Brian Marchini

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.


In the following research summary synthesis, we examine three published studies on various aspects of learning. Starting with transformational play, summary and analysis is provided in regard to a published study on this subject by Barab, Gresalfi and Ingram-Goble in 2010. Next, we examine a study by 2016 Bressler and Bodzin involving game based assessment and its effect on flow. Lastly, we review a 2009 publication by Reich on a qualitative study of current assessment methods.

Transformational Play

In 2010, Barab, Gresalfi and Ingram-Goble published their findings on their theory of transformational play which is an extension of John Dewey’s research on transactivity where learning is viewed as a series of transactions between the learner and instructor. Their theory of transformational play positions that learning can be enhanced when students are positioned in a situated, narrative game as a protagonist that affects their world around them in the choices and decisions made with a degree of consequentiality (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010, p. 2). Their design environments utilized a narrative game platform, Quest Atlantis, with two different methods. The first method immersed students into the role of an environmental scientist charged with investigating recent declines in fish populations (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010, p. 4-5). The six grade students of this study were given a pre-test and post-test on the material and split between a control and treated group with the control receiving traditional instruction rather than game-based learning. The treated group showed significant gains in learning as well as increased levels of engagement (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010, p. 6).  The second method placed students in the role of an assistant to a doctor in a storyline paralleling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel with a focus on ethics in science (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010, p. 7). This method involved seventh graders with similar results, but in this case, the assessments were more qualitative in nature which makes the case that this approach has the potential to be used across a variety of subject areas.

Implications of this study leads to game based learning being an effective medium for learning across a variety of subject areas rather than limited to a specific discipline. Furthermore, it shows that game based learning increases levels of engagement using a platform that is traditionally viewed as a leisure activity.

Flow and Mobile Games

In 2016, Bressler and Bodzin published their study on the relation between flow and mobile serious educational games (SEGs) when applied toward learning. Flow is a state when a person becomes fully immersed in an experience with a high degree of focus, engagement and enjoyment within the immersion (Bressler & Bodzin, 2016, p. 795-796). Their study looked to evaluate the level of flow induced by SEGs as well as impacts on score as well as any influence reading achievement scores may have on the connection between flow and SEGs. Units of this study included 269 eighth-grade science students representative of a diverse demographic population. The method involved a mixed-method augmented reality use of QR codes and an investigation themed game using the ARIS platform where students were tasked with solving a mystery using clues within the school with a control group given the information in a normal educational setting (Bressler & Bodzin, 2016, p. 797-798). Data collection included a combination of flow level surveys, report scores, field notes, photographic evidence, and PSSA math and reading scores with quantitative analysis performed on the result sets. Results showed a measurable increase in the level of flow as well as a higher degree of scientific analysis technique used among the students. Furthermore, the study showed an increase in report scores (Bressler & Bodzin, 2016, p. 799-802). This study is important because it not only shows that levels of engagement are increased when students are immersed in game-like environments, but it also indicates that the learner’s understanding of the material also shows a positive effect.

Standardized Assessment

Reich published a study in 2009 on standardized testing and the efficacy of multiple choice questions. Reich sought to study the reasoning and knowledge process used by students when answering multiple choice questions and whether this aligned with the desired thinking strategies called for in the standards. The units of this study were thirteen tenth grade history students in the New York Metropolitan area (Reich, 2009, p. 332). The method involve creating a fifteen question test on history with pre-assessment of the lessons to ensure that students were given the information necessary prior to this evaluation (Reich, 2009, p. 332-333). The data collection included test scores, interviews and “think-aloud” datasets collected during testing (Reich, 2009, p. 333-334). The latter two sets of data provided insights into the methodology used by the students when answering questions while the test scores provided a quantitative knowledge assessment. While the quantitative test scores of the students ranged from 26.6% to 86.6% with a median score of 60%, the qualitative portion of this study revealed that the test fell short in accurately measuring the students understanding of the materials. Some students successfully answered questions using testing strategies without a firm grasp of the concept while others with an understanding of the material chose incorrect answers for a variety of reasons (Reich, 2009, p. 335-347). While the limited sample size of the units limits its applicability to all multiple-choice testing, it does lend doubt to their efficacy and use as a measure of learning.


