Examining the Impact of Question Surface Features on Students' Answers to Constructed Response Questions in Biology

TitleExamining the Impact of Question Surface Features on Students' Answers to Constructed Response Questions in Biology
Publication TypeConference Proceedings
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsWeston, M, Haudek, KC, Prevost, LB, Merrill, J, Urban-Lurain, M
Conference NameMSU University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum
Date Published04/2014
PublisherMSU UURAF
Conference LocationEast Lansing, MI
KeywordsAACR, Biology, constructed response, interview, Lexical analysis, photosynthesis
AbstractOne challenge in science education is that students often focus on surface features of phenomena rather than the underlying scientific principles. In this project we investigated how student written responses to constructed response questions about photosynthesis vary based on surface features: the species of plant and the order of two question prompts. In order to test this, we asked four different versions of the question with different combinations of the two plant species and order of prompts in an introductory biology course at a large Midwestern university. We found that there was not a significant difference in the content of student responses to versions of the question stem with different species or order of prompts, as determined by computerized lexical analysis. We conducted twenty face-to-face interviews with students to further probe the effects of question wording on student responses. During the interviews, we found that students thought that the plant species was neither important nor confusing to them when answering the question. They identified the prompts as both important and confusing. However, this confusion did not impact the content of their written responses. Our findings show that surface features of these questions do not impact students’ responses. Finally, students found the prompts more important than the plant species, but they were also more likely to be confused by the prompts. This implies that question writers should pay close attention to the clarity of question prompts because students are likely to be confused about what the prompts are asking.


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (DUE grants: 1438739, 1323162, 1347740, 0736952 and 1022653). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.