. Below I expose four common myths about using games for learning that are circulating among educators. And while I cannot speak to all computer games that are intended for learning, I show you how these myths are easily dispelled through one specific example, Zoo U, a web based computer game that assesses and improves kids’ social and emotional skills.

Myth #1: Computer games don’t encourage positive social interactions

It is rational to think that computer games would not promote social development. How could they when children are not interacting with humans, but with fictional characters in a game? It may be difficult to believe, but studies show that children who play computer games are actually more sociable. An Oxford University study found that children who played computer or video games for up to an hour daily had the “highest levels of sociability” and “fewer friendship and emotional problems.” 

Zoo U is a computer game created specifically to promote social interactions among students in grades K-4 by improving social and emotional learning. Zoo U places students in a school for future zoo keepers where they face social situations as they would in school but with a fantasy-like element of conversing with animals. The game places children in a secure environment where they can practice social skills with a safety net, since there are no consequences in real life. Students are free to make good and bad decisions and experience the outcome of those decisions without it affecting them in real life. When children face those similar situations in school, they will be prepared to make good choices because of the practice they have received in the game.

Myth #2: Games only promote negativity

Over at least the past decade, there has been a backlash in the media about how games predominately promote negative ideas like violence, substance use, and breaking the law.  Video games in general have been linked to violent behavior, and whether this link is founded in research or not, it is a connection many people make.

However, not all games promote these negative ideals. For example, Zoo U seeks to do the opposite as students face social challenges, but zero negativity. Instead of being taught how to steal a car, student learn how to show empathy to a peer who was left out of a game. Kids face the same challenges that they would in real life, but instead of solving them with criminal behavior, they learn to solve them by regulating their emotions or cooperating with others. Zoo U helps children practice positive, real world skills that will develop the child’s character in a meaningful way, thus positively impacting academia.

Myth #3: Games seek to replace teachers’ instruction

As technology becomes more pervasive, many fear that it could replace the need for teachers. Online classes are becoming more popular while meeting in an actual classroom with a teacher is becoming less common. But while the value of a teacher is irreplaceable, that value can be enhanced using games for learning. In a recent interview, Jessica Berlinski, Chief Impact officer at Personalized Learning Games, noted that, “We know real-world instruction, a caring instructor and deep relationships are the core to SEL, but games can buttress that work.” For example, using Zoo U’s assessment, all students can be objectively measured. This helps teachers ensure that no child “fall through the cracks,” and instead of making a claim about a child’s social weaknesses based on observations alone, Zoo U’s assessment gives teachers data to support their claims.

Myth #4: Games make it difficult to measure learning

Educators are likely to wonder how well a game enhances learning especially when it comes to something as complex and subtle as social skills. But again, using Zoo U as an example, we can see what is possible. Students playing Zoo U take a 20-30 minute pre-assessment, then they practice their social and emotional learning skills through a different set of game challenges called the skill builder. Game play is personalized so that students start with their weakest skills and progress to their stronger skills over the course of weeks or months.

With Zoo U, there is concrete evidence that its teaching maps to real world social skills competence. As Jim Thomas, Chief Technology Officer of Personalized Learning Games explains,

“Zoo U was developed in phases over several years, using multiple field tests with students all across the country, allowing us to continually refine and adjust every element of the game to correspond to real student behaviors. Our third field test alone included 239 students in 27 classrooms across 12 states and found that the scores students earn in Zoo U are statistically strongly predictive of their real world performance as indicated by teachers on standard social skills measures.”

Social and Emotional Learning Games for After School Programs

After School Program

While Zoo U was originally created for the classroom, even in its early beta version, innovative after school program leaders gravitated to the game and used it with great success.  And this usage has only increased.  We continue to learn that Zoo U supports after school environments in a number of unique ways.

It shouldn’t be a surprise: almost all after school programs seek to develop social, emotional and character building skills in concert with the specific activities they teach, be they athletic, intellectual, creative, service-oriented or a combination thereof.

This focus is often reflected in their missions.  For instance, The Boys and Girls Club of America aims “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”  And LA’s BEST, LAUSD’s premiere after school program, seeks “to provide a safe and supervised after school education” where activities are “not seen as ends in themselves, but as vehicles for creating values, building skills and solidifying peer and adult relationships.”

Almost across the board, SEL is deeply woven into the fabric of after school programming goals and practices. So providing kids – kids who are likely “tapped out” on academic lessons or structured, didactic teaching environments – with the opportunity to practice and build these skills with an engaging game is a big “win” for after school providers. Simply put, kids want to play.

That’s what several LA Area Boys and Girls Club of America sites found. Raquel Perez, a site coordinator of the BGCA Pico site shared this feedback at the outset of her Zoo U implementation in her summer session,

“I was so surprised how engaged the kids were with Zoo U! I got them started during our enrichment hour in the morning and they loved the program. It was hard for me to transition them into our next program because they didn’t want to (stop playing) Zoo U!”

In this case, Zoo U was an activity used in enrichment hour.  We also find it being used in time set aside for computer or digital learning and in “free play” time.

From the perspective of the provider, Zoo U also serves as a unique support tool: it helps providers identify and meet the specific needs of their kids.  In after school environments, as opposed to classrooms, there are rarely counselors to work with kids with skill deficits, really honing in on their areas of need.  Zoo U does this automatically, by identifying the social emotional learning skills each child is most deficient in, and then supporting and challenging the child exactly where they need it – all through a fun game. Additionally, the formative assessments providers receive for each child guide them to targeted in-person lessons and activities from the game’s resource center to further help kids where they need it most.

And although after school programs don’t often have the focus or mandate for data that schools do, they are increasingly looking to measure efficacy.  Here Zoo U again meets an after school need in a unique way. WINGS for Kids is a stellar example of an after school program that can prove to school partners and parents that their program works. They use Zoo U as an easy, valid way to measure both student growth and the efficacy of programming.

WINGS Chief Strategy Officer Julia Rugg tells us,

“Integrating Zoo U into our tool of assessments has provided us with even richer insight into individual student performance.  We love the ability to receive real time data coming directly from our young students through stealth capabilities, and the kids really enjoy playing the game!  (Zoo U) is an excellent way of gathering knowledge about SEL skill development that eliminates the challenges of other tools that are observational only.”

After school programs have always implicitly built SEL skills, but more and more are beginning to explicitly teach and measure these life skills.  The National After School Association is now in its second year “deliberately moving forward in this area”, convening its members to share the latest research and best practices.  Assessment is indeed a “hot topic” in these convenings as providers across the country voice a need for valid easy-to-implement tools.  Zoo U is a strong solution.  It’s an easy, fun way for kids to learn SEL, and an equally easy way for providers to have access to actionable data to support that learning and measure efficacy.