Concept Inventories and the MCIA

Two years ago I attended a guest lecture by Michelle Smith (University of Maine) about her research in to concept inventories in undergraduate education. It was the first I had heard of concept inventories, and I am reminded of this because now a colleague and I are discussing using them for parts of our course.

Concept Inventories are (usually multiple choice) pre- and multiple-choice-tests-5908127post-tests, designed to test a set of what are deemed universal concepts for individual subject areas. They are based on rigorous research and consultation; not only are the concepts tested important, but the “incorrect” answers are carefully chosen as well. I liked the idea because I had already been thinking of what topics are most important in an introductory survey course such as mine. My wife is an elementary school teacher, and she works with prescribed learning outcomes written by the provincial government. No set of standards exists outside of the institution that  guides me in what to teach; it is largely up to the individual instructor to determine what is important.

Smith’s talk was mostly about what she called the Most Common Incorrect Answer (MCIA). BY analyzing results from a concept inventCIory administered at the beginning of a genetics course, she was able to identify common misconceptions in the form of specific incorrect choices on certain questions made by a large proportion of the students.

Most interestingly, MCIA’s were persistent and “sticky”: of students who chose an incorrect answer on both the pre and posttest, those who initially chose the MCIA were less likely to choose another incorrect answer. Students who initially chose some other incorrect answer were also likely to migrate to the MCIA.

Though the specific misconceptions identified in Smith’s research don’t apply to my course (they are for a higher level biology course), I have struggled with common misconceptions that arise again and again on exams. Smith suggests specifically targeting misconceptions in multiple ways throughout the course: in class, on homework, in quizzes. I have implemented that strategy in some ways, but the challenge remain in identifying those misconceptions.

MK and JK Knight. 2012. Using the Genetics Concept Assessment to Document Persistent Conceptual Difficulties in Undergraduate Genetics Courses.  Genetics. 191 (1) : 2-32 doi:  10.1534/genetics.111.137810

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