Drawing on Video Games, Educators Land on Unlikely Idea: ‘Playful Assessment’

Researchers hope games on popular platforms like Roblox offer a cure for tests students find 鈥榮uper boring.鈥

By Greg Toppo | January 30, 2024

Anyone who has played video games knows that they do one thing well: Keep score. At any given moment, players know what level they鈥檙e on, how many points or kills or badges they鈥檝e earned and how far they must go to win. 

Oh, and they鈥檙e fun.

That sophistication 鈥 and a bit of that fun 鈥 may soon be coming to school assessments.

Educators and developers are increasingly looking to the digital world of games and simulations to make tests more stealthy, playful and, they hope, useful. In the process, the new assessments may also push schools to become more creative.

鈥淭he idea is: Can assessment be more embedded?鈥 said Y.J. Kim, an at the University of Wisconsin鈥揗adison. 鈥淐an assessment be more exciting? Can assessment be more flexible?鈥

In November, NWEA, which publishes the widely used , unveiled a 3D digital assessment on the popular that tests how well middle-schoolers have learned Newton鈥檚 .

The game, called Distance Dash, requires two students to work together to launch vehicles of different sizes and payloads. The goal: Get both to the finish line in perfect sync.

In Distance Dash, two players must work together to launch vehicles of different sizes and payloads and get both to the finish line in perfect sync. The 鈥減layful assessment鈥 tests how well middle-schoolers have learned Newton鈥檚 Second Law of Motion. (NWEA)
A still image from Distance Dash on Roblox that is one of a new breed of playful assessments, combining digital gaming and content knowledge. (NWEA)

Students pick a skateboard, a bike, a grocery cart or an automobile, load each with different items, then collaboratively fine-tune the forces placed on them. The whole time, the game covertly measures several objectives, including whether students understand the principles of acceleration and how to apply optimal force.

Tyler Matta, NWEA鈥檚 vice president of learning sciences engineering, said the assessment grew out of the , which require students to analyze and interpret data and understand patterns.

Tyler Matta

He said helping design it was a stretch for NWEA test makers, who hadn鈥檛 previously worked with game designers. 鈥淲e got to see what goes into building educational games, which was all very novel for us. We learned a ton.鈥

The organization is working with developer , which has produced . 

鈥淎s an assessment, it’s important that you actually have the ability to fail,鈥 explained Filament鈥檚 Kenny Green, the project鈥檚 producer. The data it generates 鈥 for instance, how many times students tried and what modifications they made 鈥 are all important for teachers to see. 

The new exam appears as Roblox, the popular gaming platform, moves further into schools. Last October, it said it鈥檒l to expand educational experiences on its platform, two years after an initial $10 million outlay. 

Rebecca Kantar, Roblox鈥檚 head of education, said physics lends itself well to such collaborative simulations. Distance Dash, she said, is 鈥渞epresentative of the kind of team-based problem solving real scientists do when they’re working through a physics problem in real life.鈥 

Rebecca Kantar

Another recent development: In 2022, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development assessed creative thinking for 15-year-old students in more than 60 countries via the assessment, which boasts interactive items that allow students to submit drawings with a . 

The test also includes open-ended tasks with 鈥渘o single solution but multiple correct responses,鈥 organizers said. The first results are expected this year.

Advocates hope to someday make tests more personalized and, in many ways, indistinguishable from games, said Bo Stjerne Thomsen of the . 鈥淲hat we hope is that playfulness becomes a serious part of assessment,鈥 he said.

Better still, more playful tests, he said, could open the door for schools to offer more creative, inquiry-based learning. 

He and others who are support the new tests don鈥檛 mince words: They envision a world where the kind of high-stakes, multiple-choice tests we all grew up with give way to assessments that for the first time allow teachers to capture a broader array of 鈥渘on-cognitive qualities鈥 such as teamwork and creativity, while keeping students focused on learning.

鈥淓very time you try to pause an experience or stop a learning experience, it actually stops the engagement,鈥 said Thomsen. It鈥檚 the same with play: 鈥淎s soon as you start measuring play, the play stops.鈥

鈥業t’s about you engaging with someone else鈥

Tests can also be demotivating, even though they鈥檙e designed to help students show what they鈥檝e learned, said Yigal Rosen, who led the creation of the PISA test.

