How assessment in Canadian science classrooms influences student achievement

Teachers often use a variety of different assessments in their classrooms. There are many benefits to using a variety of assessment types, however, there is little work exploring what assessments are used in Canadian science classrooms, and how these affect student achievement.

Each of the different assessments share the goal of improving student learning, allowing teachers to collect evidence of students’ current skills and understanding. The many types include teacher-developed tests, standardized assessments, group or individual projects, and performance tasks. In order to improve student learning, we need to better understand which of these assessment types should be used more frequently and in what context.

In a review of achievement on the Pan-Canadian Achievement Program (PCAP), Dr. Man-Wai Chu and Karen Fung (University of Alberta) investigated which types of assessment are currently used in science classrooms across the country, and which best predict grade 8 student achievement on the standardized test. The researchers included students’ results from the 2013 exam (when science was the major domain assessed), as well as information included in the survey questionnaires which accompany the test. This provided responses from 31,828 students and 1,630 teachers, which they used to perform a number of quantitative analyses.

Making the Grade

Both students and teachers reported that teacher-made quizzes were the most commonly used assessment in their science classrooms. Teachers then rated individual and group projects as the second and third most frequent types. The use of projects is promising, as research has reported the benefits of projects in measuring students’ science knowledge and skills. Standardized tests were noted as the least frequently used.

Performance-based tasks (e.g. experiments and investigations) were ranked as frequently used, yet their results indicated underlying issues with their implementation. The limited effectiveness is likely due to a focus on ‘hands-on’ but not ‘minds-on’ components, which hinder students’ ability to develop their inquiry and critical thinking skills. Students and teachers reported that many experiments follow a set of instructions, or involve only watching a demonstration, producing the ‘minds-off’ approach.

The least frequently used assessment task was having students design their own experiments or investigations. These design-based activities are often used to teach and assess competencies, and their infrequent use in Canadian classrooms may hinder students’ ability to develop these skills.

The study indicated that conducting more performance-based tasks is related to higher achievement scores. This same relationship was also found in the frequency of having students design their own questions for investigations, as reported by teachers. These findings reinforce existing research that promotes minds-on rather than hands-on-only experiments, which support the teaching of inquiry and application skills.

In contrast, the more frequent use of watching a demonstration had a negative relationship with student achievement. While this approach may be simpler, and requires fewer resources, the results of the study suggest that there is limited benefit for students.

While the questionnaire’s self-reported responses may be influenced by different perceptions and understandings of the assessment approaches used, this data and the students’ achievement results reveal a number of important insights into Canadian science classrooms. Supporting teachers in using a variety of assessment formats which are shown to be effective can improve students’ science learning.

See more from Dr. Man-Wai Chu on her profile

Connected Citations

Chu, M.-W., & Fung, K. (2018). Relationships between the way students are assessed in science classrooms and science achievement across Canada. Research in Science Education. [Online First:]