George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

Assessing Students as They Play

Examples of creative ways teachers use games for assessment.

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Using games for assessment is about more than tracking points. The past five years have seen a lot of growth in the digital games and assessment field, developing data collection engines that use sophisticated tools to measure student learning and provide teachers with targeted feedback (see GlassLab, for example).

But one of the most common misconceptions we have run across is that all good learning games must assess learners within the game. The truth is that assessment happens around a game more often than it happens inside the game, and teachers must still design and provide authentic, useful assessment tasks for students.

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These assessment tasks shouldn’t be seen as "extra work" for the teacher. They offer valuable ways to unlock the instructional power of games and support a student-centered learning environment. Teachers can create game-related performance tasks that are as interesting and engaging as the game itself.

Here are some examples of creative ways that we’ve seen teachers use games for assessment. Your own creativity can take you even farther.

Assessment During Gameplay

The number one question that teachers ask us is: "How can I assess learning within my game?"

Here's an example from Eugene's ninth grade English class, where students play Storyweavers, a collaborative storytelling game in which they produce an actual first draft of a story. Storyweavers was created in PowerPoint and Keynote. Each slide of the game has a set of cards offering choices of Setting, Protagonist, Antagonist, and Conflict. After spinning a wheel to pick the narrator's point of view, the first student selects a Setting card. The choices might include Mars, a pool, or the Empire State Building. The student selects a setting, writes a few sentences about it, and then passes the laptop to the next person, who picks the Protagonist card. As they rotate, selecting cards and writing, students are having fun and don't even realize that they're being assessed. Eugene is able to observe students during gameplay, ask them questions, track their moves, and have them evaluate their choices as they play.

In another round, students can draw literary device and technique cards, such as Metaphor, Personification, and Hyperbole, adding these into their stories. At the end of the class period, Eugene can look at the stories and assess whether the writers understood the relationship between story elements, and whether they used the literary techniques and devices correctly. As a follow-up, he might ask students to revise their stories as a group or play a new round on their own.

Other examples include digital learning games with the capacity to assess students while they play, like the tools and resources available from BrainPOP. Their SnapThought tool allows students to take and annotate pictures while playing a game like Guts and Bolts. You can also check out GlassLab's SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge! This game provides formative assessment information about students' ability to problem solve and explain the relationships in complex systems.

Whatever game you choose, and whether it's digital or analog, walking around and questioning individual students and groups about their choices is a great way to find out what they're learning or struggling with. Just watching and taking notes on whether you observe desired skills in action is also a simple way to gather formative data during gameplay.

Assessment After Gameplay

Trying too hard to build assessment into gameplay can often destroy the fun factor. Who wants to stop playing a game to answer quiz questions, or read a text and craft a response? Unless the assessment is cohesively integrated into that game's experience, as in Storyweavers, students will feel interrupted and might disengage.

If your game doesn't offer meaningful opportunities for assessment within the game, don't worry. There are plenty of engaging assessments that you can create post-gameplay for students to produce and show evidence of what they have learned.

1. Mod a Game

In Marla's tenth grade geometry class, students play a game called Picture Talk. One student (the describer) describes an image on a card without saying what the image is, and the rest of the class (the copiers) must draw the image without talking. For example, a describer with a card depicting an image of a house might instruct the copiers to draw a square with a triangle on top.

After playing a few rounds this way, Marla has them play Graph Talk, a mod of Picture Talk. In Graph Talk, the game the copiers use graph paper. Now the describer can use language around X and Y axis for more complex images. After playing a few more rounds, and introducing more mathematical vocabulary that deals with shapes and graphing, Marla asks the student to create their own mod in teams. She gives them a design challenge to incorporate some kind of constraint (such as trading, skipping, or adding) and produce a new version of the game to playtest with each other. The modding is fun and allows students to step into designer roles, but it also allows them to show their content area knowledge.

2. Create a Strategy Guide

In Dan's ninth grade biology class, students play an analog game called Fossil Flux. They collect, buy, and trade fossils from various geologic strata in order to assemble an evolutionary tree based on observed similarities between specimens.

When students finish the game, Dan asks them to write a strategy guide for new students on how to play. They review existing game strategy guides to understand format, and then work in teams to draft and publish their own guide. This activity not only supports student writing and collaboration skills, but also requires familiarity with the game content. Dan can then use the guides to assess their understanding of content knowledge.

3. Game Scenarios

In Jamie's seventh grade social studies class, students play a systems thinking game called In the Civil War Loop. In this tile-laying game, players create causal maps and identify possible feedback loops using cards that contain phrases linked to content from the time period of the Civil War, such as slavery, states' rights, and agricultural production. Students earn points by making connections and winning arguments.

After several rounds of gameplay, Jamie hands out an exit ticket, which gives each student an incomplete game scenario. Students are told that they have a certain set of cards in their hands and must decide which card they would play if they were the next player to take a turn. They identify a card and write a justification for why they would play it. This allows Jamie to quickly assess what students learned during the game, and it allows students the opportunity to reflect on their learning. The next day, Jamie can share some of the different answers that students came up with, and the students can engage in a discussion around gameplay strategies before they play again.

Game-based learning is more than just picking the right game for your classroom. It's about designing a meaningful learning experience for your students. For more about this approach, check out "Rolling Out" a Game and Managing In-Class Gameplay.

How do you use games for assessment? Watch the video above for our tips, and then share your own assessment tips and tools in the comments!