Teach like a video game: Use assessment as learning and motivation

Note: This is Part Four in a series of posts related to a presentation I gave on what teachers can learn from video games. My entire presentation can be viewed here.

“If you think about it … a video game is just an assessment. All you do is get assessed as you try to solve a problem, and if you don’t solve it … [you] try again.” – Dr. James Paul Gee

Games assess better than I can

I admit defeat. I can never assess as well as a video game does. When it comes to the quickness and volume of feedback, I cannot compete with a video game. When my students play games, they expect to get immediate, specific, and meaningful feedback that leads to improvement or a detailed analysis of their performance.

In games, assessment is never removed from the learning process. At school, some of my students talked about occasionally getting grades on assignments so far after they turn them in that they no longer quite remember what the assignment actually was.

Instant, deep feedback

In addition to an instant on-screen summary of each game, Halo: Reach immediately creates a website for each game played with analysis of every possible aspect of the game. The player has a site with a complete history of every game they’ve ever played and a summary of their career with the game – both competitively and socially. Halo is one of the deepest and most descriptive assessor I’ve ever seen. Other games offer similar assessments; from Wii Fit tracking and monitoring your weight and BMI on a daily basis to Call of Duty letting you review every time your character is killed by an opponent.

Brad, a former student of mine, explains just what that incredible amount of feedback means to him as a gamer and as a learner. He makes the connection between assessment and learning on his own.

Assessment as Learning

Games don’t separate learning and assessment, and neither should I. This transforms assessment from something done after learning (Assessment of Learning) and makes assessment a part of the learning process (Assessment as Learning). If I want to assess students like a game does, I should be focused on describing their performance more than evaluating their product. I should also be looking for more opportunities to do this in small, sometimes informal ways, while students are learning and give students a chance to reflect on the descriptions I provide. This way, they can apply these reflections and learn better. This way, assessment becomes less extrinsic – performing for a grade reward – and more intrinsic – performing in order to do better and learn more deeply. Most often, feedback in games is purely descriptive, and any judgement is done by the players themselves.


On a more extrinsic, yet still motivational, level, game designers carefully plan in micro-motivators to keep players feeling challenged and rewarded. In the next video, Dylan, a former student of mine who has  B.A. in Game Design, explains how these motivators work. Then Mike, a current student, shares how these small rewards can have significant impact on behavior and motivation.

Applying Micro-motivators

As strange as it sounds, I tried using this style of micro-motivators with Mike in my journalism class during his last project. For sound effects, I used verbal praise – in a tone different from my normal teaching voice. For tactile rewards, I shook his hand after our interview conference and after letting him know he did his best round of interviews ever. I also offered my best impression of “Unlockables”. When he hit 250 words on his rough draft – halfway to the 500-word minimum – I left him a comment on his rough draft on Google Docs. When he turned in the draft, I added a comment to his score in the online gradebook that said he did his best work of the semester this deadline.

This doesn’t have the flash and color of a game, but, for Mike, this was incredibly effective.

Of course I prefer intrinsic over extrinsic motivation, but these motivators are much better to me than a single grade used as a reward or a test used as the rationale for learning.

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