Gaming in Assessment: 
It’s not just coming soon, it’s already here.

Gaming in Assessment: 
It’s not just coming soon, it’s already here.

By Jonathan E. Martin, Principal, JonathanEMartin Ed. Services • @JonathanEMartinFrom
The Yield, Fall 2014

Traditional assessment has many valuable purposes — and many significant limitations. We crave a great leap forward. We seek tools and techniques which engage and challenge students, facilitate learning at the same time as measuring it, are resistant to faking, and provide results in real time without delay.

Digital gaming as learning is fast growing but not new. James Paul Gee, Marc Prensky, and Jane McGonigal have effectively and charismatically (see McGonigal’s TED talk) demonstrated, with authoritative evidence from research, that all of us, young and old, can learn and grow while playing games — especially on broad, “open” platforms. Many schools, for example, are making great advances in their use of Minecraft in class. Students are studying the significance of geography, practicing design and engineering, and experiencing everyday life in ancient societies and fictional worlds through their creative construction of the infinite Minecraft universe.

The gamification of assessment is what’s next. It is meeting kids where they are — after all, 99% of teenage boys and 94% of girls are already there by choice. Gaming demands students apply what they’ve learned, and learn what they need to apply, to succeed. Digital gaming can be designed to generate and crunch data instantly.

Stanford Professor Dan Schwartz, in a recent MIT Press book, Measuring What Matters Most: Choice Based Assessment in the Digital Age argues that knowledge is almost always just a means to an end, not an end in itself, and knowledge as measured in what is usually the isolated and static context of a “test,” (what the researchers call “sequestered problem-solving (SPS)”) is hence two steps removed from what we really should care about. Schwartz feels that what is most important is not the knowledge we hold but rather the choices we make.

Gaming is full of choices — to advance, its players must determine whether, what, how, and when they should be learning, and by constantly “leveling up” to match the player’s proficiencies, it challenges them to keep doing so. Rich game-play environments provide players many different opportunities to learn, explore, experiment, and iterate in ways far more true to life. Games can meaningfully evaluate what students know and what they are learning better than a “sequestered” problem or test.

Another recent MIT Press book, Stealth Assessment: Measuring and Supporting Learning in Video Games, offers as its thesis and epigraph that “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Lead author Valerie Shute, Professor of Educational Psychology at Florida State, is understandably uncomfortable about the negative connotations of the term stealth, and seeks to reassure in the introduction that it is not intended to, “Convey any type of deception but rather to reflect the invisible capture of gameplay data, and the subsequent formative use of the information to help learners, and help learners help themselves.”

Both MIT books were published with support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning program, and they are freely available for download on its website.

Much of Stealth Assessment is devoted to an extended analysis of a game the co-authors created called Newton’s Playground. The game, which could be loosely compared to Angry Birds, has as its objective “To guide a green ball from a predetermined (but widely varying) starting point to a red balloon or balloons, which pop on contact.” The game is built to reflect the rules of physics, gravity, and Newton’s laws; success in the game demands effective utilization of each. Accordingly, the game’s assessment focuses first on students’ mastery of the concepts of physics — something which is especially important because research has found that far too many students make their way through first year physics without mastering the fundamental concepts of the field.

Newton’s Playground also assesses conscientiousness, as defined by persistence, perfectionism, organization, and carefulness. Persistence, for example, is measured by students’ “time on unsolved problems, number of restarts on unsolved problems, and number of revisits to unsolved problems.” The game is also designed to assess creativity, defined as “fluency, flexibility, originality, openness to experience, willingness to take risks, and tolerance for ambiguity.” Originality, for example, is demonstrated and evaluated when students must create their own levels for the playground, for which an algorithm measures the degree to which students created something different and novel.

The research into the effectiveness of Newton’s Playground and gaming generally is still ongoing. According to the Stealth Assessment authors, early indications of validity are strong: When physics understanding, persistence, and creativity as measured in the game are compared to external assessments of the same, there is good correlation. Assessment gamification is here, and it is entirely reasonable to expect it will be the norm 20 years from now.


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