Using digital technology to assess experimental science

The following was a pre-conference piece submitted to a Royal Society conference on assessment in practical science.

Summary

A modern laboratory education curriculum should embrace digital technologies with assessment protocols that enable students to showcase their skills and competences. With regards to assessment, such a curriculum should:

  • incorporate the digital domain for all aspects related to experimental work; preparations, activities, reflections;
  • provide a robust and valid assessment framework but with flexibility for individuality;
  • emphasise to students the role of documenting evidence in demonstrating skills and competences by means of micro-accreditation, such as digital badges.

This paper summarizes how some digital technologies can address the above points.

How can research into the use of digital technology in the assessment of experimental science improve the validity of assessment in the short, medium and long term?

Re-shifting the emphasis of assessment by means of e-assessment

Our use of digital technologies in everyday life has increased substantially in the last two decades, In contrast, laboratory education has remained stubbornly paper-based, with laboratory notebooks at the core of assessment protocols. This emphasis on a post-hoc report of work done, rather than a consideration of the work itself, means that the value of laboratory work has been distorted in favour of the process of preparing laboratory reports. Experimental work, and the demonstration of experimental skills and competences is of secondary importance.

There are good reasons why emphasis has historically been on the laboratory report instead of laboratory work. Directly assessing experimental work, and indeed any input students have to the planning and completion of experimental work, is subjective. Issues also arise if laboratory work is completed in groups, for either pedagogic or resource reasons. Assigning individual marks is fraught with difficulty.

Digital technologies can provide a basis to address many of the concerns regarding validity that the above issues raise, and provide an opportunity to reposition what is considered to be important in terms of the goals and purpose of experimental science.

The completion of experimental work typically involves:

  • Preparation: planning and preparing for work and making decisions on experimental approaches to be taken;
  • Action: learning how to carry out work competently, demonstrating competence in experimental approaches, and accurately recording data and/or observations;
  • Reflection: drawing conclusions from data, reporting of findings, and evaluation of approaches taken.

Incorporating the digital domain for all aspects of experimental work

Wikis and electronic laboratory notebooks are online document editing spaces that enable individual contribution to be documented and reviewed. Such platforms have been shown to allow the documentation of student thoughts and contributions to work, and as such they provide an excellent basis for recording the entire process (preparation, action, reflection) the student engages with while completing experimental work. Preparation can include a description of what equipment will be used and why, or thoughts on the purpose of experiment. Action can be documented by recording experimental work completed with the inclusion of data or observations in a variety of multi-media formats (text/photos/video/audio). Reflection can allow for a richer form of the typical lab report. In practice this means asking students to consider and review their experimental approach, so that the emphasis shifts away from the “right answer” (an often cited criticism of students coming through a school laboratory curriculum) and more towards a consideration of the approach taken.

Using traceability as a basis for validity of assessment

Validity is a core concern for a national high-stakes examination. Research to date on wikis has pointed to the advantages offered, including that student contributions are date stamped, and each individual contribution is logged. Overall contributions to work can be tracked. Rubrics have been effectively used to assess student laboratory skills, although the compilation of rubrics needs a considerable investment in order to document the desired goals and expectations of any particular curriculum experiment or inquiry so that they can be easily assessed. The value of a more flexible approach to documenting science work using wikis and electronic lab notebooks allows scope for individuality within an overall framework of requirements. However this is an area that needs considerable and ongoing research.

There is a body of research discussing the use of virtual laboratories for mimicking student experimentation, as they provide for more controlled and hence robust assessment protocols. These should be resisted, as they remove students’ exposure to the situational and psychomotor demands that being in the laboratory brings. While virtual laboratories may play some role in summative assessment – for example in decision making – they will likely act as a distraction to the necessary changes required to engaging with and documenting real hands-on work, as they will again shift the focus of experimental science away from actual laboratory work.

Emphasis on experimental science and documenting competences

An advantage of a refocus on documenting of processes means that there is an opportunity for students to showcase their own experimental skills. Digital badges have emerged as a way to accredit these, in what is known as “micro-accreditation”. Digital badges mimic the idea of Guides and Scouts badges by acknowledging achievements and competences in a particular domain. Examples could include badging students experimental skills (for example badges for pipetting, titrating, etc) and higher-level badges (for example badges where students would need to draw on a range of competences already awarded and apply them to a particular scenario (for example an overall analysis where students would need to design the approach and draw on their technical competency on pipetting and titrations). This enables students to document their own progress in an ongoing way, and allows them to reflect on any activities needed to complete a full set of badges on offer. This is an exciting area as it offers significant expansion across the curriculum. Mobile learning platforms will make new and interesting ways to develop these approaches.

Conclusions

Changing from paper based to electronic based media is not without difficulties. In terms of short, medium, and long-term objectives, an initial focus should begin with promoting the possibilities of documenting scientific work in school through the use of multimedia. This will develop a culture and expertise around the use of technical skills and work towards a medium term goal of developing a basis for documenting work in an online platform instead of on paper – emphasising the value of documenting evidence of processes. This can be complemented with the development of a suite of digital badges associated with expected experimental techniques and protocols. In the long term, this allows the consideration of assessment of laboratory work via wikis and electronic lab notebooks, using appropriate rubrics, which allow student to genuinely and accurately showcase their competence in experimental science in a much more meaningful and engaging way.

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