Commentary: Problem-based testing

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In a moment of cynicism, a colleague of mine called problem-based learning a contagious virus and suggested that those infected be quarantined. The remark expressed the concern that to find out about problem-based learning would mean he no longer would have an excuse to continue his lecture-as-usual approach to teaching. As an active research scientist, he felt that problem-based learning required a greater commitment to teaching than was prudent for tenure and continued funding.

Adoption of problem-based learning does have transforming consequences that include recognizing the strengths and limitations of lecture-dominated education. This comes from rethinking the relationship between teaching and learning. It also accentuates the distinctions among students knowing an answer, their understanding an answer, and their ability to figure out an answer. With this transformation comes the recognition that testing in problem-based learning needs to be different.

Lecturing is efficient. It enables the presentation of large amounts of information to large numbers of students in a short time. On the other hand, it limits student-teacher communication and in large classes typically necessitates easily graded multiple-choice examinations that generally address Bloom's lower levels of cognition, factual knowledge, comprehension, and application [1]. Such examinations rank order students for the purpose of assigning grades. They infrequently introduce new material or deliberately provide a new learning experience, aspects valued in problem-based learning.

Regardless of the method of instruction, student assessment should reflect the content of a course and process objectives. If a course values Bloom's higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, and the first examination does not test those skills, students will quickly perceive the discrepancy and adjust their study habits accordingly. If the group processes of problem-based learning are not evaluated in some way such as examinations that involve a group component, students will not connect the need to work together with success in the course. This issue of BAMBED includes two quite different approaches to testing in problem-based courses.

Jozsef Szeberenyi provides the first of a series of problem-solving examinations that will appear in the coming year [2]. They have a well developed and distinctive character, being based on the research literature, emphasizing higher order thinking skills but having a multiple-choice format for easy grading in large classes. With the permission of the author, I used the first offering of Szeberenyi as a cumulative examination for second-year graduate students under the announced topic of interpreting data on signal transduction. Students were encouraged, but not required, to explain their reasoning for each question. The scores ranged from 3 to 10 correct out of 12 questions with an average between 6 and 7. The students liked the examination, had to think logically, and felt they had learned from the experience.

The article by P. K. Rangachari presents a different type of evaluation called a TRIPSE, for tripartate problem-solving exercise [3]. This three-stage assessment format is appropriate for smaller classes in which an instructor can provide individualized responses for each stage. A TRIPSE emphasizes group processes and the application of important learning and thinking skills. It, too, derives its content from the research literature. A distinctive feature of this article is the presentation of instructor responses to student answers.

Although problem-based learning has an infectious quality that has transforming effects, it should not be feared by research-active professors. The problem-based approach to learning in many ways mimics the way researchers work and researchers learn. Curiosity and a desire to understand drives student learning and scientific discovery. Both are well illustrated in the accompanying articles. As noted in the Boyer Commission report [4], education needs to take advantage of the research environment. Having students interpret and evaluate research data on examinations is one approach.

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