August 25, 2011

How to create good diagnostic instruments

I would love to see the words "test" and "quiz" eliminated from the education vernacular. In their traditional form, tests and quizzes do little more than punish students. These antiquated assessment devices are typically composed of multiple choice questions, which mirror content provided by the teacher, much of which requires only rote memory. If students don't remember the material or if they test poorly, they get a poor grade.
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Students who test well and have good memories usually get high grades. Still, the teacher has learned very little about what a student has learned.

Tests that are prepared as tools for diagnosing learning are different from those used as carrots and sticks to punish or reward students. A well-written diagnostic includes a variety of questions about each learning outcome. These are straight-forward items, maybe multiple choice, that are never meant to trick students.

An effective diagnostic should avoid words and phrases like, "not," "except," "never" and "all of the above," or "none of the above." Good diagnostics do not focus on minute details that are not necessary to demonstrate mastery of a learning outcome. For example, distinguishing characters in a short story is not relevant to understanding how the setting affects the characters' actions. Similarly, asking students to name FDR's vice president has no bearing on the impact of his New Deal on the Great Depression.

Finally, an effective diagnostic instrument should never be graded. This is why students hate tests. If you avoid the word "test" entirely, you can explain to your students that, much  like a doctor, you are simply diagnosing the health of their learning.

If the diagnostic indicates problems, then revisit the lessons and models, in order to reinforce the objectives. Then, you can always re-administer the diagnostic, if you feel it's necessary.

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