Assessment Practices in Scientific Subjects

This post is another highly edited version of a submitted article that I wrote for my Postgraduate Certificate in Education course at Keele University. In the essay, I wanted to write about my understanding of assessment practices in the scientific subjects. I wrote about the different forms of assessment strategies that different schooling levels can take, and explore some of the theories of assessment, their validity and, most importantly, their reliability.

Be it formally or informally, assessment is the primary method of analysing and understanding whether or not the intended learning outcomes within the scope of a particular theme, topic or course have been adequately acquired by learners. Assessments can be used to validate and certificate the amount of knowledge and understanding an individual or a group of learners have acquired over a set period of time.

Assessment Strategies in the Scientific Subjects

Assessment comes in many different forms and serves a variety of purposes, such as to monitor student, departmental, school and a country’s educational progress and their standards. The results of which can be used to hold teachers, school leadership teams, councils and governments to account. There are three main types of assessments: (1) diagnostic, (2) formative and (3) summative.

In most day-to-day science classrooms, teachers only really offer students the chance to answer questions to a set of known procedures. In chemistry, for example, students are taught how to calculate the mole, concentration, rates of reactions etc. in a very prescribed manner. This offers very little stimulation for higher level thinking (Dhorn and Dohn 2018). Often these calculations are accompanied by some form of chemical practical, where students are exposed to ‘real life’ data and are told how to use such observations in a calculation.

A typical method of formative assessment in the scientific subjects is questioning. Edward and Mercer (1987) showed that initiation-response-evaluation style of questioning in the classroom is perhaps the most typical form of formative assessment that science teachers employ in their daily teaching practice. Often class time is limited and a teacher will often pick a student to answer a question knowing that a correct answer will follow suit, rather than suggest to a student who struggles with the concepts to answer it.

This question- answer-based approach is the one in which I most often use in the classroom as I find it the safest and easiest form of formative assessment. I do, however, find myself as the teacher ignoring or passing off incorrect answers given by a student and gravitating towards students who provide answer more aligned to my own personal scientific point of view or views, i.e., the correct answer. This act of ignoring the incorrect answer could be at a detriment to the student’s learning as they are not lead into a dialogue with the teacher that involves directional questioning to guide the student through a particular set of arguments or explanations (Scott et al. 2016).

In many types of assessment, the questioning approach predominantly used in the scientific subjects is that of closed questions and encourages one word answers as a response. This is the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy as it only requires the learner to remember and recite facts and figures (Bloom 1956). With the recent change in the approach to summative assessments in GCSE and A-Level examinations, students are now being asked questions that are of higher order, or pseudo-open questioning, therefore, promoting a more reflective line of thinking.

Since the introduction of the reformed Science GCSEs, the requirement for students to be assessed in their practical skills has been removed (Ofqual 2015) and students are now asked to complete a series of ‘required practicals’. As a result, a shift towards questions requiring the student to provide extended written answers about their knowledge and understanding of those practicals in the examination has followed.

Christofi (2002) noted that if practical work is not assessed then practicals can become undervalued by the students, particularly the students who are disengaged with the subject. Indeed, recently Whitehouse (2015) commented on the changes to the direct assessment of practicals where she mentions that, “A qualification in science that does not include an element of practical assessment is not assessing the whole domain”.

This new approach to practical assessment could be taken as negative, as a student who struggles with the traditional form of summative assessment, i.e., providing written answers, may find writing at length about practicals covered in their lessons. In addition, it appears, if only on the surface, that if a student completes a set of required practicals in the previous academic year to the summative GCSE assessment, they maybe at a disadvantage, as assessment of the practical seems to be a memory game.

Summary and Conclusions

The boundary between the different forms of assessment undertaken by a student in a high school or further education setting is not always clear cut, and the differences between formative and summative assessments should be in the intentions and interpretations of the particular assessment a student is sitting. For example, an end of topic exam and be both summative and formative, and it is only with adequate and constructive feedback can the assessment be taken as the latter.

Finally, the choice of assessment method and the academic relevance is one in which the teacher, subject department or school decides upon themselves (other than the summative GCSE exams), and identifying the most appropriate and effective assessment method that enables both the teacher and the student to positively gain some outcome, will ultimately depend upon learning objectives and concepts of the lesson or course.

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