Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Using Concept Tests

Concept tests (or ConcepTests) are short, informal, targeted tests that are administered during class to help instructors gauge whether students understand key concepts. They can be used both to assess students’ prior knowledge (coming into a course or unit) or their understanding of content in the current course.

Usually these tests consist of one to five multiple-choice questions. Students are asked to select the best answer and submit it 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 concept tests is to get a snapshot of the current understanding of the class, not of an individual student. As a result, concept tests are usually ungraded or very low-stakes. They are most valuable in large classes where it is difficult to assess student understanding in real time.

Creating a concept test

Creating a good concept test can be time-consuming, so you might want to see if question repositories or fully developed concept tests already exist in your field.

If you create your own, you need to begin with a clear understanding of the knowledge and skills that you want your students to acquire. The questions should probe a student's comprehension or application of a concept rather than factual recall.

Concept test questions often describe a problem, event, or situation. Examples of appropriate types of questions include:
  • asking students to predict the outcome of an event (e.g., What would happen in this experiment? How would changing one variable affect others?)  
  • asking students to apply rules or principles to new situations (e.g., Which concept is relevant here? How would you apply it?)
  • asking students to solve a problem using a known equation or select a procedure to complete a new task (e.g., What procedure would be appropriate to solve this problem?)
The following question stems are used frequently in concept test 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…
When possible, incorrect answers (“distractors”) should be designed to reveal common errors or misconceptions.
  • Example 1: Mechanics (pdf)
    This link contains sample items from the Mechanics Baseline Test (Hestenes & Wells, 1992).  
  • Example 2: Statics (pdf)
    This link contains sample items from a Statics Inventory developed by Paul Steif, Carnegie Mellon.
  • Example 3: Chemistry
    This links to the Journal of Chemistry Education’s site, which contains a library of conceptual questions in different scientific areas.

Implementing concept tests

Concept tests can be used in a number of different ways. Some instructors use them at the beginning of class to gauge students’ understanding of readings or homework. Some use them intermittently in class to test students’ comprehension. Based on how well students perform, the instructor may decide to move on in the lecture or pause to review a difficult concept.

Another method is to give students the chance to respond to a question individually, then put them in pairs or small groups to compare and discuss their answers. After a short period of time, the students vote again for the answer they think is correct. This gives students the opportunity to articulate their reasoning for a particular answer.

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