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More “Assessment” from the Games, Learning, Society Conference

I gave a presentation at my work today (Kognito Interactive) about my experience at the GLS a few weeks ago. The aspect that the conference left me thinking about most is the idea of assessment in education and in game simulations. In a sense, assessment is the solution to and obstacle blocking educational reform. After the jump, the text from my presentation:

GLS & 21st Century Assessment

The world is shifting from hard skills that are based on testable knowledge toward a world where people need soft skills to succeed. Retaining information is no longer the first step toward being a successful student, but rather being able to access and assess the information. Education is moving from traditional pedagogies that boast a clear mapping of testable content to what James Paul Gee describes as situated, sociocultural education – providing spaces for learning that is built by doing, through experience, and sharing knowledge in collaborative form. He sees the needs of the learner becoming elements like: knowing how to learn, knowing how to problem solve, being able to attach meaning to content, being tech-savvy, learning to be collaborative, receiving encouragement to innovate and create, develop model-based thinking, and knowing how to retrieve and understand information. This is not to say Gee believes things like reading or language are going away. On the contrary, he argues language will become more complex.

The question is: how do you convince schools to realize this paradigm shift? There are so many stakeholders in education – students, teachers, administration, parents, politicians, etc – part of the problem for developing real educational reform is getting all of these parts moving in the same direction, at the same time. The answer is assessment. It is the cure and obstacle for educational reform.

Assessment in education to date is primarily based on psychometrics and standardized testing. These forms of assessment ignore the sociocultural makeup of the student, which is to say it ignores their values, their meanings, and their expectations as a learner. It ignores the unique path each learner has to building their knowledge. In fact, the one-size fits all approach often creates hopelessness for the poor testing student. Grades and testing scores can inflict competition, ambiguity, and provide no formative feedback to the actual learner.

But that’s not to sat assessment is wrong. It’s just being practiced in the wrong way. The fact is, proper assessment can provide the learner with valuable feedback that can inform their decisions and also motivate their strive for becoming educated. James Paul Gee argues for a 21st Century assessment that measures skills necessary for problem solving, specifically adaptive ability, lifelong learning habits, and the ability to adopt new technologies and ways of understanding from multiple cultural perspectives. He believes digital media offers a bridge for the assessment gap between student and the education establishment. He writes, “Digital media have the potential to offer deep assessment of these skills across virtual worlds and to help advance teaching by documenting learners’ moment-by-moment progress.”

A game or simulation can watch the player constantly, chart growth, monitor decisions, and ultimately provide the player with the ability to assess themselves and build self-awareness. It’s like watching yourself in a mirror and realizing you need to correct your posture. The student can actually witness themselves learning, which motivates them to learn more through the realization of seeing what they are capable of. As Gee stressed at the conference, don’t take the learner out of the assessment. Let the student gain from it. This sort of education fosters long-term change and creates a hunger for lifelong learning, not to mention it teaches the student how to learn. Gee continues, “Their problem-solving in the digital world would itself be a deep assessment of skills, including collaboration and the applications of these skills across other virtual worlds, and the real world would be a test of transfer.” The best assessment will be the kind that provides evidence to the teacher of how to better adapt the teaching to the needs of the student.

According to the University of Wisconsin Division of Information Technology’s Engage Project, educational games and simulations offer the following contributions to learning:

1) Simplify reality

2) Offer experience that is personally meaningful, experiential, social, and epistemological, all at the same time.

3) Students are guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual characters and worlds; to succeed they must apply the epistemic frame (activities, values, and ways of thinking)

4) Skills and knowledge of expertise are distributed between the virtual characters and the real-world students

5) Provide a model of learning through meaningful activity in virtual worlds as preparation for meaningful activity in our real world

6) Facts and information evolve naturally out of the experience

7) Novices learn the ways experts make sense of problems and achieve success

8) Develop situated understanding, integrating ways of knowledge, ways of doing, ways of being, ways of caring, and ways of thinking to become an expert

9) Experts learn ways to reexamine critical junctures where their understanding is incomplete or ineffective in dealing with new or problematic situations and to then reorganize their ways of thinking to face atypical problems and achieve success

The principles of the need for in-game assessment are: watching the player constantly, charting growth, monitoring decisions, and ultimately providing the players with the ability to assess themselves and build self-awareness.


  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    To me the discussion should not be centered around whether or not games and simulations are effective at teaching skills (though I understand that this is probably the concern of your employer), but rather if the goal of education itself should be all about skill acquisition.

