Games, Learning, and Assessment: Collaborative Pursuits

 By Sandra Schamroth Abrams, Ph.D., St. John’s University

Assessment is a word that often instills fear in many. There is this sense of needing to get something “right” or face consequences to one’s status, and this can be in terms of grades, responsibilities, job title and so on. Yet assessments can be opportunities to improve, as often is the case for those who play videogames. In a game, failure often leads to improvement because the player learns from mistakes made. What is more, players often receive feedback and cues from opponents, teammates, and onlookers. If such an approach is helpful in achieving in one forum—in this case a videogame—why don’t we apply the model to school-based scenarios?

Over the past four years—and still today—I have been working with a public high school math teacher and his students to develop socially responsible learning through game-based approaches. One avenue we have explored is the application of game-based principles to help innovate assessment. And we did just that through a game-based approach rooted in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) concept of coopertition. The portmanteau of cooperation and competition represents the FIRST values of “gracious professionalism,” which also “encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community” (FIRST Values, para 2). Coopertition involves assisting others (both teammates and competitors) as a means to support and further competition. In terms of assessment, coopertition supports critical thinking and iterative learning opportunities, all the while challenging players to think beyond themselves and work with others to achieve a common goal. That is but one reason why, when “brought together, cooperation and competition can be an effective and powerful combination” (Abrams, 2017, p. 359).

Collaborative Assessment: What is It?

Collaborative assessment hinges on students working in dyads, and, when necessary triads, helping each other to answer questions in a timed testing context. In a collaborative testing situation, there is focused, constructive discourse. Students discuss what they understand and what they don’t understand; they compare answers, celebrate congruity and problematize incongruity (literally and figuratively); they offer words of encouragement and support; and they explain how they reached their answers. Although these practices are all equally powerful, the explanation of formulated answers underscores the importance of critical thinking and agentive learning.

Most tests work via the deficit model wherein students lose points for not showing “proper” knowledge and the teacher is the authority of the content area knowledge. Collaborative assessments offer students opportunities to be authorities of knowledge, share expertise, and succeed together. In so doing, the test, therefore, becomes part of the learning process because students work through the problems together under the high-stakes context of evaluation. Often, I have seen students who, in previous classes have displayed knowledge of the material, get stuck on a formula or are unable to complete a mathematical problem. Sometimes these students are exhausted. Other times, they are stressed. And other times they are distracted by issues socially, economically, politically, academically, or otherwise personally rooted. Collaborative assessments (a) help to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand, (b) offer students opportunities to work through areas of struggle, and (c) capitalize on the power of collaboration without penalizing students for issues related to recall. In the event that neither student understands the problem, then the teacher not only learns where the major learning bottlenecks exist, but also can extend the collaboration to enable two dyads to work together. Students teaching information to each other is the crux of collaborative assessments.

Collaborative Assessment: Why Try It?

As Jenkins and colleagues (2009) acknowledged, supporting participatory cultures will help to prepare future workers, something traditional schooling does not often do:

As players learn to work and play in such knowledge cultures, they come to think of problem solving as an exercise in teamwork. This focus on teamwork and collaboration is also, not coincidentally, how the modern workplace is structured—around ad hoc configurations of employees, brought together because their diverse skills and knowledge are needed to confront a specific challenge and then dispersed into different clusters of workers when new needs arise. Cory Doctorow has called such systems ad­hocracies, suggesting that they contrast in every possible way with prior hierarchies and bureaucracies. Our schools do an excellent job, consciously or unconsciously, of teaching youths how to function within bureaucracies. They do almost nothing to help youths learn how to operate within an adhocracy (p. 75).

If learning is a process, then students need to be able to explore meaning without consequence. The cooperative nature of knowledge sharing in games can create and support collaborative testing opportunities, thereby enhancing the development of content area knowledge and skills through participatory means. Overall, the concept of collaborative assessments reinforces learning as a process, prepares students for a world in which knowledge sharing is key to production and innovation, and honors agentive learning.


Abrams, S. S. (2017). Cooperative competition, reflective communication, and social awareness in public high school math classes. In Y. Baek. (Ed.). Game-Based Learning: Theory, Strategies and Performance Outcomes (pp. 357-370). Nova Science Publishers.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Weigel, M., Clinton, K., & Robison, A. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Author’s Bio

 Sandra Schamroth Abrams, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at St. John’s University in New York. Abrams is a thought leader and researcher of adolescents’ digital literacies and a trusted source for educators and parents who are interested in understanding how youth today make meaning and navigate the ever-changing technological landscape. Her research provides insight into agentive learning, layered meaning making, and pedagogical discovery located at the intersection of digital and nondigital experiences, and her work has been featured in leading research journals, including Teachers College Record, Journal of Literacy Research, the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Language & Linguistics, and Educational Media International. Her books include Integrating Virtual and Traditional Learning in 6-12 Classrooms: A Layered Literacies Approach to Multimodal Meaning Making (Routledge), Conducting Qualitative Research of Learning in Online Spaces (SAGE, co-authored), Managing Educational Technology: School Partnerships and Technology Integration (Routledge, co-authored), and Bridging Literacies with Videogames (Sense, co-edited). Forthcoming books include Parent-Child Research Reimagined (Brill, co-edited), Videogames, Libraries, and The Feedback Loop: Learning Beyond the Stacks (VOYA, co-authored), and An Integrated Mixed Methods Approach to Nonverbal Communication Data: A Practical Guide to Collection and Analysis in Online and Offline Spaces (Routledge, co-authored). Abrams also is a founding co-editor of the Gaming and Ecologies Series (Brill) and an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches. 

Twitter: @shsabrams



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