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Classroom Assessment Techniques

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Mike Smith
Department of Internal Medicine
Mercer University School of Medicine

Sherry A. Southerland
Science Education
University of Utah

Mike Smith
When I started doing problem-solving interviews in 1982, it was the first qualitative dissertation in the Florida State University School of Education in over fifty years. There were no courses to teach me how to conduct them; I was on my own to learn. These days there are lots of excellent books available and courses in most graduate schools or friendly, experienced faculty members around to help you get started. One thing I learned from that experience, however, is that with some reading, careful planning, and practice you can do a pretty acceptable job of interviewing without a lot of help.

For a long time, biology instructors had found that teaching genetics, and specifically teaching how to solve genetics problems, was a very difficult task. The purpose of my dissertation study (Smith & Good, 1984) was to find out how people at different levels of expertise solve genetics problems so that we could use that information to design more effective instruction. What we learned during those "think aloud" interviews was very instructive, and much of it was unexpected.

One of our findings was that students often try to memorize the visual "picture" of a solution of problems they have seen worked in class instead of learning how to figure out a solution. Nowadays, whenever I teach this class, I take a few moments to talk about how genetics is different from history, and that for genetics, memorization is less important than understanding and applying knowledge.

One of the most surprising findings of early research was that students also confused the terms "gene" and "allele," which severely limited their genetic understanding. To our surprise, we discovered that geneticists and genetics texts often add to that confusion by using those terms very loosely. As a result, in the years since, I have always stopped mentally before using those terms with students to make sure I was using the terms accurately.

Later in my academic career, I became acutely aware that one of the reasons students have trouble with genetics is their lack of understanding of mitosis and meiosis. Given that American students study these phenomena several times before they get to college (sometimes as early as the fourth grade; sometimes as many as seven times before they enter medical school), it was surprising to recognize that their knowledge was so faulty. Why the knowledge of nuclear division is so inadequate after so much instruction on the topic even for some of our best students was baffling. This observation led to a series of interviews in which we asked individuals with varying levels of expertise to explain the processes of mitosis and meiosis at the board (on videotape). Eventually this study led to a series of recommendations on how to improve instruction on this topic (Smith, 1991).

Again, confusion over language proved to be an important barrier to understanding with students confusing doubling with pairing, dividing, and replicating. A common misconception among many of our students was that a two-chromatid chromosome is the product of the joining of two one-chromatid chromosomes, not of the replication of a single one-chromatid chromosome. The discovery of this misconception explained why students did not understand that sister chromatids are identical to each other and led us to focus more on the origins of sister chromatids in instruction.

These examples show how useful interviewing has been for me throughout my academic career. Most importantly, it has directly impacted my teaching and helped me do a better job of helping students learn.

Sherry Southerland
Sherry Southerland In the decade that passed between Mike's dissertation work and my own there was a remarkable change in the methods that are used to conduct educational research. When I began my own work at the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Louisiana State University, Ph.D. candidates were required to become familiar with, if not adept at, using qualitative research methods. While quantitative methods of investigations are still prominent, particularly in more cognitive kinds of studies, qualitative methods are now widely accepted among educational research communities. (Although many of our colleges in the natural sciences continue to struggle to understand the practice.)

A look at my dissertation demonstrates the degree to which White's and Gunstone's (1990) ideas of mode validity influenced my thinking. (Mode validity the measure of the number of different kinds of data that are used to generate a research finding.) White and Gunstone describe that research into learner's ideas should have a high mode validity to be useful. In my own research, I used several different kinds of interview probes (interviews about instances, concept maps, and cards sorts) to investigate how students learn about biological evolution. Thinking back on this work, the high mode validity of the research design is one of the more noteworthy aspects of this study on conceptual change.

After completing my dissertation, I began teaching science in a rural high school located on the banks of the Mississippi. While I was there, I struggled with the same problems most teachers have, an incredible number of preparations (I was the only science teacher for the high school), too many students to keep track of, and many students that had difficulties expressing themselves in a written format. Although the constraints of teaching made me leave my video and tape recorders behind, I found a place to use the card sorts and interviews about instances that I had previously used in my research. While the class completed small group work, I would call up a variety of individual students from my biology class to use the card sort to construct an explanation of change in the pelage color in a population of rabbits. The explanations they offered in these interviews allowed me to understand how the students in my class were interpreting my instruction on evolution. Although I had been convinced the utility of these sorts of interviews for research purposes, in my teaching I learned to depend on informal interviews as a valuable resource to guide my instruction.

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