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Session Information

TitleMeaningful Failure: instrumental feedback that guides performance
Presenter(s)Dennis Ramirez, David Hatfield, Elizabeth Owen, Clem Samson-Samuel and R. Benjamin Shapiro
TimeThursday, October 18, 3:00p-4:00p
LocationParlor A
DescriptionOne interpretation of failure focuses on the negative implications that are associated with not meeting a desirable or intended objective. If a student fails to perform well on high-stakes assessments, the result determines opportunities available to the test taker. Failure becomes a label by which a student's mental faculties are assessed. This interpretation of failure is limiting. Papert (1983) wrote that "Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are 'smart people' and 'dumb people.'" and that, "As a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of 'dumb people' or, more often, to a group of people 'dumb at x'". However, experiments that end in failure, or unforeseen outcomes, are critical for innovation. This process can result in a deeper understanding of the topic itself and often leads to better models and theories of the subject (Dunbar, 1999; Kapur, 2012). Another interpretation of failure, then, is as instrumental feedback that guides performance.

Failure is an important part of playing games. A growing body of research suggests that digital media and games can provide powerful mechanisms for learning (Shaffer et al., 2005; Gee & Shaffer, 2010; Squire, 2006; Dede, 2007; Barab et al., 2010). "Good video games lower the consequences of failure; players can start from the last saved game when they fail. Players are thereby encouraged to take risks, explore, and try new things. In fact, in a game, failure is a good thing. "(Gee, 2009). Players don't stop playing the game when faced with an undesirable outcome. Instead, they often choose to reflect on strategies attempted and try again with new and revised approaches (Squire, 2011).

Failure, as productive play, raises important challenges for assessment. While these environments can help generate compelling experiences that produce rich streams of performance data, "[t]he challenge lies in how to determine which data are useful and how to make use of this data in ways that will ultimately inform and improve student learning" (Behrens et al., 2010). Given such rich gameplay data, an important assessment challenge involves developing equally rich models of what players are thinking and learning.

Unfortunately, within a complex game system it becomes harder to interpret individual performances as failure. Players not succeeding at a given task may not mean they misunderstand the game content. Rather, the failure may be the result of the way they chose to play the game. It is common to think of games offering many ways of playing (Bartle, 1996; Tocci, 2012), including modes of play that involve playing with rather than by the rules of the system, such as "subversive" play (Tocci, 2012). Effective game-based assessment must accommodate variations in the length, frequency, or content encountered, in order to measure changes in learning attributable to the game experience.

In this round table we'll discuss the multiple facets of failure, and the implications of these facets for assessing understanding in ways that are informative and productive for learning.

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