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Adaptive Learning and Game Content: Bridging Gaps to Engage Students

Posted in Adaptive Learning on August 20, 2015 by

A Dual Challenge

A child’s education is composed of many short, singular experiences, which can sometimes be hard to connect. This is a reality with which educators (and learners) are very familiar — there’s so much to cover, and only so much student attention to go around.

A middle school science syllabus may call for only two to three lessons per week. Add in some homework assignments, and you’ve got just a few bursts of student focus over seven days. Here’s a visualization of a typical student’s work patterns — this student has science lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and does a bit of homework each weekend:


And that fortnight’s activity pattern is typical throughout the semester:


Teachers know that a certain portion of each lesson must be focused on refreshing last week’s material, to bridge the gaps between work sessions.

In addition to bridging temporal gaps, educators also need to bridge conceptual gaps. For a few weeks, concepts may generally build on each other; in other lessons, brand new topics will be introduced; and in still other lessons, new ideas will draw on the material from two months ago. That’s a lot to keep track of.

Bridging all those gaps is what good teachers do, at the micro scale in the classroom in the moment, and at the macro scale through lesson plans and curriculum design.

Ideally, the tools students and teachers use would also help bridge those gaps. Educators face a dual challenge: they must 1) make the most of those brief spikes in student focus, and 2) help students make sense of all those disparate experiences.

A Solution

Knewton has partnered with Muzzy Lane, a leading educational game producer, to explore how the combination of adaptivity and games can help address this challenge. By creating games that engage and inspire students, Muzzy Lane helps teachers make the most of those bursts of student focus. Meanwhile, Knewton provides tools that enable students and teachers to make sense of all those disparate learning experiences over time and across concepts. Knewton brings each student’s learning tendencies, as well as past and current performance, together to provide a unified picture of that student’s current mental state.

In the course of playing educational games, students reveal a lot of information about their learning tendencies and knowledge. But typically, this information is trapped within the game — instructors may have access to summaries of student performance, but that’s it. By combining rich game content with Knewton technology, Muzzy Lane and Knewton give instructors access to more detailed information about student performance. A digital product might include a few educational games, as well as “traditional” instructional and assessment material (think multiple-choice quizzes, essays graded by instructors, video lessons, text instructional content). Knewton can integrate information from a student’s experience in the game along with all the results from other course assessments and activities — meaning teachers get a much fuller and more accurate picture of student performance.

Feed the Fox


In Feed the Fox, a game prototype developed by Muzzy Lane and Knewton, students construct food webs in various biomes to learn about species classification, the environmental pressures different biomes present, and how organisms are related in an ecosystem. Each student action in the game gives Knewton a hint about one, or perhaps several, of her conceptual understandings (or misunderstandings).

Feed the Fox, and games like it, are intended to be part of a larger digital curriculum, also drawing on many different kinds of content, ranging from traditional instructional text and assessment questions to video and interactive activities. Knewton has the same access to the data generated inside the game as it does to students’ responses to assessment items and interactions with instructional content in other parts of the course.

As a student plays the game, her activity is communicated to Knewton. When she moves a species card onto the board, for example, she demonstrates her current understanding of species classification (consumer vs. producer) and the boreal forest biome (i.e., what types of species thrive in the conditions of this particular biome).


That’s really cool — with a single action, Knewton gets multiple pieces of assessment information.

And similarly, as the student draws connections between species, she demonstrates her understanding of the overall food web and the relationships between species:


Feed the Fox provides Knewton with dense, concentrated information about student proficiency. Students tend to be more motivated and focused in a game environment than within traditional assignments, and therefore maintain their focus for a longer period of time. The rich assessment information from the game provides direct evidence of the student’s proficiency on the relevant concepts in the game, as well as indirect evidence of her proficiency on related concepts not in the game.

Games also provide a unique opportunity to evaluate student proficiency unclouded by test anxiety or the incentive to cheat. Since traditional assessment can cause anxiety for many students, the “stealth assessment” in games may allow for a more comprehensive understanding of student ability. When games are commingled with traditional assessments, students produce more, and more varied, data related to their proficiency. For example, a student who excels in the game but misses the mark with other formats might not be struggling with the underlying concepts but instead might have issues with motivation, confidence, or boredom. Information about a student’s performance across modalities can position a teacher to more thoughtfully intervene while also facilitating richer recommendations by the Knewton engine.

Different types of content play different roles in a course. A whole year’s course will probably never be composed solely of games, nor should it be. But well designed games can provide uniquely rich, dense assessment material that serves to engage students more effectively than traditional content. Incorporating these games into an adaptive course can benefit instructors and students alike — helping teachers support students more effectively, providing students increased motivation to tackle course material, and improving both student and teacher insight into learning.