Like a doctor finding out why a patient has fallen ill, teachers look out for signs of their students not understanding what was taught and why. But with so many “patients” to be diagnosed in a class, the teacher is going to need some help.
When students get an answer wrong, it is common for teachers to go, “Let me show you what to do,” and then proceed to demonstrate how they can arrive at the correct answer.
If the students still don’t get it, they’ll demonstrate it again and again. However, this may not address the underlying misconceptions that caused the students to get the answer wrong.
Assessment can show whether the students understood a concept correctly, but also reveal why they got it wrong.
But such a tool does not currently exist – at least, not in a form that is easy for teachers to use. This is why Dr Cheng Yuanshan, Dr Nie Youyan and Ms Helen Hong decided to develop one, based on the current Math curriculum.
Cognitive Diagnostic Assessment
The team is working with teachers in a primary school to explore the use of cognitive diagnostic assessment (CDA) to diagnose problems in student learning.
Diagnostic assessment has been around for years and is mostly used to evaluate problems in learning. It’s usually administered as a standard battery of test questions that covers a wide range of topics, such as an intelligence test.
CDA is a little different, explains Yuanshan.
It can help to pinpoint the exact misconceptions that a student has. Teachers can then follow up with the right remediation.
“It’s like a doctor diagnosing a patient,” says Helen, “to find out what kind of illnesses a patient has and then help the patient achieve recovery.”
Using a Diagnostic Tool
Helen used to teach in a primary school and recounts her own experiences. “I think every good teacher would already be doing some sort of diagnosing in class. They would do it on the fly, as and when, through interactions with the students or marking their answers.”
– Helen Hong, Office of Education Research
But such attempts are often ad hoc and may not be systematic enough to identify the student’s exact problems. And with so many students in a class, teachers are hard-pressed to come up with an accurate diagnosis for every one.
“Some teachers really have the motivation to teach students to do better. But the problem is, they may spend a long time just figuring out what the problem is,” says Yuanshan. “That’s why if you know what the misconception is, you can really focus on it.”
“The purpose in having CDA is to give quick feedback to the teacher so that the teacher would know where the students are at and immediately do remediation,” says Helen.
One Test, Multiple Diagnoses
The great thing about CDA is that it helps teachers to diagnose all 40 students at one go. The doctors would be envious! But how is it done?
Starting with a Primary 3 class, Yuanshan, Youyan and Helen want to develop a series of MCQ items on specific Math topics that teachers can use as a CDA tool in the classroom.
Teachers can get students to answer MCQs and then look at the answers they choose.
Each answer is carefully constructed to represent the common misconceptions students may have on a particular concept or topic.
These tests can be given during class time or even as homework. It can also be used before or after teaching a concept, to see if students have understood the specific concept.
In this way, teachers can easily and quickly differentiate their instruction to address the misconceptions among different groups of students. They can then spend more time explaining a particular concept, or conduct remedial classes for specific students.
Urgent Need for a Diagnostic Tool
In a large-scale survey of teachers in the US, 80% of those interviewed said that such an assessment tool is urgently needed. The Singapore school that the team is working with is also very interested to have such a tool customized for their teachers’ needs.
– Cheng Yuanshan, Psychological Studies Academic Group
Yuanshan, Youyan and Helen will be working closely with the teachers to come up with the tests, and also equip them with the know-how of CDA. In this way, the teachers can design their own CDA tests for other topics or even subjects.
They also hope to develop materials to help teachers correct students’ misconceptions once they have been diagnosed.
It takes a lot of planning, but Yuanshan believes it’s worth the while. “I want to use it to help teachers,” he says. If developed well, the CDA tool will save teachers’ time and enable them to assess and teach more effectively.