Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Diagnostic Testing of Introductory Geology Students

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Diagnostic Testing of Introductory Geology Students

Article excerpt


A diagnostic test for assessing the general and Earth science knowledge of entry-level college students was administered to 451 students in 2002 and 401 students in 2003 enrolled in an introductory geology course at Iowa State University. The study shows that male students, seniors, and science-technology-math majors score higher than female students, freshmen, and non-science-technology-math majors and that the differences are statistically significant. Also, students who scored higher on the diagnostic test were more likely to pass the course. The results support the feasibility of a standardized diagnostic test as a tool for geoscience instructors for curriculum planning, student advising, and curriculum assessment, similar to standardized diagnostic testing and pre-post testing used in chemistry and physics courses. Standardized national tests would enhance college geoscience education.


In the last decade there has been a dramatic increase in research aimed at studying and improving geoscience education. The ever-increasing number of manuscripts submitted to the Journal of Geoscience Education (JGE) for publication unequivocally signifies this change (Drummond, 2003). Most of the articles in JGE describe innovative techniques devised to improve student learning or to engage students in the study of Earth sciences. Compared to geoscience education, the production of education literature in general is monumental in scope and size: the Education Research Information Center, or ERIC, the leading educational database, contains more than one million citations and abstracts from over 700 educational journals and thousands of reports. The overwhelming volume of literature published in this field has one common goal: to enhance student learning.

When developing a new teaching technique, revising a syllabus to incorporate innovative activities, or designing a new curriculum, the question that each instructor naturally would ask is, "Will it improve learning of the subject matter?" In other words, how much more or better will students learn with the new approach? Because curricular innovations require time and effort, instructors must find them to be worthwhile. But how do we measure learning? Assessment is a critical part of planning educational research, and a very strong emphasis is currently placed on the development of successful assessment techniques. The recommended method is to give "before" and "after" exams to both an experimental and a control group.

The problems with this approach are multiple and well known: is the grading scale the same? Is the new technique the only part that changed in the course, or has the instructor revised other aspects of the course as well? How much time did the students spend on the activity? Is the demographic make-up of the courses the same? Are the tests comparable in length, type, and difficulty? On a larger scale, instructors may wonder what and how much their students are learning compared to students in other schools or other States. One way, and possibly the only way, to find an answer to all of these questions would be to create standardized national tests for the geosciences. Chemistry and physics instructors have actively used such tests for decades. For introductory college physics and chemistry courses, diagnostic tests have been developed in the last 10 years, and they are beginning to be used as statewide examinations (e.g., Krishnan and Howe, 1994; Russell, 1994; Steinberg and Sabella, 1997; McFate and Olmsted, 1999; Legg et al., 2001). Recently, the California Chemistry Diagnostic Test (CCDT) (Russell, 1994) was used to analyze the probability of success of students in general cnemistry with a logistic regression analysis (Legg et al., 2001), so the CCDT can be used to predict student success and to advise students about their readiness when they start the course. In an effort to establish national standards in the understanding of chemistry, the Division of Chemical Education of the American Chemical Society has been providing K-16 instructors with standardized tests since 1934 (http://www. …

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