On Friday, Benjamin Herold of Education Week hosted a webinar on “Using Video Games to Assess Students’ Noncognitive Skills.” His premise was that video games can positively impact students’ social development.
Introduction: How are Students Successful?
Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology and James Gee, Presidential Chair and Professor of Literacy Studies joined him. Professor Gee began by reviewing the concept that school is about helping students to create identities. He said the ideal is to, below any other identity, create in each student “the identity of being a proactive, hopeful, resilient learner.” Professor Gee acknolwedged the difficulties with this – many students will struggle to have hope when their lives may seem hopeless, and may struggle to be proactive when they feel they have no choices. He also reviewed the “Matthew affect,” well known in reading and math, where early successes give rise to more successes, and early failures give rise to more failures.
To Professor Gee, there are a series of steps that will bring learners to being proactive, hopeful, resilient learners, and thereby successful students, including:
- Nurturing parenting (mentoring)
- Interactive Reciprocal Talk
- Pretend Play
- Lots of Experiences in the world
- Integration into identity
- Persistence past failure
- Efficient strategic goal-directed problem-solving with flexibility and creativity
In short: the amount of language a child hears at a young age is directly correlated to their success in school. But success in school requires students to be able to correlate language to experience. In other words, students need to be able to understand the meaning behind the language – run, for example means a feeling in the body of the legs moving, and not just a word defined as “faster than walk.”
Video Games Provide Perspective
One of the key ways students pick up noncognitive skills is by taking the perspective of other people. This can happen through pretend games (pretending to be someone else) or through video games, such as the Sims, which is meant for entertainment but provides students with other characters with specific experiences and reactions and emotions. In order to teach students about specific perspectives, you could provide them with specific challenges (such as being a single parent, or homeless, or in a certain job) to simulate perspectives in the Sims game.
Portal has a similar situation, where students take on the perspective of a Physicist, and since the game is collaborative, students can share what they learn. In this game, students explore similarly to how they might by reading a novel, but they are challenged to express their perspective because they must find solutions that can only be discovered by acting from the physicist’s perspective.
Assessing Noncognitive Skills
Angela Ducksworth began her portion of the presentation by defending noncognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills, she pointed out, are “just as strong a predictor, if not a stronger predictor of academic outcomes than IQ and other traditional measures of academic achievement.” For example, a student with good self control and perseverence may do better in school (and post-school) than a student who is naturally a quick reader or good at arithmatic.
“Playing is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” she quoted Sean Slade, but in the attempt to teach noncognitive skills, the obstacles become very necessary. Professor Ducksworth reviewed some of the ways that researchers find how students are learning these skills. A quick overview: it takes a lot of work. The research shows that, in order to find precise assessment of what students are doing, these games need to be clearly measured and the students need to get consistent feedback as well as opportunities to provide feedback and reflection on how they think they’re doing.
Can Video Games be a Powerful Tool?
If it was just up to the games, then yes. Sadly, since the technology is moving so much faster than our brains, it’s very difficult for the current teaching generation to embrace the abilities of the games. It’s hard to slow down our teaching styles – surveys and multiple choice tests are certainly “quick” ways to determine students skillsets.
I hear this as a call to game designers and developers. We need to work extra hard to provide teachers with “easy” ways to evaluate students’ progress. Let’s get on it.