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How a Classroom Game Becomes an Embedded Assessment

C. Ross Flatt

6th Grade Social Studies Teacher & Curriculum Developer, New York City
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Building Formative Assessment into Game-Based Learning (Transcript)

Student: Playing games in school is helping me learn better than I ever had before in any other subject in other schools I've been to in my entire life.

Student: Do we have any more green?

Student: Where's the key?

Student: Wait, so how about the top is right here? I'll start like--

Student: Wait, are we supposed to do it on this side or do we do it on the back?

Teacher: The only thing you're making in this round is a good continent. Possibly an isthmus, if you earn it, islands and peninsulas. So it will be very blank except for your continent name.

To somebody who's never seen Galactic Mappers before, basically it looks like a class-wide map making slash art project, where students are working in teams to build different sections of a gigantic map of the world. The better the students do, the more complex their continent can get, because they will keep earning. And then the more they earn, the more challenging the game becomes. And if they want to have a really fully developed continent, that need to know within them is going to start to seek out this additional information.

Teacher: North.

Students: South.

Teacher: East.

Students: West.

Teacher: You have a land mass?

Student: We have one, and then we can make this into another one.

Teacher: Well, that would make you have two continents. Is there another way--

Students: Yes we have another-- we have different people around.

Student: Oh, just cut this out, like here.

Teacher: Okay, group number one and group number five you guys have an isthmus. You need to somehow share that isthmus between the two of you. You guys can communicate amongst yourselves to make that isthmus work.

An embedded assessment is a form of assessing students' knowledge while they're engaged in the learning process. So rather than giving them a test at the end of the unit, we try to find ways of assessing them while the learning is actually happening.

Student: Rubric: your group will be graded on the following qualities, map skills.

Student: It demonstrates clear knowledge of the category and physical geography while playing the game. Being positive in the group, it's up ten points. Yeah, be positive.

Student: Okay, so now what?

Teacher: So what I do in advance is I create a rubric with certain things I'm going to look for. Part of what I'm assessing them does include content knowledge. It includes application of that content knowledge. It also looks at systems thinking and design thinking. And I assess them just by either listening to the types of things that they're saying about the different pieces. So if I can hear a student explain to another student why they want to put certain things in a particular spot or correcting students on certain map technique or something, you know, those are good clues as to that student's depth of knowledge.

Student: Sunny Bacon is a continent where aliens like Kay and Kodos eat a lot. So that's why it's called Sunny Bacon, it's based on breakfast.

Student: Sunny Bacon has a lot of vegetation and hills and a lot of mesas, yeah.

Teacher: Galactic Mappers forces students to use their knowledge of maps to apply it to something that hasn't been created before. So they're designing a map from the ground up, and the maps some of these groups design, they get this done in twenty minutes, you know, in a group of four or five. So it allows them to really make sure that they're properly designing a good map with sensible map components and also incorporating physical geography as well as cartography skills. So Galactic Mappers tests that.

There is a peninsula on this continent. Can you show me where the peninsula is? Excellent job, and you have one other card. I see you have an isthmus card. Where is your isthmus leading to? Where's the isthmus? Very good, excellent.

In the discussion phase of Galactic Mappers, it really gets them to think about maps in a collaborative space and sort of imagine the possibilities of a spot on earth. So it becomes more than just making a map, it's also designing a living, breathing planet, and it gets them to start thinking about the components of that planet in a different way, and the possibilities if we were to put people on this planet.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Associate Producer, Edutopia: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video, Edutopia: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Special Thanks: Quest to Learn, C. Ross Flatt and his students

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In Galactic Mappers, a social studies game about physical geography, students compete in teams to create the most geographically diverse continent in a shared hemisphere. This group mapping project encourages students to collaborate, design, iterate, and present a finished product in a single class period.

It's also a fun and informative way to assess my sixth grade students at Quest to Learn early in the school year -- and a powerful example of an embedded assessment that allows me to better support the learning process.

For anyone interested in learning more about Galactic Mappers or using games for assessment, here are some tips on preparation and gameplay from my experience using the game in my classroom over the years.

(Download the Galactic Mappers Rules (PDF) and Game Cards (PDF) for use in your own classroom.)

Embedding Assessment in a Game

Galactic Mappers provides many opportunities for me to assess my students, give immediate feedback, and track their learning across a class period as they attempt to reach their goal.

As they design their first continent, I might observe a group and note how easily they construct landforms without using notes or text. Better yet, I might see a student assisting her teammates. And I can always ask certain students to define the different landforms they are about to "unlock" as they play. In this way, the game enables me to clearly identify if any student is having difficulty understanding a concept, and then support or have a teammate support her.

The game also allows me to assess skills beyond content -- primarily social-emotional learning. Like most games, Galactic Mappers has time limits as well as winners and losers. In the time it takes to play a complete game, I can see which students are skilled time managers and collaborators, and how each student deals with frustration and challenges.

