Computer-based testing allows students to get support according to their specific needs

Eventually, feedback will arrive instantly on personal devices as part of the learning process, not just after tests.


Computer-based testing can be an integral part of learning that enables students to seek out assistance and support whenever they need it—not just when they’re about to be tested on their knowledge for a grade, says one of Canada’s leading measurement experts.

“Formative feedback is anytime you’re learning something and you want feedback on whether you’re learning it correctly. That’s the time you should be getting feedback,” said Mark Gierl, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement. “It could be for a midterm or a final, but it could also be when you’re just trying to monitor what you’re learning so you can see if you need to go back or if you’re ready to continue on.”

Rather than students having to wait for test results to find out if they understood something correctly, or for an opportunity to talk to an instructor about content they’re struggling with, Gierl said a computer-based test with specific, instantaneous feedback would enable students to get support for their learning according to their self-determined needs and schedule.

“If you start studying something at nine o’clock and you’re feeling frustrated by 11, you should be able to get feedback on it at 11,” Gierl said. “Everyone is going to have a different cycle and a different trajectory for this teaching-learning outcome, and we want to be able to accommodate them all.”

One of the challenges of meeting individualized needs is producing large quantities of high-quality content-specific test items to enable more frequent testing. Part of Gierl’s research, based at the Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation (CRAME), involves automating the creation of these test items and the corresponding solutions and explanations that comprise feedback to the student.

“The other important component of that is we’re going to move away from these traditional item formats like multiple choice to pure linguistic input,” Gierl said. “Eventually an assessment won’t be multiple choice, it will just be written text that can be processed for giving feedback, and you’ll have different electronic systems processing that information.”

The longer-term vision is for students to be able to access formative feedback from their personal devices, rather than just when they have access to a secure facility like the Learning Assessment Centre.

In a computer lab in the U of A’s Education North building, the LAC was the site of more than 20,000 exams taken last year by students from faculties including arts, education, science and medicine and dentistry. Still, Gierl hopes it will become much busier.

“We’re talking about transition from paper to computer-based testing, so that students can write exams more quickly, get feedback more quickly, and get feedback when they need it during the teaching and learning process,” he said.