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February 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 5

Playing Games with Formative Assessment

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Using gamified assessment, educators can provide low-stakes, engaging environments to learn where students need help.

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AssessmentEngagement
The contest rages over the battlefield of words spread five-by-five in a grid.
Your students are playing Codenames, a board game in which teams try to make contacts with their "secret agents" through word clues. You carefully observe the students as they seek to identify matching words on the board. The goal? To see if the students have mastered an assortment of words notorious for wrong-footing students on the SAT or ACT. The red team struggled a bit midgame but rallied when the blue team's clue giver stumbled, giving red an opportunity to catch up. Now the red clue giver sees a clear path to victory, provided her team can make the vocabulary connections that your class reviewed the day before.
The red clue giver gives the clue: "Trickery, 2." She looks at you, and you give a quick nod of encouragement. The red clue giver expects her team to correctly select the last two red words on the battlefield—duplicity and chicanery. They figure out duplicity quickly, but then put their fingers on the word advantage. Elated sighs of relief come from the blue team. Red has lost. And as their teacher, you now know that part of yesterday's lesson hasn't stuck with all the students.

Getting Lessons to "Stick"

Every teacher wants to feel confident that she can tell if her students really know what they've been taught. But sometimes it is hard to know for sure until it's too late and final test scores are in. By the same token, it is not uncommon for students to feel confident that they have mastered a body of knowledge and skills before they go into an assessment, only to be dismayed by a poor performance revealing that their sense of control over content and skills was much weaker than they realized. In a national framework of high-stakes summative assessment, what might teachers do to gain confidence that they are building the skills and knowledge students need?
Many educators are turning to formative assessment to help with this problem. With formative assessment, teachers get actionable information about how a learning process is going while students are experiencing it, not after (O'Connor, 2009; Vatterott, 2015). In the Codenames example, the game was being used as a formative assessment tool to determine how a vocabulary lesson "stuck" with students and how teachers could adapt future lessons for their classes. Formative assessment techniques can even inform instruction and students' command of learning objectives before a lesson begins.
We can think of formative assessment as a dress rehearsal, as Cathy Vatterott aptly describes it in her book Rethinking Grading (2015). Before the run of a theater show, actors want to get as close as they can to the conditions of a live, observed performance. They want to make mistakes in a low-stakes environment where they can learn from and fix them. Similarly, we want our students to have a space where they can make mistakes and immediately reflect on those mistakes and improve before the final grade. What if we could give our students this kind of dress rehearsal? What if we could give learners confidence in their learning process and promote ownership of their learning, all while giving us educators essential feedback on our instruction?
As the Codenames example shows, there's a tool that is uniquely suited to creating exactly these kinds of conditions—games.

Why Games?

Games have the capacity to be powerful classroom tools because they create active learning environments that are shaped by the students. A well-designed game or gamified lesson is a customizable, persistence-reinforcing, socially stimulating, democratic, meritocratic, playful, and flow-aligned experience. Game spaces reward the players for their capacity to play; they don't care about race, class, gender, sexuality, or religion. Although they are generally competitive (and are richly rewarding for students who are competitive), there are plenty of games and gamified experiences that channel competition toward an abstract opponent or minimize it altogether (Cassie, 2016).
The artificiality of games, their arbitrary rule sets, their abstract representations of different realities, and the fact that they can be won or lost all help create what game theorists call the "magic circle," a metaphorical separation of the real world from a game space (Cassie, 2016). This separation is what makes games unusually effective tools for formative assessment. Every instance of a game is essentially like a dress rehearsal. It can be won or lost, but it isn't tied to a high-stakes conclusion.

