Examining the best way to test true understanding of maths

Academics at Loughborough University will be assessing how the quality of GCSE mathematics exams can be improved as part of a new project.

Maths exams have been criticised for being made up of short, factual questions that do not test deep understanding of mathematics. This is considered to have a negative effect on classrooms by encouraging the repetitive learning of facts.

As such there have been recent calls for exams to be made up of long questions that better test in-depth knowledge. However, an objection to introducing such questions is that they cannot be marked reliably and so students cannot be sure of getting the grade they deserve.

Loughborough’s Dr Ian Jones and Dr Matthew Inglis from the University’s Mathematics Education Centre will be testing an assessment method that offers an alternative to traditional marking.

For this new method examiners would be given pairs of students' exam scripts and asked to decide which of the two is ‘the most able mathematician’. The outcomes of many such pairings would then be used to construct a statistically reliable rank order of students.

“The method is based on a long standing psychological principle that people are very unreliable at making absolute judgements, but are highly reliable at making relative judgements of one thing with another,” explains Dr Jones. “The project is timely because recent technological developments mean the method is only now viable for large scale educational assessment. The outcome of the work will be to provide evidence on how deep understanding of mathematics can be assessed fairly and reliably.”

The project is being funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society. For further information visit the Nuffield Foundation

Academics at Loughborough University will be assessing how the quality of GCSE mathematics exams can be improved as part of a new project.

Maths exams have been criticised for being made up of short, factual questions that do not test deep understanding of mathematics. This is considered to have a negative effect on classrooms by encouraging the repetitive learning of facts.

As such there have been recent calls for exams to be made up of long questions that better test in-depth knowledge. However, an objection to introducing such questions is that they cannot be marked reliably and so students cannot be sure of getting the grade they deserve.

Loughborough’s Dr Ian Jones and Dr Matthew Inglis from the University’s Mathematics Education Centre will be testing an assessment method that offers an alternative to traditional marking.

For this new method examiners would be given pairs of students' exam scripts and asked to decide which of the two is ‘the most able mathematician’. The outcomes of many such pairings would then be used to construct a statistically reliable rank order of students.

“The method is based on a long standing psychological principle that people are very unreliable at making absolute judgements, but are highly reliable at making relative judgements of one thing with another,” explains Dr Jones. “The project is timely because recent technological developments mean the method is only now viable for large scale educational assessment. The outcome of the work will be to provide evidence on how deep understanding of mathematics can be assessed fairly and reliably.”

The project is being funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society. For further information visit the Nuffield Foundation

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