    Our education system was built on the idea of creating better citizen and that meant a citizen that was informed and open-minded. Now, I understand that at this point that ideal may be antiquated, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was what was really at the heart of educators’ reluctance to adopt games as a teaching method.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think games are a supremely valuable part of culture, and I’m not someone who believes there’s some inherent ‘good’ in reading books. From the perspective of pure effectiveness though, I think that text still far outweighs anything an interactive system can offer when it comes to a classic liberal education. You could take 15 minutes to read an essay on the impact of technology in history, or you could play 5 hours of Civilization.

    So if the goal of education is to make us all better cubicle monkeys, then I think that games have a powerful role to play. However, if education is about absorbing information and weighing different perspectives, then that’s a different story.

    Monday, July 28, 2008 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  2. “So if the goal of education is to make us all better cubicle monkeys, then I think that games have a powerful role to play.” Wow, sounds like you’re of the “games teach obedience” mindset.

    I’m not sure anyone out there is arguing for a student to play 15 hours of Civilization in place of a discussion or reading an essay. But incorporating some reading with a game with a discussion is what most educational theorists would like to see in the classroom. The name of the game going forward is knowing how to learn, how to gain perspective, how to learn from each other, and giving kids the thirst for knowledge. That’s what I mean by skills. Education is certainly no longer about absorbing information.

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 2:48 am | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    “The name of the game going forward is knowing how to learn, how to gain perspective, how to learn from each other, and giving kids the thirst for knowledge.”

    Hmm, I feel like the primacy of standardized testing and the explosion of technical universities in the US belie this assertion.

    Probably shouldn’t listen to me though. I’m deeply ambivalent about education in general and ‘teaching’ in particular.

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  4. Thanks, Charles Joseph, for inviting me to post.

    This is a very interesting discussion. Let me try to explain some of my thoughts about games and learning, and games and assessment.

    I’m glad academics are talking and analyzing games; I believe that the discussion will eventually shift towards effective teaching, regardless of the medium. Games teach players very well – if the tutorial in a RTS (e.g., Rise of Nations) doesn’t teach the player how to build and manage and protect resources, the player gets frustrated and quits the game and tells all her friends not to buy the game. As Gee writes (albeit poorly) in his Learning and Literacy book, game design incorporates effective teaching practices: modeling, player exploration, immediate feedback, etc. Games aren’t effective learning systems because of their rule sets, players learn because they’ve been taught very, VERY well. Game designers are some of the best instructional designers out there, in my opinion; they need to teach the player their game.

    The discussion about games and assessment also gets us back to effective teaching/assessment practices. Yes, giving the player/student immediate feedback is useful and motivating. Yes, letting the player/student move through a game/curriculum at her own pace while receiving feedback is wonderful. Yes, documentation of moment-by-moment progress is amazing (e.g., Making History’s log system). Prompting the player/student to reflect on his decision-making processes should be a core component of a class/curriculum/game.

    Many of the teaching and assessment principles that are used effectively in games can and need to be applied in traditional classrooms. We don’t need to shift American 8-12 education completely over to game-based education (read Larry Cuban for various arguments for why technology fails in the classroom). We need to incorporate effective teaching/assessment practices as best as we can.

    I taught a “traditional” skills-based reading class in which the students had to (among other things): read their textbook, memorize vocabulary and do comprehension exercises for homework. Boring stuff. At the beginning of each class, the students took a short (10 minute) quiz on what they had studied. After each quiz, they traded papers with another student and we went over the answers as a class. When they got their papers back, they reviewed their answers, asked questions to me and the class, and then they plotted their quiz scores on a personal graph. They could see if they were improving or not, and had a similar feeling to playing a game – immediate feedback (from the quiz, from the teacher) on their decisions and performance. This isn’t a radical teaching device by any means, but it’s a way I could give more feedback and make the students reflect more on their learning each week. It wasn’t game-based learning/assessment, but it shared some of the practices that makes (could make) games great teaching/assessment tools.

    The Engage Project’s list of 9 features is a good one, but I recommend reading the list again and trying to imagine applying those features to a traditional classroom. Effective diagrams on the whiteboard can also simplify reality. Students should work together on important projects (one of the best projects I’ve ever seen in a high school was a young entrepreneur’s class in which teams of students were given $100 to invest in a group-created small business – you’ve never seen people share information in such a meaningful way!). Novices should be tutored by the better students in the class. Role-plays should be a central part of many classes. Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the medium.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 6:42 am | Permalink

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