Contrary to popular belief, assessments are valuable for far more than a simple measure of students' acquired level of knowledge. Assessments serve a variety of functions including directing attention/focus, highlighting conceptual errors, motivating students' interaction with course material, and, finally, determining students' grades. The importance of assessments is often overshadowed by the time and energy invested into classroom activities; but, as discussed by McKeachie, "what students learn depends as much on your tests as your teaching" (1999, p. 85). Ideally, an effective assessment will reflect the educational goals in relationship to the content areas of a designated course.
As highlighted in the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956), learning goals vary according to the level of understanding and/or skill desired. Consequently, learning begins at the bottom of the hierarchy (with simple knowledge) and cumulatively builds toward a deep understanding (as evident through the ability to evaluate information). Learning objectives include:
Knowledge. Knowledge involves the remembering of terminology, facts, and methods. Typical knowledge assessments ask learners to define, describe, identify, label, list, match, or name.
Comprehension. Comprehension requires an understanding of the meaning of conceptual information. An assessment of comprehension requires students to classify, convert, describe, discuss, estimate, generalize, or give examples.
Application. Application involves the use of previously learned information in novel situations. To measure application knowledge, an instructor might ask students to chart, compute, construct, develop, implement, or predict.
Analysis. The ability to understand the organizational structure of information is referred to as analysis. Typical analysis assessments ask students to break down information into component parts, develop divergent conclusions, or make inferences.
Synthesis. Synthesis involves the creative application of prior knowledge and skills to produce an original entity. To measure synthesis understanding, an assessment might ask learners to adapt, create, design, generate, or revise.
Evaluation. Evaluation is the ability to judge the relative value of information based on prior knowledge. An evaluative assessment involves the ability to compare and contrast, criticize, critique, defend, or judge.
Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy has since been revised by Lorin Anderson and David Karthwohl (Anderson et al., 2001) by changing the category names from nouns to verbs and placing the synthesis category before evaluation. Although the only slight changes have been made, the modifications have made a significant impact. Revised “action words” include:
Remember. Remembering is to recall or retrieve previously learned information. Key verbs for remembering may include: define, describe, identify, know, label, list, match, name, outline, recall, recognize, reproduce, select, and state.
Understand. Understanding is to comprehend the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems. State a problem in one's own words. Key verbs for understanding may include: comprehend, convert, defend, distinguish, estimate, explain, extend, generalize, give an example, infer, interpret, paraphrase, predict, rewrite, summarize, and translate.
Apply. Applying is to use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction. Applies what was learned in the classroom into novel situations in the work place. Key verbs for applying may include: apply, change, compute, construct, demonstrate, discover, manipulate, modify, operate, predict, prepare, produce, relate, show, solve, and use.
Analyze. Analyzing separates material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. Distinguishes between facts and inferences. Key verbs for analyzing may include: analyze, break down, compare, contrast, diagram, deconstruct, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, identify, illustrate, infer, outline, relate, select, and separate.
Evaluate. Evaluating is to make judgments about the value of ideas or materials. Key verbs for evaluating may include: appraise, compare, conclude, contrast, criticize, critique, defend, describe, discriminate, evaluate, explain, interpret, justify, relate, summarize, and support.
Create. Creating builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements. Put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. Key verbs for creating may include: categorize, combine, compile, compose, create, devise, design, explain, generate, modify, organize, plan, rearrange, reconstruct, relate, reorganize, revise, rewrite, summarize, tell, and write.
While many instructors have the goal of promoting higher-order cognitive abilities, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and novel application, typical assessments are often unable to effectively measure these skills.
Research has repeatedly found that students' attention and focus are driven by the assessment measures not the educational goals of a course. Thus, if assessments focus primarily on the correct identification of factual information, students will devote their time and effort toward the shallow memorization of facts and definitions. On the other hand, if assessments require students to demonstrate a more complex understanding, students will concentrate their effort on acquiring the relevant skills. This leaves the instructor with the task of implementing measures that accurately reflect the desired educational objectives.
When designing assessments, instructors are faced with the dilemma of coordinating educational goals with an acceptable test format. While open-ended items, such as essay and fill-in-the-blank questions, often promote higher-order thinking, they are time-consuming to grade and are often not feasible for large-enrollment courses. Conversely, response-limited items, such as true-false and multiple-choice, can be easily graded but may limit the ability to assess higher-order learning. The variety of question types available allows educators to implement structured assessments that reflect their true learning goals. Key to the effective application of these various question types is the instructional design of the questions. While learning goals and the taxonomy of learning provide an excellent structure for designing assessment items, the educational impact of any assessment still rests in the content of individual questions.
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