Using games in education may be the best way to assess career readiness. That may seem ironic, given that games are inherently based in fantasy. The video below shows the blended approach we used with EconLab, a game-like simulation. While the EconLab is instructional, the bulk of the learning takes place within the Economics and Personal Finance course Victory developed for the Virginia Department of Education. Unfortunately, the EconLab is only accessible if you are enrolled in the course.
Is Open-Ended Assessment Needed?
Economics and Personal Finance is a full-year online course with more than 500 digital interactives. Then there’s 160 computer-scored Comprehension Checks plus additional Homework Practice. So you might wonder why there’s a need for game-like simulations. The answer is that even interactive assessments are limiting, because they invariably clue the student by providing tools that hint toward the answer. But life doesn’t work that way, so to truly assess mastery, a more open-ended interaction is needed.
Planning the Scenarios
Economics is a challenging subject area because it has so many facets. At the start, it’s essential to decide whether you can use one game-like simulation environment repeatedly, or if multiple scenarios are required. In the Economics and Personal Finance course, we decided early on to focus on personal finance, because students can relate to this more personally. A small-city sim environment covered everything we needed. We layered in a total of 20 variations on the scenario, including 6 tutorials at an easier level that guaranteed success.
Finding a Balance
We debated in-house on the tutorials. Is guaranteed success a good thing? If a game-like simulation is too simple, students will be bored, but if it’s too complex, they may stop in frustration. This blog post from Brandt Redd discusses how the zone of proximal development impacts the effectiveness of assessments.
How do you find the right balance? We find there is no substitute for testing prototypes with students. The feedback you get is invaluable. How long do students play before they lose interest? What goals can be achieved with some effort?
When Things Go Wrong
One thing we discovered—students learn quite a bit from what they can’t do. They don’t tend to read the instructions; they’d rather find out by doing. We set up the simulation parameters to have alternative pathways. If you can’t pay for something now, you can go into debt (but only for certain kinds of purchases). A powerful factor in engagement is to set subtle rules and then letting students discover what they are. Wireframes were essential for mapping this out.
In the end, we hope students gain satisfaction by applying what they learned in authentic scenarios, and we have observed them responding favorably to metrics measuring their skill level. Another goal of game play is to develop fluency in decision-making through practice in a meaningful context.
Some people would argue that EconLab is not a game, and we’d have to agree. Is a game always better than a game-like simulation? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Join the conversation by leaving your comments!