“Our report is a call to the game development community about where they might focus next to make educational games even more useful,” said Barry Fishman, a professor at the U-M School of Information and the School of Education.

Those features include feedback systems that keep “score,” dashboards tracking student progress over time, essential questions and review questions, and screen capture tools that students and teachers can annotate to communicate about the games.

Feedback systems including points, scores, or stars can help teachers and students alike–teachers indicated they would help students monitor their own progress and increase motivation. Teachers also reported that such a system would help them determine if a student should replay a level to increase proficiency.

Feedback systems must be clearly designed, however, and the report notes that teachers must be able to understand what the feedback and indicator systems mean as they relate to student learning. Some feedback systems in games may indicate content mastery, while others might relate only to specific goals or challenges that aren’t necessarily related to content.

“The most surprising finding for me was that the most common mechanisms in games for reporting progress—things like points and stars—are not that useful for teachers,” said U-M’s Fishman. “For many of the teachers, it was hard to tell from these progress markers what the students were learning. So a student has 100 points. Does that mean they are learning addition?”

Teachers used essential questions at all points of game play–before, during, and after–to gauge students’ understanding and learning progression.

But essential questions might go overlooked or unused if teachers are used to creating their own assessment questions that align with instructional goals.

“Games designed for learning, especially for learning in schools, require features that differ from those in games for entertainment. The design of such features requires a deep understanding of classroom practice. Our study sheds light on such practices and features and it reveals the extent to which existing features are useful,” said Jan Plass, a professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

“The opportunities represented by digital media are exciting and a lot of them are untapped—such as tracking learners over time, personalizing education and letting students learn different topics at different speeds,” Plass said. “Games provide support for all these innovations.”

To compile the report, researchers observed and interviewed 30 New York public and private school teachers in grades 5-8.

A December study, the first in this series, revealed that 57 percent of teachers said they used digital games on at least a weekly basis. Those teachers who said they used games also reported that they conduct more formative assessment than teachers who did not use games.

“Our hope is that this study provides useful information to teachers about the ways games can inform and support their practice, and to the game development community about ways to continue to strengthen the support for learning and teaching provided by their games,” researchers said in the report.