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Classroom Assessment Techniques

(Screen 5 of 6)
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Theory and Research
Historically, use of the structured interview as a means of investigating the process of learning began with Jean Piaget's "method clinique." Trained as an invertebrate zoologist, and working in Binet's (the IQ inventor) laboratory during the 1920s, Piaget became interested not so much in measuring intelligence as in trying to understand the intellectual mechanisms used in the solution of problems and describing the mechanisms of reasoning.

Since that time the structured interview has evolved into a way of framing a dialogue between the student and the instructor in which the student is asked to talk freely about a concept or topic and/or to perform some task while thinking aloud. It has become the qualitative method most widely used to explore how students understand natural phenomena.

Many have found that structured interviews are sufficiently valuable to justify the amount of time and labor they can require. Because they allow students to express what they know and how they apply that knowledge in their own words in, they offer insights not typically obtained by other methods (Southerland, Smith & Cummins, 2000; White & Gunstone, 1992). Such interviews can allow instructors to develop subtle insights of students' conceptual understandings that have been shown to be very useful in planning and refining instruction (Bishop & Anderson, 1990; Lewis & Linn,1994).

Many studies have been conducted using structured interviews to describe students' conceptual knowledge and how that knowledge is applied in the "real world." Studies to date have employed a great variety of interview types including: interviews about instances (White & Gunstone, 1992; Demastes-Southerland, Good & Peebles, 1995a), prediction interviews (Demastes-Southerland, Good & Peebles, 1995a, 1996; Smith, 1992) and problem-solving or process interviews (Fredette & Clement, 1981; Lewis & Linn, 1994; Smith & Good, 1984).

Unfortunately, there is very little research comparing knowledge of student understanding generated by traditional examinations and the picture generated from structured interviews. In a study that compared descriptions generated through a variety of probes, Demastes-Southerland, Good & Peebles (1995b) determined that the results of prediction interviews were consistent with students' performance on traditional testing measures. Interviews about instances and word sorts, however, were found to generate portraits of a learner's understanding that were very different from those generated by exam responses.

In recent years many researchers have come to the conclusion that the most complete view of a student's conceptual understanding is probably obtained by using a combination of both qualitative methods (such as interviewing) and more traditional quantitative methods (such as traditional multiple choice exams) where the choice of the particular form(s) of each is tailored to fit the research question. Studies that employ multiple research probes have a high mode validity and are more likely to fully and adequately represent a learner's understanding (Songer & Mintzes, 1994; White and Gunstone, 1992).


Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1990). Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27, 415-427.

Demastes-Southerland, S., Good, R., & Peebles, P. (1995a). Students' conceptual ecologies and the process of conceptual change in evolution. Science Education, 79, 637-666.

Demastes-Southerland, S, & Good, R. G. (1995b). The crisis of representation: Concept mapping, written explanations, and students' conceptual frameworks in evolution. Presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Francisco, CA.

Demastes-Southerland, S., Good, R., & Peebles, P. (1996). Patterns of conceptual change in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33, 407-431.

Driver, R., & Easley, J. (1978). Pupils and paradigms: A review of literature related to concept development in adolescent students. Studies in Science Education, 5, 61-84.

Fredette, N., & Clement, J. (1981). Student misconcepts of an electric current: What do they mean? Journal of College Science Teaching , 10, 280-285.

Lewis, E. L., & Linn, M. C. (1994). Heat energy and temperature concepts of adolescents, adults, and experts: Implications for curricular improvements. Journal of Research in Science Teaching , 31, 657-677.

Rowe, M .B. (1974). Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11, 81-94.

Smith, M. U. (1992). Expertise and the organization of knowledge: Unexpected differences among genetic counselors, faculty, and students on problem categorization tasks. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29, 179-205.

Smith, M. U., & Good, R. (1984). Problem solving and classical genetics: Successful versus unsuccessful performance. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 21, 895-912.

Songer, C., & Mintzes, J. (1994). Understanding cellular respiration: An analysis of conceptual change in college biology. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31, 621-637.

Southerland, S. A., Smith, M. U., & Cummins, C. L. (2000). "What do you mean by that?" Using Structured Interviews to Assess Science Understanding. In J. J. Mintzes, J. H. Wandersee, & J. P. Novak (Eds)., Assessing science understanding: A human constructivist view. (Chapter 6). Academic Press.

Tamir, P., & Zohar, A. (1992). Anthropomorphism and teleology in reasoning about biological phenomena. Journal of Biological Education, 25, 57-67.

White, R., & Gunstone, R. (1992). Probing understanding. New York, NY: The Falmer Press.

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