During gameplay, I check in with groups and individuals, and record observations. I use a rubric that assesses three areas:

  1. Geography Skills: Students can use a key and proper labeling skills, as well as demonstrate a firm knowledge of physical geography.
  2. Design: Students present a clear, neat, and visually pleasing continent that is appropriate for a map.
  3. Listening: Students have the ability to listen to their teammates and teacher, as well as be a positive force in their group.

Students in C. Ross Flatt's classroom collaborate on galactic mappers.

Credit: Institute of Play

Preparation and Planning

In order to successfully implement an embedded assessment in a game like Galactic Mappers, it's useful to lay some important groundwork in the days leading up to gameplay.


  • Content Preparation: First, students are required to come to class with a basic knowledge of maps and physical geography terms -- content covered in the weeks leading up to the game.

  • Strategic Grouping: It's important for the teacher to create balanced student groups that will function well. Students can also be assigned specific roles in their groups:
    • On-Task Manager: Manages materials, watches the clock, quiets group down when teacher addresses the class.
    • Scribe: Responsible for cutting materials, writing labels, drawing landforms and bodies of water based on map key.
    • Researcher: Looks up information in text or student notes when the group is stuck, examines classroom maps for design inspiration.
    • Presenter: Presents group's final design at the end of each round.

  • Transparency: Students should not be taken by surprise on the day of gameplay. As in test prep, they need to know what they are being assessed on, how the teacher will be assessing them, and possibly the format of the test itself. The day before we play Galactic Mappers, I show students the game cards, reveal the different rounds of play, and review student work from previous years. I make it clear that, while this is a game, it is also an assessment of their map skills, collaboration, and time management. They are aware that I will be asking them questions while they play and that I have high expectations for their teamwork skills.


Galactic Mappers is generally played during one 90-minute class period, but can be adjusted to fit different schedules. Gameplay is divided into several rounds that involve both group work and whole-class discussion. Opportunities for feedback and assessment differ in each round.

  • Round 1 (15 minutes): Students are given their supplies and initial continent, as well as first set of land cards. As they play, look for any initial group dynamic issues and check for basic understanding of gameplay. Reward some groups with extra land cards for demonstrating superior knowledge or excellent time management.
  • Presentation 1 (10 minutes): The class will circle around "the ocean" in the center of the classroom as each presenter shares out their group's continent and land cards. Reward each successful explanation with a Feature Card.
  • Round 2 (20 minutes): Students begin to place landforms and bodies of water on their continent maps, properly shading and labeling them. Start discussions with students about where and why vegetation might grow around certain feature cards (rivers, lakes), but not near others (buttes, mesas). With some groups, you may be able to have deeper discussions about where early humans might settle on their continent, while with other groups, you can talk more specifically about the basics of physical geography. (What is the difference between a river and a lake? A hill and a mountain?)
  • Presentation 2 (10-15 minutes): Students return to "the ocean" and place their finished continents on the class map. Presenters share out their continents and must correctly identify feature cards in order to earn points. Points are tallied and a winning group is announced.
  • Class Reflection (10 minutes): Before cleaning up the classroom, start a reflective discussion about the experience. Talk about the game itself, and what students may have learned from the experience. Try making a connection to future units, such as, "Where would people want to live on the map we created?"

Next Steps

I've been thinking about iterations on this game to challenge students further or teach different concepts -- for example, modifying it to focus on building actual continents or civilizations that students are learning about. While this may take away some of the more creative elements of the game, it would certainly ground it in the reality of the civilizations we will be studying over the course of the year.

How would you use Galactic Mappers? What changes to the game would you suggest? Let us know in the comments.

Note: If you're interested in more games from Quest to Learn, check out Institute of Play's Print & Play Game Packs, including tools and resources for educators.

Edutopia's Made With Play series takes a look at game-like learning principles in action and commercial games in real classrooms -- and offers tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice. Get more resources for game-based learning here.

Videos made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Made With Play series is a co-production with Institute of Play.

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Made with Play: Using Games for Learning
Game-like learning principles in action, commercial games in real classrooms, and tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice

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Barry Kort's picture
Barry Kort
Retired Volunteer Science Educator at the Boston Museum of Science

The technique of asking questions in the manner described by C. Ross Flatt is quite similar to the Socratic Method.

When I go into tutoring mode, one-on-one, I commonly use the Socratic Method, asking carefully crafted questions to lead the individual student to discover the content of the material on their own.

The nature of the Socratic Method is that one tunes the pace and difficulty of the questions to match the student's ability to respond constructively, so as to make as much progress as possible per unit time.

For some students, one has to go slow and ask simpler questions at each step. For other students one can go faster and ask questions that call for more independent thinking at each step.

There is no need for separate assessment with the Socratic Method because the method itself employs its own embedded assessment.

See "Cognition, Affect, and Learning" for more information on how I employ the Socratic Method.

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