Public Release: 

New assessment process seeks to more accurately identify students' knowledge base

University of Alberta

Have you ever wanted to write an anxiety-free test that accurately measured what you have learned?

Jacqueline Leighton and Mark Gierl, of the University of Alberta's Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation, may have found a way for students to do just that. They think they have come up with a strategy that would precisely assess and measure a student's knowledge base and identify key areas where the student needs to improve, information Gierl believes may reduce frustration and disappointment with current testing processes.

It is called cognitive diagnostic assessment and it's a marriage of testing and the psychology of learning. "We wanted to know if there was a way to create something to do a better job in assessing the kinds of knowledge and skills that we spent time studying and teachers spend time instructing in students," said Leighton. "This diagnostic assessment is a better measuring stick for how to help students acquire that knowledge and skills."

"Students spend a great deal of time preparing for exams, but they only receive a small amount of feedback, typically a single test score," said Gierl. "Diagnostic testing provides much more feedback and a finer level of detail. You get more information on your strengths and weaknesses, and, hopefully, on how to improve."

The process the researchers have created is outlined in an award-winning book, which Leighton and Gierl co-wrote and co-edited, entitled Cognitive Diagnostic Assessment for Education: Theory and Applications. Their methodology has education-centric groups such as Alberta Learning and U.S.-based College Board (the organization responsible for the SATs) taking notice. Leighton notes that how the test is crafted is what makes the difference.

The results of the assessment provide a more accurate measurement and give instructors greater insight into where a student may have struggled in the learning process. More importantly, according to Gierl, it provides students with more performance feedback than current testing methods by using, among other things, multiple scores from other levels of questions within the test's subject matter.

A test designed using cognitive diagnostic assessment is developed incrementally, following the principle of psychology, or the notion that there is a hierarchical order to learning new information or skills. Thus, the test would work on measuring cognitive processes from lower order to higher order knowledge.

"There's a relationship that exists between a person and what they're trying to master and the skills they're trying to acquire," said Leighton. "If you can exploit particulars or details of that relationship, you can better help a person who's trying to learn something."

Leighton acknowledges Canada's strong educational system, but notes that government reports are sometimes fearful of Canadian students being ill-prepared to compete in a global knowledge economy. Diagnostic assessment, she believes, will strengthen a solid educational base.

"If you have students who are better prepared, who know more, who are more confident in their learning, you're going to have more confident workers in the future," she said.

While cognitive diagnostic assessment represents a new model for areas such as testing and even curriculum development, Leighton and Gierl both recognize that acceptance of this process will take time. Still, they note that educational and testing stakeholders are taking notice of their work and are moving toward the adoption of a diagnostic testing model. But, in Leighton's word, the diagnostic assessment is not going to be the test to end all tests; it is only the beginning of a better process of understanding and applying the psychology of learning.

"I think we're continually learning about how people learn," she said. "We're going to have better refinements on the way to create test items that actually tap into what people know, what people don't know and how to address that gap.

"But I think that we're on the right track and that comes with recognizing that learning is actually a really complex, intricate process."

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