How Game Elements Can Supercharge Course Design: Measurement and Feedback in Games and Learning 

A decorative image of a board game

The way measurement and feedback are featured in games ought to be dissected by anyone who facilitates, designs, or delivers instruction. 

This article is part of a series exploring the intersections of game and learning design. 

I am enthusiastic about tabletop gaming and instructional design. Having spent significant time in both spaces, I believe that those involved in learning would do well to consider the design elements that make a game a game.  

In my previous installment, I compared how goals function in games in terms of “win conditions” and in online courses in terms of learning objectives. Put simply, games teach us to design with the maxim that for all elements in the course, goals are the point.  

In gameplay and learning alike, goals only get their power if progress toward them can be tracked. They are irrelevant and meaningless if users cannot gauge and thus modify their performance in some way. This may seem like a given (after all, we would never not provide graded assessments during the semester!) but games show us the interesting way measurement and feedback work within the system to sustain engagement. 

Measurement and Feedback in Games 

Games encode measurement into their DNA. In the thick of gameplay, feedback about players’ actions is relayed at each juncture, and opportunities to act on that feedback occur continually.  

In learning experiences, opportunities for measuring progress toward objectives often feel added on. For instance, they may be delivered exclusively through end-of-module quizzes that serve as summative now-prove-what-you-know-about-this-module assessments (not to say that these used in conjunction with other strategies don’t have value or a real place in our courses!)  

Games, rather, are designed with feedback mechanisms woven into the fabric of the system. In fact, the flow of gameplay is made up entirely of cycles of feedback and action. This means that at any moment when playing a game, you have some idea of how well you are doing. 

You may not know with accuracy how close you are to winning, but you have a reasonable, justifiable, and visceral notion of your performance. You feel when you are doing well or when you could be doing better. Games are designed as such. And this is true regardless of whether the game has an explicit means to quantify progress (for instance, games that track score).  

Indeed, more frequently, feedback is delivered in revelatory doses: Oof! I shouldn’t have moved there. Or Yes! Investing in wheat was the right call. Or Ah! That was a huge mistake. Though maybe no one else realizes it . . .  

Basic feedback cycle: The player executes the action, receives and interprets feedback, then evaluates a strategy and begins the cycle again.

These immediate hits of feedback naturally lead to strategy refinement when planning next moves: Next time I’ll keep an eye out for her knights and avoid being set up. Or, Now it’s time to see what other market I can monopolize. Or, I nearly didn’t escape – I can bet I won’t mess that up again!

The realities of the unfolding game provide powerful, instant, and engaging feedback, on which the player immediately capitalizes. Known as emergent feedback, the feedback opportunities arise from the game itself versus an external source. The player internalizes, interprets, and acts on the feedback in a process that is natural, mimicking the ways humans learn in the natural world – without, of course, the high stakes of real life.   

This is feedback at its most subtle and effective: the player is involved in the meaning-making of the feedback and strategizing a response. The player takes ownership of distilling and making sense of the feedback that occurs naturally in an environment tailor-made for that experience with relative impunity. After all, unlike the real world, the worst-case scenario here is simply the player does not win the game.  

Measurement and Feedback in Learning 

According to game designer Keith Burgun, progress measurement moves an interactive form from Puzzle into Contest territory. The means to then make informed decisions pushes farther from the realm of Contests to Games. Each tier is more interactive, complex, and engaging than the last. By extension, a continual highlighting of student progress coupled with ample opportunities for refinement is precisely what tips the needle from a self-guided tutorial to a full-on learning experience.   

All well and good. But aside from explicitly gamifying a course, which I am not prepared to do – how can this be applied to the context of the learner?   

At the absolute minimum, looking toward games lets us see the power of frequent and dynamic feedback, and, importantly, frequent opportunities to act on the feedback.  

More profoundly, analyzing game design teaches us that we can and should strive for creative ways to move beyond merely externalized assessment. We should rise to the challenge of building authentic opportunities for learners to demonstrate performance and course-correct immediately based on feedback from a variety of sources. 

Further, games remind us that constructing deliberately safe spaces for failure and learning from failure is a boon to the learner multiple times over.  

Here are five ideas for applying these concepts in your course. Mix and match these to increase the frequency of measurement and feedback opportunities, install feedback-action cycles, and foster a safe environment for demonstrating learning: 

  1. Iterative assignments. Students create something, receive feedback, and revise or refine to incorporate that feedback. This has the additional benefit of learners honing relevant, real-world professional skills (namely, iterative collaboration). See also authentic assignments
  1. Frequent low-stakes or lowest-score-dropped graded activities. These give learners leeway to make mistakes without significantly or detrimentally impacting their grade. Which is to say, students have the freedom to learn from them. 
  1. Multiple quiz attempts. Similar to above, allowing one or more extra attempts encourages learners to revise their erroneous thinking. This is effective especially when configured so students cannot see the correct answers until after their final attempt: they see which answers they got wrong between attempts, but need to do the work themselves to remediate their misunderstanding. 
  1. Inline knowledge checks. CidiLabs DesignPLUS, already integrated into your Canvas Course, has functionality for embedding ungraded multiple choice questions into Canvas pages. This is an underutilized means of providing the learner immediate feedback, and is a case for delivering the material you have written in Canvas pages instead of slides or PDFs. 
  1. Data visualization. The gradebook need not be the only or even the main channel for quantifying student performance.  Delphinium is a supported Canvas integration that overlays on your course the learner’s statistics and progress, as well as points, badges, achievements, and leaderboards – all techniques out of the classic gamification playbook. 

In all of the above, the important part is that students receive, chew on, and do something with that feedback. 

The bottom line is this: the way games employ emergent and natural feedback makes for an engaging, satisfying, and intuitive user experience. This is antithetical to the artificial-feeling systems presented in many of our online courses where feedback is distant if not divorced from action. As with goals, looking to games opens new and creative vistas for how we can design feedback strategically into our courses to motivate students to learn. 

Next, we will tackle the sense of autonomy that must exist for a system to be a game and explore its implications in an online learning environment. 

Previous Game and Learning Design Series Issues:

How Game Elements Can Supercharge Course Design: Measurement and Feedback in Games and Learning 

Francis Hill is an instructional designer with over a decade of experience in teaching and playful pedagogy. He’s also a game designer, currently prototyping a card game based on the gothic romanticism of Anne Radcliffe and a board game about racing Shakespearean witches and their familiars.

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