Been testing a bit…

Almost a day late on this one, it isn’t really Monday anymore, but I totally overslept this one. Watching my daughter compliment my noodles with bolognese sauce tends to do that to you, turns me into a fool that forgets stuff she had proposed to do… 🙂

Anyway, this week I want to continue the theme of “University education”. I know, it might be boring, for those that are more interesting in travel (pictures, yay!), conferences (pictures of people, yay!) and gossip… err, news from the world of science, don’t worry, plenty of travel coming up for me in the next few weeks. Even as we speak a conference on integral field spectroscopy in galaxy surveys is happening right now, so I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for that one.

However, last week we had another 2 days of workshop relating to “Testing and Mentoring”. Combined with the fact that over the summer with a professor colleague and mentor we’ve been grading some oral presentations and testing some students one-on-one (well two-on-one to be precise), this was quite pertinent.

Yesterday we had two oral tests scheduled. These are usually 20-30 minute affairs. The subject for these particular tests related to basic astronomy concepts, we ask you about a subject for about 8-10 minutes. We go deeper and deeper with the questions until either the time is up or we find a barrier, where you might need some “hints” or “encouragement”. The theoretic construct behind it is quite similar to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning in the cognitive domain. In terms of didactics it is basic stuff and probably you have done it yourself subconsciously, but I wanted to put it up on the blog for me as a reminder, too. The table is by Donald Clark from this website: It also has links to the original research paper and further reading on the subject.


Example and Key Words (verbs)

Knowledge: Recall data or information. Examples: Recite a policy. Quote prices from memory to a customer. Knows the safety rules.

Key Words: defines, describes, identifies, knows, labels, lists, matches, names, outlines, recalls, recognizes, reproduces, selects, states.

Comprehension: Understand the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems. State a problem in one’s own words. Examples: Rewrites the principles of test writing. Explain in one’s own words the steps for performing a complex task. Translates an equation into a computer spreadsheet.

Key Words: comprehends, converts, defends, distinguishes, estimates, explains, extends, generalizes, gives an example, infers, interprets, paraphrases, predicts, rewrites, summarizes, translates.

Application: Use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction. Applies what was learned in the classroom into novel situations in the work place. Examples: Use a manual to calculate an employee’s vacation time. Apply laws of statistics to evaluate the reliability of a written test.

Key Words: applies, changes, computes, constructs, demonstrates, discovers, manipulates, modifies, operates, predicts, prepares, produces, relates, shows, solves, uses.

Analysis: Separates material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. Distinguishes between facts and inferences. Examples: Troubleshoot a piece of equipment by using logical deduction. Recognize logical fallacies in reasoning. Gathers information from a department and selects the required tasks for training.

Key Words: analyzes, breaks down, compares, contrasts, diagrams, deconstructs, differentiates, discriminates, distinguishes, identifies, illustrates, infers, outlines, relates, selects, separates.

Synthesis: Builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements. Put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. Examples: Write a company operations or process manual. Design a machine to perform a specific task. Integrates training from several sources to solve a problem. Revises and process to improve the outcome.

Key Words: categorizes, combines, compiles, composes, creates, devises, designs, explains, generates, modifies, organizes, plans, rearranges, reconstructs, relates, reorganizes, revises, rewrites, summarizes, tells, writes.

Evaluation: Make judgments about the value of ideas or materials. Examples: Select the most effective solution. Hire the most qualified candidate. Explain and justify a new budget.

Key Words: appraises, compares, concludes, contrasts, criticizes, critiques, defends, describes, discriminates, evaluates, explains, interprets, justifies, relates, summarizes, supports.

So this taxonomy of learning is generally quite helpful in devising goals for your lecture, you might want to start at the very beginning which is pure knowledge base and let the students end up doing their own judgements about the current state of knowledge (uh… something like research 🙂 ). Here is an example of how that would work on something simple like Kepler’s laws.

Remembering: Cite the three laws, write down the formulas.

Understanding: Draw a picture with the planets relating to Kepler’s law. What is an ellipse? What is the semimajor axis? Where is the focus? What is meant by enclosed area?

Applying: Ask a simple extrapolation question or a small calculation. For example: if the velocity of a planet circularly orbiting the sun at a radius r is v, what would it be at 2r?

Analyzing: Extrapolate Kepler’s laws into other parts of astronomy. For example, Pluto’s mass was only calculated when its moon Charon was discovered in 1978. How? Why? Which one of Kepler’s laws would you use for that?

Evaluating: A bit more general, the student needs to gather knowledge from other lectures and/or formulas to make judgement calls. How are Kepler’s laws relevant in the motions of stars around the center of the galaxy? Why would they not necessarily apply? What needs to be considered for something to have “Keplerian motion”? What kind of rotation curve would you expect for a star having Keplerian motion around the center of the galaxy? What does it mean that galaxies show flat rotation curves?

Creating: Write a proposal on exactly the research on stellar motions in the center of our galaxy that the Andrea Ghez’ and Reinhard Genzel’s groups have been doing in calculating the mass of the black hole there.

Obviously the last two points would span too much time. They would be much more part of a homework, perhaps a final project – but there have been exceptional students that you can sort of lead into the thinking behind even in an oral examination. What is important is that you can see in this simple example how the taxonomy grows and how you find interesting questions to lead you through the oral exam without making it a simple question-answer game. This applies to written examinations as well – the trouble (for the examiner mostly, lol) comes when the first point is not there, but there is all sorts of knowledge about the latter points.

Anyway, now that you have the test all set up, you’re all prepared, you have trained yourself in the mannerisms of the presentation, you want to appear professional, but positive, you have a glass of water ready, some pen and paper – everything for the student and you to have a conversation, you need to grade the test.

Ah well, here is where the funny part comes. The first guy never showed up. At first we were worried he might be wandering the offices at University (we work in a research institute, we are only associated with the University for teaching duties, our offices are off-campus), but the secretary at University did not see him at the agreed-upon time either. The second woman was clearly an intelligent woman (since she followed logical arguments and actually deduced a satellite orbit during the exam), but she just didn’t study, like actually just sit down and think about the material. She was just happy that we gave her the lowest passing grade and off she went. This left me a bit sad, when I shouldn’t be. Everybody has a right to put certain classes on the backburner. Simply because one is intelligent one does not “owe it to the world” to succeed or do hard things. But still…

I also have to say that the workshop itself last week was utterly boring and the teacher was a bit incompetent. He brought a lot of knowledge to the table, but I felt he couldn’t apply it. It is weird, because it’s now the second week, I’ve complained about the lecturer on this blog, but the first training sessions relating to didactics at University were really good. I guess I was pampered and now have quite high standards. We also had the misfortune that due to scheduling conflicts our group turned out to be quite small and filled with teachers of the natural sciences (physicists, chemists, biologists, etc.). As such, some of us were actually yearning for more structure… more truths… I mean, yes we acknowledge there is personality in every subject, even in math, but the teacher as a psychologist was almost set out to invalidate any fact presented as absolute truth. Ah well, it’s not easy teaching scientists :D. I got a lot of great insights by my fellows, though. How they deal with things, certain situations familiar to all of us. Plus the anecdotes, oh the funny test answers (if you have any fun ones, please do share!), the logically impossible excuses (the fifth death of a grandmother in a semester).

It was a nice respite from my overly research driven activities around me at the moment, but alas, now it’s back to QUASARS!

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