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Using ConcepTests to Monitor and Support Student Learning

What are Concept Tests?

Concept Tests are short, targeted, informal tests that are administered during class to provide ongoing assessment of students’ learning. Usually these tests consist of 1- 5 multiple-choice questions that are distributed over a single lecture. Students submit their answers by raising their hands, holding up a color card associated with a response option, or using a remote control device to key in their response. The primary purpose of ConcepTests is to get a snap-shot of the current understanding of the class, not of an individual student. As a result, these are usually ungraded tests or are very low-stakes. ConcepTests are most valuable in large classes, where it is difficult to assess student understanding in real time.

Creating ConcepTest Questions

Creating a ConcepTest requires a clear understanding of the knowledge and skills that you want your students to acquire. ConcepTests address conceptual knowledge, not factual recall; questions that only require students to recall information are not appropriate for ConcepTests. Questions that probe a student's comprehension or application of a concept are ideal ConcepTest questions. Such questions might involve asking students to make a prediction about the outcome of an event, such as what would happen in an experiment or how would changing one variable would affect others. Application questions involve applying rules or principles to new situations, such as asking students which procedure would be appropriate to solve a novel problem. Questions that ask students to solve a problem using a known equation or to select a procedure to complete a new task would also be considered application questions. Often concept questions first describe a problem, event, or situation, and then ask students to reason about it and select the best option out of a small set of alternatives. When possible, construct the incorrect alternative answers so that they represent common errors or misconconceptions that students often express. 

The following question stems are indicative of conceptual questions:

  • Which of the following best describes…
  • Which is the best method for …
  • If the value of X was changed to…
  • Which of the following is the best explanation for…
  • Which of the following is another example of…
  • What is the major problem with …
  • What would happen if …

How to implement Concept Tests. 

To effectively implement concept tests in class it is important to realize that you will lose some control of the pacing of your lecture.  For some concepts, you may find that students have greater proficiency than you expected, and you can omit explanations, examples, or demonstrations that you had planned and move more quickly. In other cases, students may struggle with a concept more than you expected, and you will need to spend additional time and effort to help them acquire the necessary knowledge and skills.

Introducing ConcepTests on the first day of class is a good way to get your students engaged in the process, although you can introduce them at any time during the course. Typically the instructor poses the question with the response options on the board or projection and gives students a brief amount of time to select an answer.  Based on the method used for responding, the instructor gets a rough sense of how many students selected each response.  Based on the feedback, the instructor may decide to move on in the lecture, stop or stop and  review the concept.

A typical method for using ConcepTests has been in conjunction with Peer Instruction. In this approach, after students have responded individually, they are put in pairs or small groups and have to explain to the other group members why their answer is correct.  After a short period of time, the students then vote again for the answer they think is correct.

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