Games: A Model of Effective Assessment


This post originally appeared on ASCD Express, a regular ASCD Publication focused on critical topics in education. This article appeared in Vol 8. Issue 12, the focus topic being assessment that makes sense. View Original >


People play games for many reasons, but a major reason is that games are designed in specific ways to ensure that you keep playing. You are challenged at just the right level while being given enough scaffolding to continue trying. This creates the “flow” where engagement is maximized. We take these, as well as other game mechanics, for granted, when in fact we should look to them as models of instruction and assessment. Here are three big lessons we can take from games to improve our classroom assessment practices.

1. Mastery and Freedom to Fail
Allowing yourself to fail is probably one of the most important and best things games do in terms of effective assessment. When you make mistakes in a game, you are given as many opportunities as you need to successfully complete the level. If your player dies in Super Mario Brothers, you simply start over at the level at which you left off. In other words, you are given freedom to fail until you are successful. Many of our antiquated assessment practices in education do not do this. We rely on points and weights to try to create an elaborate grade book that seems balanced. But in fact, it still punishes students for making mistakes in the learning process. Just like in games, we need to reward our students for their best work and give them multiple formative assessments that allow them to try and fail in a safe space, where mastery is truly valued.

2. “Just In Time” Feedback
Games give you feedback immediately. For those of us who play Angry Birds, we often fail a level, but we know why we failed—the game lets us know our mistakes up front. Although we’re informed of our failure by a crass “You Lose!” phrase that appears across the screen, we know that we have failed and can reflect on how we need to make adjustments in our game play in order to be successful. You don’t find out three hours later that you lost; you know immediately. Although it often takes time to give high-quality, lengthy feedback, we can prioritize feedback on a targeted instruction area to be given immediately. Technology can be a useful aid in sending or noting a quick response to an assignment. Formative assessments also allow for quick check-ins to note progress or needed adjustments.

3. Assessment of 21st Century Skills
Although many games do not assess the formal content in our classroom, such as world history, writing skills, or physics, they do assess crucial 21st century skills that can go overlooked in traditional classroom assessments. For example, Halo involves players both playing solo and working in pairs or teams to defeat enemies and conquer stages. Defeating these enemies requires not only strategic thinking and problem solving, but also creativity, collaboration, and communication. If you play a multiplayer contest and win, you have shown that you can collaborate and strategize in teams, and the game play is designed to assess these skills. In our classrooms, we can create rubrics and align student products to assess the same skills that games do, thereby valuing not only content, but also 21st century skills.

To really push the envelope of games as assessment tools, consider using them as a formative or summative assessment. It might make educators uncomfortable to trust games as rigorous assessments, but in fact, we often trust games as the best assessment tools. Stanford professor James Paul Gee captures this concept best: “If a student plays Halo on hard … and beats it, would you be tempted to give that student a Halo test?” The answer, of course, is no. The game was designed to demand that the player met specific, rigorous goals. We trust the game to accurately assess those goals. Well-designed educational games can be great assessment tools, or more generally, we can borrow from game design to improve classroom assessment practices.

Zombie-Based Learning — “Braaaaaaains!”


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


You read that correctly: Zombie-Based Learning. When I started learning about it, my inner geek squealed with joy. I’ve always loved zombies. I’ve watched all the movies and even read the original Walking Dead Comics before it became a hit series in the classroom.

One Teacher’s Curriculum
Geography has always been a learning target for social studies teachers, and David Hunter, who teaches at Bellevue, Washington’s Big Picture School, decided to create a curriculum using Kickstarter as its funding source. He sought to make geography relevant through engaging scenarios and stories with a zombie theme tying it all together. The whole curriculum is standards-based and includes over 70 lessons where students must “consider how to duck the undead invasion, secure their supplies and, eventually, rebuild society” through a variety of activities, worksheets and discussions.

Mr. Hunter’s story was featured on an NPR affiliate if you would like to read more. In addition, he has made available one of the comics he created which serve as the textbook for the curriculum. Mr. Hunter created this work in order to engage students, and I believe we can use the topic of zombies to explore further curriculum areas.

English and Language Arts
While much of the world of zombies is portrayed in comics and films, ELA teachers can use these various texts to engage students in learning important reading standards. Even the Common Core calls for reading a variety of texts and comparing and contrasting those texts (such as a film and a comic). These stories feature compelling, complex characters under extreme situations that many of us can identify with. Students could analyze the various features of the comic/graphic novel genre, or engage in character analysis. Consider using these zombie-based materials as scaffolding for more complex texts.

Many in the zombie community (did I just write that?) believe that people become zombies due to a virus, and many of the films and literature echo this as a possible method of transmission. This being the case, students could investigate the subject of viruses and bacteria using zombies as the disease being passed. They might come up with scientific methods for eradicating the disease or simply mitigating its effect. They might even hypothesize the biology behind zombies. Again, the topic of zombies is an entry point to engage students in learning significant content.

