Annie Champagne Queloz, PhD. ETH Zürich


Archive for July, 2017

Exploring how students represent the concepts taught through the use of concept inventories


Your students are able to complete the activities you give them and they perform quite well on formal assessments. Thus, we can presume that your students have an authentic understanding. But are you really sure about this? Almost twenty years ago, Eric Mazur, physicist and educator at Harvard University, and his colleagues tested the students’ understanding of the Newton’s Law by asking them some questions of the Force Concept Inventory (Hestenes et al. 1992).

“One of the questions, for example, requires students to compare the forces that a heavy truck and a light car exert on one another when they collide. I expected that the students would have no trouble tackling such questions, but much to my surprise, hardly a minute after the test began, one student asked, “How should I answer these questions? According to what you taught me or according to the way I usually think about these things?” To my dismay, students had great difficulty with the conceptual questions. That was when it began to dawn on me that something was amiss.”(Mazur 2009)

This investigation demonstrated how students really (poorly…) represent such basic concepts taught. Consequently, Mazur and his colleague were highly motivated to induce important changes in teaching physics at Harvard University by promoting the peer instruction and the questioning teaching approach (Mazur 2009; Crouch & Mazur 2001).

The tool revealing students’ misconceptions

Concept inventories, or concept tests, are really interesting pedagogic tools to reveal students’ thinking on diverse common subjects taught at school. In general, there are multiple-choice or two-tier questions (mix of true-false and multiple-choice questions). The main distinction of such questionnaires is in the distractors, the wrong answers. Indeed, the distractors are corresponding to the most popular wrong thinking, or misconceptions, of students. The development of concept inventories takes time, but at the end, you get a questionnaire revealing the authentic understanding of students. In other words, you can find out how they represent themselves or conceptualize the knowledge you tend to teach them. In parallel, concept inventories can be useful for evaluating educational needs of students before initiating any reform of a curriculum. For example, at ETH Zürich, the weak results of students on the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI) have initiated some changes in teaching methods and on concepts taught in introductory biology courses (see our papers here and here for more details).

The construction

Thus, the common development of a concept inventory is usually done like that. The first step is to interview students or to distribute open-ended questionnaires and asked them to explain their understanding of varied phenomena. Then, after compiling the most popular misconceptions, you can create new questions and used the misconceptions as distractors. Consequently, when students are selecting such distractors, it gives you a quick idea that the students do not really understand the concept taught. However, we have to keep in mind that, by selecting the correct answer, you should not assume that students really understand. Indeed, it might be possible that the distractors are just not corresponding to their thinking. They have selected the best answer only by a process of elimination.

Some “plug and play” questionnaires

As I have explained before, developing concept inventories takes time, so here is a list of some interesting questionnaires available in biology and biochemistry. For some of them, you need to contact directly with authors to have access to the questionnaire

  1. Biological Concepts Instrument. (Klymkowsky, Underwood & Garvin-Doxas, 2010)
  2. Biological Experimental Design Concept Inventory. (Deane, Nomme, Jeffery, Pollock & Birol, 2014)
  3. Central Dogma Concept Inventory. (Newman, Snyder, Fisk & Wright, 2016)
  4. Chemical Concepts Inventory. (Barbera, 2013)
  5. Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection. (Anderson, Fisher & Norman, 2002)
  6. Diffusion and Osmosis Diagnostic Test. (Odom & Barrow, 1995)
  7. Dominance Concept Inventory. (Abraham et al., 2014)
  8. Dynamics Concept Inventory. (Gray et al., 2005)
  9. Enzyme-Substrate Interactions Concept Inventory. (Bretz & Linenberger, 2012)
  10. Evolutionary Developmental Biology Concept Inventory. (Perez et al., 2013)
  11. Genetic Drift Inventory. (Price, et al., 2014)
  12. Genetics Literacy Assessment Instrument. (Bowling et al., 2008)
  13. Heat and Energy Concept Inventory. (Prince et al., 2012)
  14. Homeostasis Concept Inventory. (McFarland et al., 2017)
  15. Host-Pathogen Interactions Concept Inventory. (Marbach-Ad et al., 2009)
  16. Introductory Molecular and Cell Assessment. (Shi et al., 2010)
  17. Lac Operon Concept Inventory. (Stefanski & Gardner, 2016)
  18. Meiosis Concept Inventory. (Kalas, O’Neill, Pollock & Birol, 2013)
  19. Molecular Biology Capstone Assessment. (Couch et al., 2015)
  20. Natural Selection Open Response Instrument. (Nehm & Schonfeld, 2008)
  21. Photosynthesis: Diagnostic Question Clusters. (Parker et al., 2012)
  22. Osmosis and Diffusion Conceptual Assessment. (Fisher, Williams & Lineback, 2011)
  23. RaProEvo. (Fiedler, Tröbst & Harms, 2017)
  24. Thermal and Transport Science Concept Inventory. (Streveler et al., 2011)
  25. Thermochemistry Concept Inventory. (Wren & Barbera, 2013)

If you know some questionnaires in biology or related topics which are not in this list, don’t hesitate to communicate with me. I will be happy to update my list!



Crouch, C.H. & Mazur, E., 2001. Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), pp.970–977.

Hestenes, D., Wells, M. & Swackhamer, G., 1992. Force Concept Inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30(March), pp.144–158.

Mazur, E., 2009. Education. Farewell, lecture? Science, 323(5910), pp.50–51.


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