From our phones to our sidewalks, it seems like games are everywhere. The language and the dynamics of games have embedded themselves in nearly every aspect of our culture, nowhere more so than in the lives of kids. Given its ubiquity, it’s easy to reject gamification as just another trend trying to make its way into classroom practice. Still, games have been around for a very long time, and their powerful connection to how students think and express themselves means they cannot be dismissed quite so easily.
This spring, NWEA researchers traveled to two of our Partners in Innovation program schools to learn more about how games can make assessments more engaging and meaningful for students. (Our Partners in Innovation program connects NWEA researchers with schools to partner with us in a cutting-edge research project.) Our “gameful assessment” prototypes were shown to over 500 students, and to 14 of their teachers, who described the potential they saw in games to drive innovation in their classrooms. Here are five things they told us they want to see in assessment games:
- Rewards that motivate students.
Several teachers identified gaming as an opportunity to reduce the frustration associated with an assessment environment or with a complex academic task. For students easily overwhelmed by the content of an assessment, games “would get them to want to keep going” by helping make progress more manageable and visible. Importantly, rewards do not have to be physical or expensive; a digital “reward” like a token of achievement, if tied to a student’s work, can provide encouragement to power through the activity.
- A journey or quest.
One of the most exciting aspects of games involving a journey or quest is their ability to let the player follow a character, help it make choices, and achieve that character’s goals. Several teachers saw these journeys as opportunities to connect student learning and accomplishment to a character’s success, making acquiring a new skill as tangible as making it up the mountain or defeating the final enemy. Journeys also help students persevere through challenges; as one teacher put it, “If you’re playing a game, you could die 20 times, and you don’t get mad.”
- More complex item types.
Many teachers looked forward to the ways in which games provided students the ability to do more than “just answer questions.” They saw games as including higher-level thinking, metacognition skills, strategy, and multi-step thinking. When playing a gameful assessment, one teacher said, students are “actually inside the game thinking about what it is they’re doing.” Because students are accustomed to the multi-step challenges of gaming environments, our partner teachers saw an opportunity to use these challenges to better assess higher order skills in mathematics and reading comprehension.
- Feedback on student performance.
Games provide several opportunities for feedback to students, including visuals representing progress, time spent helping students understand incorrect responses, even encouraging sounds and messages. In this way, teachers had already begun to leverage the increased motivation and persistence of games to put student focus on skills acquisition and building on their mistakes. As another teacher explained, “If that feedback is there for you, it doesn’t matter so much if you get it right or wrong right now, because then the next time you encounter that kind of a problem you will be able to answer it correctly.”
- An opportunity to learn.
Most importantly, several teachers saw gameful assessments as emphasizing the opportunity all assessments have to help students learn. Together with adding more complex item types, and providing regular feedback on student performance, teachers saw games as self-paced opportunities for students to interact with content while being assessed on that content. One teacher put it succinctly: a gameful assessment is “another avenue to show what students can do.”
Gaming is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every deficit in student motivation and persistence; teachers were quick to recognize how a poorly-designed game can distract and demotivate students. However, the potential teachers recognize to better connect with students through games is what will continue to push NWEA to develop and refine our assessments to meet students where they are and encourage their individual growth. We are, as always, indebted to our partner teachers and schools for helping show us the way.