Tests and testing

Posted by Natasa Brouwer, on Oct. 5, 2021, 3:04 p.m.


All chemistry teachers at second or third level use tests in their teaching. There are two broad uses for tests:

  1. Formative – assessment for learning (feedback on student learning) (see http://www.rsc.org/Education/Teachers/Resources/Aflchem/)
  2. Summative – assessment of learning (usually for grading or classification)

Both of these have their place but have two different purposes. Formative assessment should be used regularly throughout a course to assess student progress, diagnose problems, give individual feedback etc. Such assessment can take different forms: practical tests, question and answer, short tests, discussion, presentations, using clickers etc. The purpose of formative tests is to improve learning and student performance rather than ranking or grading them. Feedback is important to let individuals know where they can improve, where they went wrong etc. 

Many different styles of question can be used in tests:

  • Multiple choice (of various sorts) – single or double tier
  • Assertion/reason
  • Short answer
  • Essay-type
  • Calculations
  • Cloze tests (fill in the blanks)
  • Matching pairs
  • True/false
  • Comprehension

See https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/developing-assignments/exams/questions-types-characteristics-suggestions  for helpful advice on setting questions.

It is a good idea to use a variety of questions to asses various skills, rather than just one type of question. This allows for different learning styles as well as for different types of intellectual tasks. For example, when testing my chemistry courses I used to employ a mixture of short answer or MC questions (compulsory); a calculation (compulsory); choice of essay questions.

Questions should also be at different cognitive levels to allow for diversity amongst students and also to test different types of cognitive skill using Bloom’s taxonomy. 

Another important factor in writing test items, or asking questions in any format, is the language used. We have seen above how action verbs and command verbs can be used to specify what students have to do. If a student, particularly is working in a second language, does not know one key word, he or she may not be able to answer the question even if the chemistry content is known. However, there are other aspects of language used in tests that may present problems:

  • Use of unfamiliar technical words
  • Use of non-technical words in a scientific context
  • Too high a reading level for the audience
  • Use of logical connective unfamiliar to students.

Should we allow students wide or limited choice or make all questions compulsory? The more choice there is in a test or in a question, the greater the variety of student answers, making it difficult to compare student performances. When wide choice is given students may be able to avoid topics completely. If all questions are compulsory this means that all questions are tested on the same material; all the material in a course may be tested; questions no longer have to be of equal weight and style.

Original author: Peter Childs
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