Why bother measuring certainty?

It’s been a while since I blogged about the ideas that make me passionate about certainty-based assessment. In that time, I’ve had many conversations and a recurring topic is ‘why do something so complicated?’ I’ve covered off some of the boring answers about accuracy and reliability before so, today, I’m going to elaborate on one of the more exciting practical applications – assessment for learning.

Moving beyond the idea that things are either learnt or not

It is true that often, in life, you will be judged solely on the outcome of the decisions you make. You make the right call and you win, you make the wrong call and you miss out. Education is a preparation for life but we don’t always get the best result by mirroring such harsh realities. When using assessment for learning we should be looking for any measure that provides good evidence to inform the learning process – particularly those that go beyond a single correct performance.

Teachers do this all the time, requiring much more than a single correct answer before moving on, using verbal questioning to probe understanding and analysing written work for evidence of comprehension. Assessing certainty is simply a mechanism for gaining the same sort of insight quickly and efficiently.

Flagging misconceptions

My background is in teaching Science. Rather than an absence of knowledge, a much more common start point is of incorrect knowledge. This makes effective Science teaching very much an art of prediction. Until you have taught a concept a few times, it can be more like misconception whack-a-mole than a controlled delivery of new concepts.

There are, naturally, good books on common misconceptions that help, but this still leaves you needing to figure out which apply to your class. A regular quiz, set as a pre-test, might give you some clues but doesn’t differentiate well between misconception and ignorance. A certainty-based assessment categorises responses as correct-with-certainty / guess / misconception – exactly the information needed to plan effectively.

More thinking

Whilst the first two reasons I provided considered the insights gained, this final point considers the value of certainty assessment as a learning activity.

I’m not a psychologist so I use a simple rule of thumb – the more effort someone spends thinking about something, the more likely they are to learn it. Including the certainty scale (and ensuring it is meaningful by using motivational scoring) ensures that learners must spend extra effort considering their understanding for each answer they give. One twitter correspondent described it as “MCQs on steroids“. I don’t know how big the amplification effect is but, as it comes for free with every question, I see little reason not to use this technique on a regular basis.

Are you interested in trying out a certainty-based assessment?  I now have a free, Google-forms-based method for delivery. I’m even happy to help you out with design and implementation. Let me know via twitter if I can help.


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