He recalled interviewing fourth-graders who had taken NAEP science exams: At least one-third of the questions, according to students, were 鈥渟uper boring鈥 and not engaging.

鈥淭hey will skip them,鈥 Rosen said. 鈥淭hey will just select 鈥榃hatever.鈥欌

Yigal Rosen

Now the chief academic officer at , the learning software company, Rosen recalled that when his team tweaked the NAEP test with a 鈥減layful version鈥 that invited students to work together, he said, scores rose by 50%. 鈥淚t’s no longer about you just responding to this dry prompt,鈥 he said. 鈥淚t’s about you engaging with someone else.鈥

When they think of playful assessments, most teachers probably think of digital tools like the popular learning platform , which allows teachers to create game show-like quizzes and polls that engage students on mobile phones and other devices. Louisa Rosenheck, Kahoot鈥檚 director of pedagogy, admitted that testing, for all its progress, is 鈥渟till an underdeveloped, untapped area.鈥 

Digital tools like Kahoot that help teachers do informal assessments as they teach are helpful because they 鈥渇eel more low-stakes鈥 than traditional tests. 鈥淚t’s very quick, it’s informative. You can get feedback very, very easily,鈥 she said. 鈥淏ut the question types, the formats, often are still kind of discrete items.鈥

In that sense, she said, they don鈥檛 take advantage of what good games can do: Collect extensive data on students鈥 thinking and decision making 鈥 much more important indicators than whether they got the correct result. But that鈥檚 expensive, so many educational games simply assess how far a player gets and how many tasks or levels she completes.

鈥楽tealth assessment鈥

Researchers have been toying with the idea of more playful assessments for decades. Nearly 20 years ago, researcher began looking at ways to seamlessly weave tests directly into the fabric of instruction.

Shute devised the idea of 鈥渟tealth assessment,鈥 a system that discreetly tests students鈥 learning in interactive and immersive environments such as digital games. 

Aside from offering a less obtrusive way to measure learning, stealth assessment aimed to help with 鈥渇low,鈥 the mental state in which a person is so engaged and exhilarated by a task that they forget they鈥檙e working. 

Y.J. Kim

For most students, any exhilaration melts when test time nears.

鈥淎ssessment is inherently about power,鈥 said the University of Wisconsin鈥檚 Kim. 鈥淎ssessment is inherently about evidence and rules.鈥

By contrast, the new kinds of assessments empower students to challenge and question rules. In one proposed scenario, students in the PISA creativity test are asked to build a paper airplane, then come up with ideas to improve it.

In another, students design a 鈥渂icycle of the future,鈥 suggesting three original improvements over standard bikes. Then they鈥檙e asked to tweak the design of a proposed anti-theft camera mounted on the bike. Finally, since the future bicycle is automatically powered, they must suggest 鈥渁n original way to reuse or repurpose鈥 the pedals.

鈥淭he idea should be original,鈥 the test says, 鈥渋n the sense that not many students would think of it.鈥

A sample question from a recent PISA Creative Thinking test (OCED)

Kim has spent the past few years developing playful assessments for the classroom, originally with teachers, teacher trainees and game designers at MIT. Where Shute, her mentor at Florida State University, called it 鈥渟tealth assessment,鈥 Kim prefers the term 鈥減layful assessment.鈥

鈥業t鈥檚 a mind shift鈥

Kim has lately been testing something she calls the , a free, printable card game for teachers that Kim describes as 鈥淐harades meets Telephone鈥 to teach the process of drawing conclusions from a chain of evidence.

In the game, players take on one of three roles: Performer, Observer or Interpreter. They can only see one of the other two players, and gameplay proceeds as the performer silently acts out, in three movements or less, what鈥檚 on a card. The observer takes notes on what she sees and determines how to tell the interpreter what she saw. 

Like many in the field, Kim said a big roadblock to more playful tests is that so many school systems use assessments for teacher evaluations. 鈥淎t the end of the day, we are obsessed with the idea that 鈥楢ssessment is score: score about performance and proficiency.鈥欌

Meanwhile, for most educators, play 鈥渋s not something that is productive,鈥 she said. 鈥淪o for teachers to kind of switch their mindset in terms of, ‘Assessment can be fun, and this is an assessment,’ it’s a mind shift.鈥

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