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“There's no such thing as an application question…”

…is a misconception.

In the previous newsletter of this series - Making Excellent Assessments, we wrote about why adding context to a recall question does not make it an application question. And in fact, sometimes adding context may deter from testing whether the students have met their learning goals or not.


In today’s edition we try to understand what an application-based question really is. Does an application-based question really exist? Or is it just some mythical thing?


We have all heard the phrase ‘application-based questions’. We have also been asked numerous times to check whether the students are able to apply what they have learned.


So how do we ask a question that tests students’ ability to apply the knowledge that they have learned and understood? There are two ways to think about such questions: in the first way you can ask a question where the student is expected to recall something and then apply it to a new situation. For example, a question that asks the students to recall an equation and to apply the equation to solve a problem.


A slide is being built at a playground. This new slide needs to end at the sandpit so that the children do not hurt themselves while coming down the slide. The slide is 5 metres long and the ladder to climb onto the slide is 3 metres long. How far must the ladder be placed from the sandpit so that the slide ends at the sandpit?


In this case, the question will test if the student can recall Pythagoras’s equation and can apply the equation for this.


A second way to ask application-based questions is to give all the information needed, and not expect students to recall anything. Given all the information, can the student apply what they have learned in the context of the question?


A slide is being built at a playground. This new slide needs to end at the sandpit so that the children do not hurt themselves coming down the slide. The slide is 5 metres long and the ladder to climb onto the slide is 3 metres long. How far must the ladder be placed from the sandpit so that the slide ends at the sandpit?


Some useful notes:

  1. The length of the side opposite to the right angle is always the highest in a right-angled triangle.

  2. The sum of the lengths of any two sides is always greater than the third side in a triangle.

  3. in a right-angled triangle, the square of the length of the side opposite to the right angle is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides.

  4. The sum of the angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees.


As you can see, there is information given, and the student needs to understand what information is useful and apply it to the context of the slide in the playground. These type of questions are better if the students are asked to make inferences or deduce something using knowledge that they already possess or information given in the question.

 

So what is the difference between an application question and a recall question? To answer this let’s first understand what it means to be able to apply knowledge or understanding of something. In Math, it may be that you can apply the proof used in one context to another context to solve a mathematical problem.


In literature or language it may be that once the students understand the context of certain literature, they can be asked to write some modern adaptation of historic speeches. For example:


In the Shakespeare’s play Richard II after the death of the king, there is a long speech by John of Gaunt. Capture the essence of what he wants to convey in the form of a 300-word blogpost for a news site in 2022.


What may become apparent from the examples is that the knowledge or understanding that the students have needs to be applied to a different context to truly test a student’s ability to apply. Context which is like what they have already been exposed to may not work as a good test of application. It may still be testing the students’ ability to recall.

 

The highest form of application is abstraction. Abstraction is where a student can completely dissociate the concept from its context and apply it a completely different context or scenario. For example, if we ask a student about the Newton’s laws of gravity on Mars - what would remain the same and what would be different? This would require students to know and understand the laws, but they will have to apply it under highly unique circumstances of Mars, where the gravitational force is lower than that of Earth, it is a smaller and lighter planet than Earth, it is further from the Sun than Earth is, etc.


If I ask a student of history to rewrite one of Ambedkar’s speeches for today’s time, this would be a case of abstraction. The ideas of Ambedkar will have to be distilled, progress (if any) from the time of the speech to the present will have to be gauged and then modifications will have to be made.


As mentioned before, abstraction is probably the highest level in the ability to apply. However, if we can get students to use their knowledge and understanding in contexts different from the ones that they have been already exposed to in class or from the texts that they read, we would be doing a good job of asking application questions.

 

Useful Links:

  1. Here is a link with some basic learning on how to create assesements.

 

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Edition: 1.24

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