Two Ways to Play

Game-based learning and gamified instruction, two very different approaches, are emerging instructional practices that offer teachers a unique set of tools to drive learning. Although both of these techniques provide a teacher a path into the world of formative assessment, they do it in rather different ways.
Game-based learning involves using a game (of any kind), unmodified, out-of-the-box, to accomplish some kind of learning objective (as with my Codenames example). The game in question might or might not have been designed for an educational market. It might be a card game, a board game, a role-playing game, or a video game. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that the game is being played as designed, but the teacher is using it to accomplish a parallel learning objective. For example, a 3rd grade teacher working with his students on ideal communities brings in copies of the game Machi Koro, in which players try to build the most effective communities by "buying" items, such as a convenience store or a family restaurant. He may ask his students to play the game and then write about what they think makes a good community. (For further examples of games that are particularly useful for classroom learning, see ".")
By contrast, a teacher using gamified instruction is designing instruction and assessment in a way that is informed by the ways games uniquely inspire and motivate players to engage with the experience of gaming. Students aren't playing a game out-of-the-box. Rather, their teacher has constructed a learning experience that takes the best qualities of games and applies them in a setting (the classroom) where games are not necessarily expected.
For example, in the game 7 Wonders, players take on the role of leaders of ancient civilizations and try to build a wonder of the ancient world (such as the Pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, or the Lighthouse of Alexandria), represented on a "wonder board," which spells out the wonder's unique rewards and required resources. Players gather resources that help them build a civilization capable of constructing one of these wonders. There are many different ways to succeed in the game, and the game is different every time you play it. A gamifying teacher might design an exercise based on 7 Wonders in which students are assigned modern countries (Canada or Cambodia, for example) and asked to design wonder boards to reflect those countries' capacities and marvels.
Gamified instruction shapes learning for the better in many ways. First, it empowers students to own their learning. Games—assuming they're well designed—are particularly effective at keeping reluctant learners engaged because they keep the learner close to but not over their threshold of capacity. They're just hard enough to be both challenging and fun. Second, gamified methods help students maintain a nimble mindset when confronted with new obstacles. And finally, gamified instructional strategies build on the ways games encourage a player to persist in the face of challenges to help students better overcome hurdles in their learning environment. As James Paul Gee notes in Good Video Games and Good Learning, "The world doesn't go away, I can enter any time, it gives me constant feedback, but never a final judgment that I am a failure, and the final exam—the final boss—is willing to wait until I am good enough to beat him" (Gee, 2008, p. 36).

The Game Is Afoot

Gamified formative assessment can be used to measure and track many different kinds of skills—from critical thinking to communication. But before you decide to use a gamified approach to formative assessment, you should make sure that you align your instruction with the right kind of game. The best way to understand the advantages of different games is to play as many as you can, consult online communities like Board Game Geek or Game Level Learn, or read books, blogs, and articles about games in learning. That way, if the skill you want to assess is one of, say, pattern recognition, you can select a game that is playfully about pattern recognition as your model.
I've used this type of formative assessment to assess and measure the metacognitive skills students are bringing to a particular task. A game I've found particularly effective in understanding students' critical thinking capacity is Zendo. Zendo is essentially the scientific method, gamified, played with a big set of translucent, plastic pyramids. One player writes a formula on a hidden piece of paper that could read something like: "The formula calls for three pieces of any color that are touching each other." The player who creates the formula then uses the supply of pyramids to create two patterns, one that matches the formula on the paper, and one that doesn't. The other players then make their own patterns from pyramids, with the formula-writing player indicating if it matches the pattern or doesn't, until a player correctly guesses the formula.
Zendo is playable right out of the box and is a great metacognitive challenge. Played in this way, it can help teachers assess students' capacity for critical thinking. Science teachers can even use this game, slightly modified, with the principles of biology and chemistry informing the formula-making to see if students understand aspects of a biological cycle or how chemicals create bonds.
With high school students, I have used the game Letters from Whitechapel as a reflective exercise for students to demonstrate their collaboration and communication skills. In this game, players take on the role of Scotland Yard detectives trying to track and then arrest Jack the Ripper immediately after he commits a crime. The nature of the game keeps Jack's movement a secret from the police players, and the players need to be exceptionally tight in their collaboration if they're going to have any chance to win. As players grapple with the case, you as their teacher can observe them and design instruction to teach collaboration skills based on what you observe.
I did this very thing just recently in my entrepreneurship class. This class places a premium on effective group collaboration, problem solving, and active listening. I constructed a rubric that helped me assess questions like this: What kind of language do players use to communicate with each other? What kind of words do they use? How do they phrase their thinking? Are they focused on big-picture concerns, or are they more likely to focus on granular topics? What sort of body language do they employ? Do they have a procedure to ensure all students' voices are captured? Do they write anything down or just talk?
You can also divide your classes into teams and have students who aren't playing observe each other. In my experience, this can generate especially rich data that the class can use as they prepare to do collaborative work in a content area. What I observed was that some students wanted to dominate their group (I gave them, and their groups, strategies for managing this) and that no students had effective procedures for ensuring that all students' voices were captured as they made decisions in the game. I was able to teach the students a method of active questioning, and I asked them to use it in the group project they worked on after the game. When this group project concludes, I will use Letters from Whitechapel again and assess how much the students have grown as a result of playing the game.

