Ecological diversity methods improve quantitative examination of student language in short constructed responses in STEM


We novelly applied established ecology methods to quantify and compare language diversity within a corpus of short written student texts. Constructed responses (CRs) are a common form of assessment but are difficult to evaluate using traditional methods of lexical diversity due to text length restrictions. Herein, we examined the utility of ecological diversity measures and ordination techniques to quantify differences in short texts by applying these methods in parallel to traditional text analysis methods to a corpus of previously studied college student CRs. The CRs were collected at two time points (Timing), from three types of higher-ed institutions (Type), and across three levels of student understanding (Thinking). Using previous work, we were able to predict that we would observe the most difference based on Thinking, then Timing and did not expect differences based on Type allowing us to test the utility of these methods for categorical examination of the corpus. We found that the ecological diversity metrics that compare CRs to each other (Whittaker’s beta, species turnover, and Bray–Curtis Dissimilarity) were informative and correlated well with our predicted differences among categories and other text analysis methods. Other ecological measures, including Shannon’s and Simpson’s diversity, measure the diversity of language within a single CR. Additionally, ordination provided meaningful visual representations of the corpus by reducing complex word frequency matrices to two-dimensional graphs. Using the ordination graphs, we were able to observe patterns in the CR corpus that further supported our predictions for the data set. This work establishes novel approaches to measuring language diversity within short texts that can be used to examine differences in student language and possible associations with categorical data.


Megan Shiroda, Michael Fleming, Kevin Haudek

Year of Publication



Frontiers in Education



Date Published


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