Diagnostic assessment: One way to gather data as you improve student learning through action research

Today I was lecturing to about 120 teachers-to-be in a Curriculum and Methodology¬† course. I ran a ‘diagnostic asessment’ around phases of the moon as a general topic that everyone is familiar with, but where non-scientific concepts are prevalent into adulthood.

I asked this question:

‘A friend in the USA who is on Facebook reports that the moon is full at 5am Tennesee time. You go outside at the same time (7.30 pm in Adelaide, Australia) and see the moon. What phase is the moon in Australia?’

The options I gave were:

a) full
b) half
c) crescent
d) new

I didn’t provide the correct answer in class, and we had a fair bit of discussion around the advantages and disadvantages of providing the correct answer immediately after the test. Some advantages of giving the correct answer provided by the audience included:

  • students would be aware immediately what the correct answer was
  • reinforce (latent) background knowledge
  • having their curiosity piqued, that moment may be a window of opportunity when students were interested to know and retain the answer

Some disadvantages included:

  • if students hadn’t learned the concept in the previous x years of schooling, why would another answer told to them be any different?
  • the oppportunity for students to research the answer for themselves may be missed
  • the oppportunity for students to pair up for discussion may be missed, where pairs would be composed of those who understood the concept and those who did not.

Ultimately, we agreed that there was no fixed, correct way: it depended on the reasons for running a diagnostic assessment.

One thing that I enjoyed was that a number of students demonstrated (through the way they continued to position their hands) or actually came to me and said that they couldn’t focus on the topic of ‘diagnostic assessment’: they were still on the phases of the moon.

It reinforced the role of novel questions that probe existing knowledge and open up the exploration of ideas. Even though, as we discussed, the curriculum is often so crowded, and first-year-out teachers so under the hammer, this example shows that some students may go and research the topic: wikipedia wont answer this directly. Maybe some conservations, even face-book conversations with friends in USA along with gathering observational data may help? Maybe NASA website or books on the Solar System may help?

I wonder what your answer is currently to that question. Please enter an answer into the poll below. If you were in the class (or even if not), maybe add a comment  on any research that you do on phases, including your answer and how you determined it. Also comment on any aspects of diagnostic assessment, and its role to provide you with data to help improve student learning.

You can also check out the powerpoint on today’s talk if you are in the course- it has an explanation of phases of the moon in it.