Related to the science component of zombies, many diseases increase at an exponential rate. Students could analyze different population centers and predict its spread using exponential functions. They could determine when everyone is infected and map the spread using the math data they calculate, or even explore rate of decay. Students could also investigate what happens when a certain number of people are vaccinated to help prevent the spread.

These are some ideas I have either implemented as part of a PBL project or believe might be a good entry point for zombie-based learning across the curriculum. What are your ideas for zombie-based learning to teach content and 21st century skills? (And if anyone could instructionally integrate Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, that would be awesome!)

Game Jam Your Classroom


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Just what is a game jam? It is a short event, usually only a day or two, where game developers plan, design and create a short game. Similar to a music jam session, game jams don’t involve much pre-planning and rely on immediate idea generation and improvisation. Game design companies have these jam sessions regularly, and while many of the games that happen here are digital, some are paper-based. They usually occur in one physical location to allow for immediate, organic collaboration. While there is an element of competition, most of the work is focused on collaboration towards a common goal.

I have witnessed some of these game jams, and have talked with many gaming experts to learn more about it. I wanted to learn more about game jams to help me come up with ideas for how we might include an activity like this in classroom instruction.

The following video will help you visualize how the process works:

I see a lot of great opportunity to teach and assess 21st century skills, focus on deeper learning, and present content. Here are steps and tips to get you started:

1. Create a Flexible Space
If you watch the video above, you will see the room change — literally. The room is set up in a way that allows for presentation, small group work, space for making and more. Make sure you have the space or can create a space that is fluid and can easy be transformed to meet the needs of the teams and the steps in the game jam process.

2. Provide Digital or Physical Tools
As teams create and decide upon their games, they will need materials to do so. However, don’t assume that a game jam is only about creating digital games. While jammers might use a digital tool like Gamestar Mechanic to create their game, they might also use physical materials like paper, glue, magazines and scissors. Have these materials available, and provide voice and choice for students to pick what materials will best meet their needs. At a GameDesk game jam, a team developed a pizza game that was aligned to math content about fractions. This game was created with physical, not digital, materials.

3. Embrace Principles of Games Design
A game jam is a great opportunity to teach fundamentals of game design, from story line and narrative to the actual mechanics. Normally, participants in game jams come to it with a lot of prior knowledge, although many game jam teams have members with very little knowledge of these mechanics. The extent to which you teach this might depend on the level of students or time constraints in the classroom. However, since the game jam is in essence a design challenge, you can align to principles of STEM or STEAM education. Make sure to give students designated time before the game jam to learn these principles.

4. Domain Analysis
This is probably one of the most interesting steps of the game jam. Here, the teams investigate specific content areas (or domains) and uncover how the content is both taught and represented. For example, teams can find specific learning targets in their game content, and also note how those targets are represented visually or digitally. They research how the content is traditionally taught and also assessed. Teams craft specific learning targets from this exploration and research to ensure that, when they get to the idea phase, they can create a focused game targeting very specific learning objectives.

5. Team Building
Game jams always start with team builders. In a real game jam, the team members have often never worked together before; therefore, it’s crucial to set a tone for collaboration and problem solving. It’s the same for our students. In order to set them up for success, icebreakers and other team builders need to occur.

6. Ideation
After bonding as a team and analyzing content domains, the ideation phase begins. This is where teams brainstorm and collaborate on ideas for the game itself. Relying on its collective knowledge of game design and content, the team starts to craft ideas for a game that will target a specific learning objective. These objectives are tight, and there are often not too many of them. They are created in the Domain Analysis component (step 4 above), but here the team gets to start narrowing and picking these targets as well as decide on the mechanics.

7. Deadlines and Benchmarks
The game jam itself has a very specific deadline, usually a full day (eight hours) of work, including the presentations and pitches. However within the game jam day, there are further benchmarks. For example, at some point during the day, teams are no longer allowed to generate game ideas and are forced to work or “make.” This helps create the urgency for the deadline and also helps to move along the process. Consider setting specific time limits for some of the steps in the game jam.

8. Presentation, Playing and Judging
The culminating event for the game jam is presenting the game product and having all participants play the game. Not only is this an important assessment, but it is also an important way to celebrate the jammers’ hard work. Judges need to have specific criteria for evaluating the games. These criteria might be different for every game jam. They might include relevance to content or curriculum, marketability, player interest, ability to collaborate, and more.

As you consider a game jam for your classroom, you might focus the assessment on the content area, or simply on 21st century skills like creativity and collaboration. I know many of us have more freedom after “testing season,” so that also might be a great time to give this idea a shot. Just make sure you’re clear on the learning objectives and project outcomes that you expect from your students. Don’t forget to watch the game jammers in action in the time-lapse video above to give you a full picture of what it would look like!