During my first two weeks at Personalized Learning Games (now Centervention), I submerged myself in learning all things that pertain to Zoo U, a game that assesses and improves social emotional learning skills for students. In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of Zoo U, I sought out Ashley Craig for a one-on-one interview to get down to the bottom of my lingering questions: why use a game to assess social and emotional learning? What makes Zoo U different from other games?

Ashley CraigAshley is a Research Associate at 3C Institute, the company responsible for the development of Zoo U and the parent company of Personalized Learning Games. Ashley has spent four years at 3C Institute working primarily to create and perfect scoring measures and game content for Zoo U. During our time together, Ashley shared all the secrets of Zoo U with me, focusing on what sets it apart: accuracy and personalization. No two students experience Zoo U the same way, but what they experience is equivalent across all participants.

Zoo U Remains Objective Regardless of Circumstances

Because of my background studying psychology in college, one of my biggest curiosities when learning about Zoo U was what made the scoring and reports from this game accurate. To be honest, I was skeptical and had many questions for Ashley. How could a game possibly tell me about the social and emotional behavior of a child?

Before she could even finish telling me her specific responsibilities at 3C, I fired my first question at her: how do you know the scoring is accurate? Ashley explained that the biggest indicator that Zoo U’s reports are accurate is that they are aligned with other measures. “We verify that the score you get on

[Zoo U] relates in an expected way to a measure [that already exists].” Zoo U’s accuracy and credibility exist because the game scores have been “validated against known measures” of social skills, like teacher or student reports, as a way of confirming accuracy.

Ashley emphasized how important it was that our findings from Zoo U match what the teacher is observing from the student.

“When we use games like Zoo U for assessment, all of the bias is taken out of the equation. The computer is calculating the scores rather than people, so every student is held to the same set of standards and has the same problems to solve.”

As a former high school science teacher, I was eating this up. I knew all too well from personal experience how difficult it was to be completely free from bias. This level of accuracy and objectivity with Zoo U made me joyful and relieved for teachers, as I related to their burden of attempting to assess students themselves.

And if that weren’t enough, Ashley explained to me the backup measures that Zoo U uses to ensure its results are as accurate as possible. Zoo U has multiple indicators that alert teachers if students have unusual patterns of game play. For instance, if students repeatedly choose the first answer choice or click before listening to audio, the game will flag these behaviors and indicate these patterns on the assessment report. This ensures that accuracy is not hindered by students playing the game incorrectly. Ashley noted that this additional level of information  “put the report in context” so that teachers may understand that sweet, friendly Suzie Q may have ranked poorly on social initiation due to not listening to the audio in its entirety, a typical gaming behavior.  The game is set up to measure and record all answers, clicks, and movement so that nothing is missed, and all behaviors are calculated into the reports.

Every Child Experiences Zoo U Differently

soccer-bballI was also intrigued to hear more about the personalization aspect of the game. Ashley began by giving me more background about the assessment and skill builder scenes. Ashley explained that the way Zoo U assesses students is by “giving them the opportunity demonstrate having and not having a [social emotional learning] skill.” Essentially, students are assessed based not only on what they do, but also on what they do not do.

Ashley pointed out that the scoring for the scenes is complex, despite the seemingly  simple social problem scenario students are trying to solve. This type of measurement is known as stealth assessment – children are being assessed based on many factors they are completely oblivious to, like length of time before they choose a selection and what they choose to click on or don’t choose to click on. All details are recorded and factored into their scores. This complex scoring system not only  leads to more accurate results, but also provides an enormous amount of data that can be used to personalize their skill building experience. Each click a child makes determines how the game progresses.





soccer-bball2There are three versions of every skill builder scene, as well as three different levels: easy, medium, and difficult. After a child completes the assessment, the difficulty of the first skill builder scene they play is determined by their assessment results. If a child plays the same scene three times in a row, they will not play the exact same version each time. The game evolves based on how the player is engaging it. Ashley gave multiple examples of how the skill building scenes include different types of  scaffolding to meet the needs of differing learners. For example, if a child is doing really well, the game may change the gender of the  other characters to increase rigor. If the child is having a difficult time progressing, the game may give the child more hints and help.

As a classroom teacher, one of the things I struggled with was differentiation and scaffolding up and down properly to meet the needs of all learners at various levels. Not only does Zoo U do the dirty work of differentiating students’ baseline abilities for teachers, it also hand delivers all the information in the form of reports. Honestly, all I can think is, I wish I had something like this for my former students. It is literally hassle-free for the teachers and administrators, while  impacting the child’s learning in a deeper way. Ashley added, “the scene is set up so that everyone is in a similar scene, but everyone’s experience could be different.” A teacher could look at two students playing the same scene side by side, yet their interactions manifest in different ways.

Zoo U Pushes Students Out of Their Comfort Zones

As Ashley continued, she said that “the game pushes [students] on things they are not innately good at.” So regardless of what version or difficulty a child is playing at, the game is pushing him out of his comfort zone. Ashley explained that this is a tricky concept for students and teachers, and they may get frustrated that children aren’t doing as well as expected. She said, “We all stand room for improvement. We set the bar for mastery high in order to give everyone the opportunity to improve. We can’t teach you something if you win right away–there are no learning opportunities in immediate success.”

But Ashley reminded me that it’s just a game! This is a safe environment for children to explore, practice, and even fail because there are no real-world consequences. Each child is practicing social and emotional learning in a safe environment completely unique to their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

I left the meeting feeling even more passionate about Zoo U, and grateful Ashley had given me the inside scoop on how the game works. I am completely sold on its benefits as an assessment and practice tool for social and emotional learning. And I got down to the bottom of my inquires: personalization and accuracy are the secret ingredients that set Zoo U apart.