By Barry Fishman

Digital video games are fun, but are they also useful tools in the classroom? Can video games serve as a valuable form of information technology for teachers? Can video games support teachers in conducting complex and important classroom practices? Increasingly, the answer to these questions is “yes,” according to the findings of the A-GAMES study, which stands for Analyzing Games for Assessment in Math, ELA/Social Studies, and Science. Our goal was to understand how teachers use digital games for formative assessment, a critical classroom practice. What we found is that increased frequency of video game use for instruction is related to more frequent use of formative assessment, and also to teachers perceiving fewer barriers to formative assessment.

Barry Fishman

Barry Fishman is professor of learning technologies in both UMSI and the U-M School of Education.

The term “formative assessment” describes a set of techniques used by teachers to gauge progress towards learning goals, providing information about students which can then be used to adjust and personalize instruction. When used well, formative assessment is thought to be one the most powerful ways to improve student learning outcomes, and there is evidence that it is particularly effective for improving the outcomes of low-ability students.

The A-GAMES project conducted a nationwide survey of 488 teachers, and we followed the survey with case studies of 30 middle-grades teachers in the New York City area. We designed the study to provide better information to game designers as they develop educational games, to researchers as they frame future studies of games and learning, and also to educators as they think about the role of games in everyday classroom practice.

The survey, conducted in Fall 2013, offers a “mile high” picture of what teachers are doing with digital games related to formative assessment. Teachers were asked about their digital game use, formative assessment practices, and the intersection of the two. Key findings from the survey include:

  • More than half of teachers (57 percent) use digital games weekly or more often in teaching, with 18 percent using games for teaching on a daily basis. A teacher’s comfort level with using games for teaching is strongly related to how often they use digital games in the classroom; i.e., the more comfortable teachers are, the more likely they are to use games frequently.
  • A higher percentage of elementary school teachers (66 percent for grade K-2 teachers and 79 percent for grade 3-5 teachers) use games weekly or more often for teaching, compared with middle school (47 percent) and high school (40 percent) teachers. This is consistent with the greater availability of games for younger learners.
  • More than a third of teachers (34 percent) use games at least weekly to conduct formative assessment. The way teachers who responded to our survey use digital games for formative assessment is related to their overall formative assessment practices, suggesting that using digital games may enable teachers to conduct formative assessment more frequently and effectively.
  • The most common barriers to using digital games – reported by more than half of the teachers – are the cost of games, limited time in the curriculum, and lack of technology resources, such as computers or the Internet.

The most exciting findings in this study are the relationship of game use and formative assessment practices. Teachers who more frequently use games in the classroom for formative assessment are also more likely to say they face no barriers to formative assessment. Formative assessment is thought of as one of the most important tools for supporting student learning, and our study indicates that games help teachers successfully conduct these assessments.

You can view the full report.

The second part of the study, which includes observations and interviews with 30 middle school teachers in the New York City area who used games as part of their teaching, will be released in early 2015, and focuses on the specific types of game features teachers use for formative assessment.

The A-GAMES project is a collaboration between UMSI, the UM School of Education, and New York University, with additional support provided by BrainPOP, an educational games and media company. The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.