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Making students think during assessments...

Updated: Oct 17

…needs thought.

Assessing student learning is as straightforward as you want it to be. Decent questions give a good superficial understanding of student learning. But there are many nuanced layers to making excellent assessement questions. Today's edition is the beginning of a new series on Making Excellent Assessments.

The first part of the series talks about how not to make recall questions and why context, cognitive load and the testing objective need to be balanced while making a question.

Hello! Welcome to the 22nd edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

Even though we have started a new series on assessments with this edition, please be reassured that the series on Foundational Learning will continue in parallel. In fact, the next edition will focus on the importance of fine motor developement in the foundational years.

Making application-based questions is all the buzz in academic circles. “Let’s make students think before answering a question…” “Questions should not ask something that students can directly recall from the textbook." These are commonly heard in staff rooms and academic meetings in many schools and policy making rooms. We think that this thought is great! Yes, there should be a deeper assessment of students than just what they can recall. And we also think that creating such assessment questions is not trivial. One of the most common practices among educators who want to make more ‘application-based’ questions is that they do not ask a direct question. For example: Read the conversation between Salil and Bunny. Salil (while eating a samosa): I wonder what components of food this samosa contains. Bunny: Don’t you know? It has potato, wheat and some spices. Salil: I know that, Bunny. I was wondering if it had starch, protein and lipids. Do you know how I can test this? Bunny: I don’t know about proteins and lipids, but you can use _________ to check if there is starch in the samosa. Fill in the blank to complete Bunny’s sentence. Options: A. Calcium B. Chlorine C. Iodine D. Oxygen The testing objective in the above question is to find out whether the students know what test to do to detect starch in any sample. An alternative way to ask the question could be: What test can we use to detect starch? Options: A. Calcium test B. Chlorine test C. Iodine test D. Oxygen test Which of the two examples given above do you think is an application-based question? If you chose the second one, that is incorrect. And if you chose the first one, that is also incorrect. And this is the most common misconception among educators. An indirect way of asking a question does not make it an application-based question. Because at the base of both the questions the testing objective is to know if the students know what the test for starch is. Asking a question in an indirect manner is at best useless for the teacher and the student. The teacher spends some time in coming up with a story around the question, while the student spends a lot more time in understanding and answering what they eventually realise is a straightforward question. At its worst such questions create unnecessary strain on a student's brain. The student will read the question and will try to understand the context for the question. In the first example the student will carefully try to follow the conversation between the two friends, all while keeping an eye out for what is being asked. This is a huge cognitive load on the student's mind. Our brains can be divided into three conceptual zones – the sensory zone, working memory and long-term memory. The sensory zone with the help of the sensory organs gets new information to the brain. In the context of reading the question, the eyes are reading the visual input. The working memory gets the information from the sensory zone and it needs to make connections between the new information and existing information in the long-term memory. The working memory is limited with it being able to hold a handful of things at the same time. If the number of things in the working memory increases there is a chance of cognitive overload, and students may feel that the question is difficult to answer. But as we have seen the actual question is not difficult to answer – it is just because the overflow of information into the working memory of the student that they may feel that the question is difficult. So at worst asking such questions can:

  1. Reduce student confidence of their own understanding

  2. Provide an inaccurate picture of students’ understanding

So is it better to ask questions like the second example? It certainly may be better to ask the question directly and simply if the testing objective is straightforward. At the same time, we understand the usefulness of context in a question. A question without context may seem too abstract and cut away from day-to-day life. We propose a compromise between creating context and overloading the student's brain. For example: A samosa may contain starch, proteins and lipids, among other things. What chemical test can we use to detect whether samosa contains starch? Options: A. Calcium test B. Chlorine test C. Iodine test D. Oxygen test The above is still a recall question with some real-world context but is unlikely to cognitively overload the students. Unless of course the students start thinking about samosas. So even when asking recall questions it is a good idea to add some context for the students to ensure that the question is not too cut and dry or abstract for the students. On the other hand, it is important to ensure that the context does not cognitively overload the students especially if the context does not broaden the testing objective. In the coming editions we will talk about how context in an assessment question helps with broadening the testing objective and what is the difference between a recall question and an application question. Keep an eye out for that!


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Edition: 1.22

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