Creating a Win-Win Situation

Game design and game mechanics have never been more sophisticated. They have also never been more useful to the teacher. A simple game like Codenames is usable in any setting in which recognizing patterns is a valuable skill (in short, almost any discipline in any grade). A more complex game like Letters from Whitechapel can help you teach and then reinforce skills that are sometimes tricky to observe effectively, like collaboration. Your goal is to create "dress rehearsal" opportunities for students to show what they can presently do or can't do. Done playfully, whether you use them as the equivalent of an exit ticket or in a more comprehensive way to assess students' metacognitive skills, there are a host of games, both electronic and tabletop, on the market to help you bring the benefits of games and gameplay to your formative assessment practice.

Nine Games to Try in Your Classroom

Here are some games especially suited for formative assessment.

Socrative (free and paid options)

Socrative is a classroom-engagement app that provides games and other activities for students and collects granular data on student learning. A favorite element is "Space Race," which can turn an assessment into a gamified experience between individuals or groups.

Kahoot! (free and paid options)

Kahoot! is a mobile application that allows teachers to construct homework assignments almost as though they were video game-type quests. The app also has a feature where teachers can write their own games and make them available to students with an access code.

Quizlet (free)

Used by more than 20 million students and teachers each month, this app allows educators to convert data-gathering into a gamified form that they can use to inform their teaching practice.

Quizzizz (free)

Quizzizz lets teachers monitor the results of students' work as they do it. The app lets students progress at their own pace throughout the game.

Quizalize (free and paid options)

By virtue of the way it gathers and presents data, Quizalize is one of the most compelling offerings in the online-mediated, game-based formative assessment space. It provides the same kinds of quizzes and assessments as other similar tools, but it also lets you track the work of individual students at a granular level.

Plickers (Available at App Store or Google Play, free)

This formative assessment tool uses a series of abstract cards that the teacher photographs using a mobile device. The program then analyzes the data and presents the teacher with individualized reports of student success.

Sumblox (Sumblox, $299.99 [educational set]) Aptly named, Sumblox are number-shaped building blocks. The game is designed for elementary school students, but can be gamified for middle school students and makes a great tool for measuring a student's number sense or command of arithmetic skills.

Kobayakawa (IELLO, $14.99) Kobayakawa is a tabletop game in which players try to play the highest numbered card each round. Using some combination of betting and bluffing, players need to have good number sense to win at this game.

SET (SET Enterprises Inc., $12.99) In this card game, players aim to quickly gather sets of three cards based on different patterns. The game teaches cognitive skills, logic, and thought processes generally associated with both the left and right brain hemispheres.

References

Cassie, J. (2016). Level up your classroom: The quest to gamify your lessons and engage your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Gee, J. P. (2008). Good video games and good learning. New York: Peter Lang.

O'Connor, K. (2009). How to grade for learning, K–12, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Vatterott, C. (2015). Rethinking grading: Meaningful assessment for standards-based learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

End Notes

1 For more information about how to use Letters from Whitechapel and other games about communication and collaboration, you can listen to my podcast "Game Level Learn," with my colleague and co-host Tracy Wazenegger.

Jonathan Cassie is head of the senior school at Sewickley Academy, just outside Pittsburgh. He has taught history, English, Latin, and game design at schools in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. 

Throughout his 20-year career in independent schools, he has been a student and practitioner of innovation and change in education.

He earned an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from UCLA, has five level-100 toons in World of Warcraft (as of this writing), contributed to the first Game of Thrones roleplaying game, and has written two books on topics related to building meaningful roleplaying cultures and experiences for players.

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