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Tests Can Actually Be . . . Fun???

Written by: Jane Canner, Ph.D., Senior Education Advisor

At the recent CATS/CRESST Conference, Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu: Integrating Games, Technology and Assessment to Accelerate Learning in the 21st Century, we heard that testing—or assessment—can actually be fun and engaging when embedded in learning games! Roy Levy, a conference attendee from Arizona State, claimed that: “Games are assessments students don’t mind taking.”

What a concept! In these days of parent opt-outs from Common Core standardized testing, and students being stressed and crying after months of test preparation, the idea of assessments kids don’t mind taking is refreshing to say the least.

Although the concept of game-based embedded assessment is still in its infancy, or perhaps its toddlerhood, the use of powerful psychometric models, along with game design and learning principles, has the potential to both be integrated directly into the learning experience (or game), and to give us good information about what and how students are learning.

Levy and others, such as Alan Gershenfeld, founder and president of E-Line Media and former chair of Games for Change, made the point that learning games provide a strong framework for accomplishing many of the things educators say they want children to learn and do: take on roles, solve problems, apply learning, receive and use feedback, and take initiative. Because of this, using them to assess learning is also appealing.

While it was acknowledged that we still need a strong research base to inform game design and to better make the case that games can enhance learning, some of this research is being done. Richard Mayer from UC Santa Barbara reported on his extensive work on topics such as which game features contribute to improved learning, what is actually learned from games, and what is learned from games as compared to more traditional instruction. While his research needs confirmation in other settings, his findings about the learning benefits of in-game explanatory feedback, spoken rather than printed information, and providing opportunities to reflect are all important for learning game designers.

The fact that the CRESST conference attracted over 200 people to an event focusing on learning games—and not even on their development but on the more technical aspects of valid and reliable student assessment—is a testament to the growing interest in this topic.

At Classroom, Inc., our school and district partners are demanding. They want their students to be engaged in learning, but also want to be assured that they are learning, and want evidence that our games and programs provide results. Our newest middle school literacy learning game, After the Storm, provides such results via a real-time teacher dashboard, all based on embedded assessments provided seamlessly and invisibly throughout the game. In this game, struggling readers take on the role of editor-in-chief of an online magazine, experiencing challenges and deciding how best to respond based on information gathered through press releases, official reports, emails, text messages, and conversations with colleagues. Because the game is used in English Language Arts classes, it’s critical that we include a wide variety of reading and writing experiences and assess students on those dimensions.

Our experience leads us to agree with Roy Levy. When students are assessed within games that they enjoy playing, as an integral part of the game action, they don’t mind being assessed. In fact, testing can even be fun!