‘Playful testing’: UW–Madison’s Matthew Berland co-authors book on how to build great games for classroom assessment

By Laurel White

A new book co-authored by a UW–Madison School of Education faculty member sheds more light on how to build and use games to effectively measure students’ learning. 

Matthew Berland, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and founder and director of the Complex Play Lab and the UW Game Design Program, co-authored “Playful Testing: Designing a Formative Assessment Game for Data Science” with several colleagues from UW–Madison and other institutions. 

The book shares insights from three years of interdisciplinary research directed at designing, developing, implementing, and reflecting on the efficacy of a game intended to test middle school students’ computer science and data science skills. The game, Beats Empire, allows students to step into the shoes of a music producer who needs to advise and shape the work of the bands on their roster to respond to song trends in an imaginary city. The skills used in the game align to a national computer science learning framework, with topics including data collection, visualization, and interpretation. 

Matthew Berland

Berland says the book presents an exciting way to think about how assessment can be reimagined — and used in imaginative ways as well. 

“It presents a novel new take on how we might think about what assessment is for in classrooms where assessment isn’t dictated,” he says. “It shows how you can use games and play and fun and creativity to enable students to see what they know, and for teachers to figure out what they know.”

Berland says the book provides a useful model for teachers to assess classroom-wide learning about specific subjects. He says such a model can be helpful to teachers as they evaluate what material is widely understood by a class, and what needs to be revisited. 

After students play the game, teachers receive a report about how individual students interacted with the game — what skills they successfully deployed, what areas they engaged with, and on what they may need more support figuring out.

“This game doesn’t really evaluate individual students, it shows what the class broadly ‘gets,’” he explains. “That can be helpful for teachers. It puts the power in the hands of the teachers.”

Berland says the model is not intended to be a substitute for more traditional forms of assessment, but that it can be a powerful supplemental tool to help educators shape their curriculum.

Berland’s co-authors include UW–Madison alumnus Vishesh Kumar, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University, and Beth Pinzur, a research project manager at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). His other co-authors are Nathan Holbert of Columbia University, Daisy Rutstein of SRI International, Betsy DiSalvo of Georgia Tech, Jeremy Roschelle of the nonprofit Digital Promise, Satabdi Basu of SRI International, and Reina Fujii of Menlo Education Research.

“Playful Testing: Designing a Formative Assessment Game for Data Science” was released earlier this year by Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press. It is available for purchase and free download.

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