What has to shift to change your perspective? Thomas Kuhn coined the term paradigm shift and argued that science doesn’t progress by a linear method of gathering new knowledge, rather, a shift takes place when an anomaly subverts the normal practice, ideas and theories of science. Students learn through interaction with the surrounding environment mediated by prior knowledge from new and previous interactions with family, friends, teachers, and other sociocultural experiences (Falk & Adelman, 2003). Deep understanding of concepts depend on the interaction of prior experience with new information. As Kuhn stated in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “The challenge is not to uncover the unknown, but to obtain the known.”
In order to assess what students know, you need to find out what they already knew. An assessment can only provide useful information if it is measuring what it is intended to. In the medical field, assessments are used all the time, for example, an MRI is a useful diagnostic tool to determine the extent of tissue damage but it is not necessarily useful for establishing overall health status of an individual. Assessing what a student knows with a multiple choice test may also not be useful in establishing an overall picture of what knowledge a student possesses or how that knowledge is applied, especially if the items are not measuring what they are supposed to. Construct validity provides evidence that a test is measuring the construct it is intended to. How to measure construct validity is beyond the scope of this article, for information, see the classic work by Messick (1995). Outside of the psychometrics involved in item or assessment construction, I’ll provide some quick tips and techniques I have found useful in my teaching practice. What can you do to separate real learning with deep understanding from good test taking skills or reading ability? How can you assess what students know simply and effectively?
Instruction in a classroom environment needs to be connected with assessment rather than viewing instruction and assessment as separate activities. Understanding student thinking can be done with formative assessment which benefits students by identifying strengths and weaknesses and gives instructors immediate feedback regarding where students are struggling so that issues can be addressed immediately. By providing students with context in the form of a learning goal at the start of a class, the clear objective of the lesson allows them to begin making connections between what they already know and new information. When designing or preparing for a class, ask yourself:
- What do I assume they already know?
- What questions can I ask that will help me confirm my assumptions?
- What are the most common misconceptions related to the topic?
Tips for checking students background knowledge
- On a whiteboard or in a presentation, begin with one to three open ended questions and/or multiple choice questions. Ask students to respond in two to three sentences, or circle a response. It’s important to let them know that the question(s) are not being graded, rather, you are looking for thoughtful answers that will help guide instructional decisions. Share the results at the start of the next class or with a free tool like Plickers for instant feedback.
- Short quizzes or a survey with Qualtrics, Google Forms, or Doodle Poll can be used via Black Board prior to class. Explain that you will track who responded but not what the individual student responded at this point. Share the results and impact on course design with students.
- Group work. Using an image, graph, or some type of problem regarding upcoming course content, have students come up with a list of observations or questions regarding the material. Use large sheet paper or sticky notes for them to synthesize comments then review the themes with the class.
Formative assessment is used to measure and provide feedback on a daily or weekly basis. In addition to learning goals communicated to students at the beginning of each class and warm up activities to stimulate thinking about a concept, formative assessment can include comments on assignments, projects or problem sets, asking questions that are intentional towards essential understanding rather than a general, “Are there any questions?” at the end of a lesson. To add closure and summarize the class with the learning goal in mind, provide index cards or ask students to take out a piece of paper and write in a couple of sentences what the most important points of the lesson were and/or ask them to write what they found most confusing so that it can be addressed in the next class. Formative assessments provide tangible evidence for you to see what your students know and how they are thinking and they provide insight and feedback to students in improving their own learning.
Summative assessment includes quizzes, tests and projects that are graded and used to measure student performance. Creating a well-designed summative assessment involves asking good questions and using rubrics. In designing an assessment that will accurately measure what students know, consider:
- What do you want your students to know or be able to do? This can also be used in each lesson as a guiding objective.
- Identify where you will address the outcomes in the curriculum.
- Measure what they know with your summative assessment.
- Based on the measurement, what changes can be made in the course to improve student performance?
- Measure what you intend for them to measure.
- Allow students to demonstrate what they know.
- Discriminate between students who learned what you intended versus those that did not.
- Examine what a student can do with what they learned versus what they simply remember.
- Revisit learning goals articulated at the beginning of a topic, unit or course.
- Use a variety of questions such as multiple choice, short answer and essay questions.
- Used for oral presentations, projects, or papers.
- Evaluate team work.
- Facilitate peer review.
- Provide self-assessment to improve learning and performance.
- Motivate students to improve their work.
Students do not enter your classroom as a blank slate. Assessing and determining what students know targets gaps in knowledge. By incorporating an activity or a question in a small amount of time at the start and end of a class, you can check on potential and actual misconceptions so that you may target instruction for deep understanding. Background checks of prior knowledge provide awareness of the diversity of your students and their experiences further designing and improving instruction for active, meaningful learning. Creating a bridge between prior knowledge and new material provides a framework for students for a paradigm shift in learning and makes it very clear for them and for you to see what they learned by the end of a lesson or the end of a course.
Falk JH, Adelman, L.M. Investigating the Impact of Prior Knowledge and Interest on Aquarium Visitor Learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 2003;40(2):163-176.
Kuhn TS. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 4th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1962.
Messick, S. (1995). Standards of validity and the validity of standards in performance assessment. Educational measurement: Issues and practice,14(4), 5-8.
Jennifer (Jen) Gatz graduated from Ithaca College in 1993 with a BSc in Exercise Science and began working as a clinical exercise physiologist in cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation. Jen received her MS in Exercise Physiology from Adelphi University in 1999, founded the multisport endurance training company, Jayasports, in 2000, and expanded her practice to include corporate health and wellness for Brookhaven National Laboratory, through 2012. Along the way, Jen took her clinical teaching practice and coaching experience and returned to school to complete a Master of Arts in Teaching Biology with NYS teaching certification from Stony Brook University in 2004. A veteran science teacher for 12 years now at Patchogue-Medford High School in Medford, NY, Jen is currently teaching AP Biology and Independent Science Research. A lifelong learner, Jen returned to Stony Brook University in 2011 and is an advanced PhD candidate in Science Education anticipating the defense of her dissertation in the fall of 2016. Her dissertation research is a melding of a love of physiology and science education focused on understanding connections among cognitive processes, executive functioning, and the relationship to physical fitness, informal science education, and environmental factors that determine attitudes towards and performance in science. In 2015, Jen was a recipient of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Graduate Research Fellowship.