Games by their nature are viewed as fun activities for people of all ages and seen as acts of leisure rather than a necessity. This view of gaming has in the past led many to view games as holding little actual value in culture, but as we can see in these examples, they may actually be a pivotal component in advancing the current education process. As presented by the studies on using game theory in classroom, we can theorize that learning has several key benefits and advantages over a traditional approach to education.

As described in the Bressler-Bodzin study, fully immersing students into a game atmosphere induces a state of flow that not only increases engagement, but this also allows for a much deeper level of learning. This arises from students gaining knowledge in a situational learning condition where the concepts on display are needed to complete tasks rather than the goal relying on the memorization of facts and figures. Furthermore, being able to use skills or knowledge in completion of tasks not only shows an understanding of the material, but also a level of mastery through its application.

A consistent game strategy that shows promise is the incorporation of a purpose and application the lessons provided. In the methods used by Barab, we discussed ecology being used as a tool to save fish populations while a narrative story is incorporated to understand the concept of ethics. In the Bressler-Bodzin method, students learn to use science, logic and reasoning to solve crimes. What encourages deeper learning in both of these examples is enveloping the learning within context using a contextual approach to education rather than using a layer of abstraction. This is in contrast to traditional methods found in the control groups where a layer of separation is created. In many subject areas in education, abstract learning is commonplace leading many learners to question the applicability of the knowledge for use in the future which can lead to disengagement and learning simply to pass an exam.

A pain point in education has been developing a method of assessing knowledge learned. Current assessment methods often take abstraction to a much higher level of separation than their corresponding lessons. Students are asked to complete long assessment tests using a combination of multiple choice, true or false or short essay answers with the latter often being over-reliant on writing style over content. This format is relatively consistent throughout the student-education life cycle including standardized tests used for entrance into professional or graduate programs.

In light of their importance, students have learned test taking strategies that work against the goal of these assessments: measuring knowledge on a subject area. This is highlighted by the study performed by Reich where some students were awarded assessment points on knowledge which they had not mastered while others who had a partial knowledge of the material failed to choose the correct answer leaving them with no credit for even partial understanding. If educators use assessments such as these for developing future lesson strategies, they may run the risk of misinterpreting areas of need as a result. Furthermore, Private enterprises have even developed programs aimed at improving students’ success by teaching testing strategies. Part of the reason for this may be the finality often associate with assessment. Some tests may not be retaken while those that may be retaken, often require lengthy waiting periods between assessment times


If learners seem to learn best when given contextual situations where learning is more of a tool rather than a goal itself, why do we continue to give assessments without context? Could assessments even be considered a fun activity? If we apply the lessons of game-based learning to assessment, we may be able to more fully understand where students are in their learning by assessing them while they are in a state of flow. We could even consider allowing repeated attempts to solve problems in context. By introducing the ability to repeat an assessment, you pivot the finality of failure to that of simply being a step towards success. Game based assessment not only allows for a more thorough assessment of knowledge, but it may also provide insights into long term retention. Assessment could be provided throughout the learning process with later game based assessments being revisited in later modules. Not only would this provide additional insight, but it could potentially reinforce the importance of this knowledge to the learner.

Given the numerous advantages provided by game based learning, it seems only natural to begin developing game based assessment. These could take the form of short terms assessment provided within in-game learning to a more standardized game based assessment for comparison on a national level. While game theory has shown numerous benefits for education, the development of modules for gameplay has been an obstacle. Issues may include a learning curve and degree of expertise that may be not available or practical for incorporation by many current educators as well as a lack of concise information on what practices in gamification work best when applied to education. While some may see these as obstacles that relegate gamification as a niche approach to education, it is important to remember that this field of study is still in its relative infancy in comparison to a current education system which has been developed for over a century. Given time and resources, educational gaming content as well as game based assessments may be as commonplace as textbooks in the near future if given the resources necessary for development.


Barab, S. A., Gresalfi, M., & Ingram-Goble, A. (2010). Transformational Play. Educational Researcher, 39(7), 525–536.×10386593

Bressler, D. M., & Bodzin, A. M. (2016). Investigating Flow Experience and Scientific Practices During a Mobile Serious Educational Game. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 25(5), 795–805.

Reich, G. A. (2009). Testing Historical Knowledge: Standards, Multiple-Choice Questions and Student Reasoning. Theory & Research in Social Education, 37(3), 325–360.

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