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All Fun & Games? Understanding Learner Outcomes Through Educational Games

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Over the past several years, there has been tremendous interest among educators in the use of digital games as serious learning. Advocates of game-based learning for K-12 students cite the value of digital games to teach and reinforce skills that prepare students for college and career, such as collaboration, problem solving, creativity, and communication.

Not as often discussed is our ability to use students' in-game actions as evidence for the assessment of skills and knowledge, including those not easily measured by traditional multiple-choice tests.

The Potential of Games as Invisible Assessments

Traditional assessment methods often require teachers to interrupt classroom learning and administer tests. In contrast, invisible assessments make use of technology to record information about the ways students interact with learning material in a seamless manner, without interruption. Hence the term, "invisible."

Invisible assessments such as games provide teachers, students, and parents with immediate feedback about progress, enabling them to make timely adjustments to teaching and learning approaches. They also enable educators to build models of student learning and proficiency by capturing many observations of a student over time, without the pressure of performance on a single test.

In games, educators can observe a student's sequence of actions, time spent on tasks, multiple attempts at activities, requests for help, communication process, and so on. In other words, games allow us to examine a student's process of problem solving, not just the final product at the end. These observations can help educators make valuable inferences regarding students' mastery over skills, while offering new ways to assess factors not easily measured on multiple-choice tests, such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, persistence, and creativity.

It is important to note that the term "invisible" does not imply that learners or teachers do not know that assessment is happening. Rather, it implies that the actual activity of assessment is not visible, or interrupting the classroom. Just as when playing a game, players get feedback and scores as a regular, expected part of play, so with all digital learning activity, we can be providing information about proficiency and suggestions for other activity.

Game or Gamification?

Educators must be careful, however, not to confuse educational games with the "gamification" of education. Gamification is generally defined as the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. A game, on the other hand, is a system where changing one element results in (often unforeseen) changes to many other parts of the system. There is little to no evidence that applying only selected game elements outside of a game will yield positive learning outcomes.

Quality educational games must balance engagement, assessment, and learning as three equally important components. Engagement relates to a game’s "fun factor." Assessment is the ability for educators to gain key insights from a game regarding student abilities, and learning is the level to which a game effectively teaches skills and information. The key is to balance these factors so that games are both fun and educational, while providing the information educators need to assess and improve student outcomes.

A Look Toward the Future

A number of quality games exist today that successfully balance these factors and have tremendous potential as tools for both learning and assessment. However, much work is still needed to maximize their value, particularly in the area of integration. As of today, games and game data often exist in a silo. By making them a seamless part of curricula, there will be less of a burden on each individual teacher to determine when and how to integrate games into the classroom. By integrating the data with other gradebook-type information, teachers, parents, and students will get a richer picture of student knowledge, skills, and attributes.

While games do not fit into the current model of assessment for accountability, they do offer the opportunity to engage and attract learners while providing information useful for making immediate on-the-ground adjustments to teaching and learning plans. The potential of educational games will continue to grow as computers become increasingly ubiquitous in schools, and as game developers work ever more closely with education experts. If schools and teachers can collect and accumulate meaningful evidence from students' everyday interactions with games and other digital tools, we have the potential to create new models of students' knowledge and skills that expand our ability to both understand and influence student learning.

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Barbara Gruener's picture
Barbara Gruener
Counselor and Character Coach

When I taught HS Spanish in the late 80s and early 90s, we regularly played games to seal the deal on mastery. The learners LOVED my versions of Jeopardy, Concentration, and Around The World, but hands-down our favorite was Family Feud. We'd break into two teams and one by one, students would come to the front to face off with a vocabulary word. How do you say "tire" in Spanish. The first student to hit the desk got to answer. If answered correctly, it was worth one point for his/her team. They could then pass or play the bonus, which usually included using the word in a sentence in Spanish. Teenagers, yes, TEENS, would squeal with delight when the answer to their question, "Are we playing a game today?" was "Yes, we are!" The winning team usually got 5 bonus points on a quiz score, so it incentivized students to learn their vocabulary and verbs! Thanks for a terrific post!

Ken Wong's picture

Thanks for your thoughts on game based learning. I'm doing some research on games based learning and would be interested at looking at some of the games you were referring to regarding the data being invisibly collected. Its an extremely interesting topic and on the surface looks easy, but when you get down to the skills and recording of student outcomes, it gets more complicated. I've used the PPT templates of the games mentioned above by Barbara, definitely lots of fun factor and engagement there.

Kristen DiCerbo's picture
Kristen DiCerbo

Thanks for your comment! I agree that even these basic games can be engaging and motivating for students. I think your comment also raises the point that some things are still better done in person in the classroom to retain some of the interactivity among students.

Ken Wong's picture

Hi Kristen, thanks for the leads. I watched the webinar as well, you guys are doing a great job. I remember Simcity years ago, its amazing to see it now after all that time. Have you done any work with world languages and games? My research is to help me lead build on online module for teachers. Thanks!

Ken Wong's picture

Hi Kristen, Simcity also has a lot of similarities to Minecraft which is very popular in schools these days.

MrsG2nd's picture

Valerie Shute out of Florida State University calls this type of assessment "Stealth Assessment." I use what I consider my plumb-line of educational technology for instruction (as opposed to ed-tech for management or productivity); and it includes embedded assessment. It is an app for early number sense...and I want MORE just like this. Check it out for yourself. I have no vested interest in this app except that I can't look at other game based apps in the same way anymore. Native Numbers for iPad -

Kristen DiCerbo's picture
Kristen DiCerbo

Ken, I haven't done much in world languages, but have looked at some work on English language learning. I know the Learning Games Network has some nice things there. You are right that Minecraft is that big, hot game. I am curious to see where it goes under Microsoft.

MrsG2nd, I am a huge fan of Val Shute's work. She has been very influential in mine. Thanks for the recommendation on number sense.

MsU_art's picture

I have asked my students to compare - "test-takers" with "game players". They discovered that while they share similar goals - make the most points, do the best you can, etc. - they were different in a significant way. Test-takers are afraid they will get the answer wrong and Game-players are excited to seeing how many they can get right. It seems clear which strategy is more motivating for students. Thanks for the article. Please continue the research and sharing.

Amy Z's picture

I love using games in my classroom as instructional and assessment tools. Firstly because the students love playing them and are constantly engaged and working when they are playing games. Secondly because I can walk around the classroom while students are playing and talk to students about what they understand and how they are solving problems, giving me feedback on what they understand which helps me know what I need to teach next or what needs to be reviewed.

I like the idea that games used in classrooms need to be equally capable to engaged students, assess what they know and help them learn while they are playing. While searching for games I come across a lot that claim to be educational but hardly have an educational element, or others that are so focused on assessing and teaching that they are not engaging. It is tricky some times to find games that are a good balance, but the websites that I have found useful are Illuminations Interactive ( and Calculation Nation ( My students love all of the games and challenging online resources on these websites and I love that they challenge, engage and show what students know!

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