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Classroom Assessment Techniques

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As mentioned previously, structured interviews are used to describe individual students' understandings of specific scientific concepts and the degree to which they can apply that understanding. Different interview probes allow for the investigation of different degrees of student understanding.

Instances Interviews
In Interviews about Instances, a student is presented with a specific set of examples and counterexamples of the concept of interest and is asked to identify which cases are examples of the concept, and then to explain that decision. For practical reasons the examples are usually graphics such as line pictures, drawings, or diagrams.

Prediction Interviews
Prediction Interviews require students to anticipate an outcome of a situation and explain or justify that prediction. The strength of this kind of interview is that it focuses on the ways a student can apply her personal meanings of the concept. And because they require application, prediction interviews are very useful in teasing out what has been learned by rote with minimal understanding from what is meaningful knowledge.

Sorting Interviews
In a Sorting Interview, the student is presented with a group of objects and asked to sort them according to specific instructions. This exercise can be structured in many different ways to match the purpose of the assessment. For example, the interviewer may present a series of graphics depicting some natural phenomenon. The student may then be asked to select any number of cards to be used in any order to explain the phenomenon. Alternatively, a student may be presented with a set of genetics, physics or chemistry problem cards and asked to sort them according to similarity (e.g., Smith, 1992). As with other kinds of interviews described in this CAT, the student is encouraged to talk about her reasoning as she attempts to construct an explanation for her sorting.

Problem Solving Interviews
In a Problem Solving Interview, a student is asked to attempt to solve a problem while "thinking aloud," explaining as much as possible about what she is doing, why she is doing it, and what her symbols and actions mean. Problem solving interviews focus more on a student's performance as a means to assess knowledge, although understanding the student's conceptual framework remains the overarching goal in conducting the interview.

Note-taking during an interview can be beneficial, but it generally provides only a superficial picture of a student's meaning. Instead, it is usually beneficial to record the interviews, allowing for more intensive data analysis. As with most classroom assessment activities, analysis of interview data may be accomplished in a variety of ways, with some methods capturing a richer and more multilayered perspective than others.

In order to analyze the results of structured interviews, we suggest that the instructor attempt to put her expectations aside to the extent possible, and instead review the tape or read the transcript with a fresh "eye," allowing important trends from the learner's responses to emerge. Ideally, a sample of interview transcripts should be reviewed several times, so that ideas emerging from one review can inform subsequent readings. As strong trends are noted throughout several interviews, negative examples (occasions for which the tentative trend fails to hold true) should be searched for. This inductive approach to data analysis, i.e., looking for similarities and differences in sets of data, allows for a more informative and reliable portrait of learners to emerge.

For most instructors, a detailed analysis of transcribed interviews is a time-consuming luxury that can't be afforded. However, a review of a taped interview can reveal much about a student's understanding that is not readily discerned in the course of a more casual discussion. Viewing or listening to taped interviews with colleagues or teaching assistants can provide multiple perspectives of the same student, and offers a collaborative opportunity to share a set of common problems.

Pros and Cons

  • Structured interviews are designed to elicit how a student understands a scientific concept. As such, they should be used in addition to, not instead of, other forms of evaluation.
  • Interviews are quite time-consuming. We suggest that faculty interview a broad sample of students in a class in order determine how students are reacting to and understanding concepts presented in class.
  • The usefulness of the interview technique is largely determined by the nature and quality of the probes and follow-up questions. Thus, a substantial amount of planning may be required to design an informative interview.

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