Establishing a free-text version of the force concept inventory

The Force Concept Inventory, established by Hestenes et al. (1992) is the original and best well known concept inventory. The idea is that you use the FCI pre- and post-instruction, asking students a bunch of questions which give you a summary of their conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

For the purpose of current work going on at the Open University, there are a number of significant points:

  1. The FCI (and most other concept inventories) are based on multiple-choice questions.
  2. The questions are supposed to assess underlying understanding. They aren’t mathematical and students aren’t supposed to agonise over them.
  3. The questions are based on pseudo “real world” situations, but yet students are expected to ignore air resistance etc.
  4. The same questions, or very slight variants of them, are used across the world.
  5. These aren’t “assessment for learning” questions of the type I usually play with, indeed feedback isn’t given. One reason for this is that there is a general paranoia in the community that the correct answers will get out.

There are some concerns about the FCI (including a gender gap in attainment which varies from question to question). However it is generally very well accepted.

As reported extensively in this blog, I am not the world’s greatest fan of multiple choice questions, and I have been involved in the development of the Pattern Match question type, in which short free-text answers from students are automatically marked. So, our current challenge is to develop a free-text version of the FCI. Early work (with David Sands from Hull, Ross Galloway from Edinburgh and Open University consultant Christine Leach) led us to decide, at least at first, to alter the original FCI questions as little as possible. We also discovered that it is a lot easier to develop reliable answer matching for some questions than others, so the latest version of the instrument is part free-text question, part MCQ and part other selected-response question types.

So where are we up to: our PhD student Mark Parker is currently at a critical stage of the project. He is gathering responses to the questions from students so as to be able to analyse the responses and improve the answer-matching.

If you have a group of students who would be able to help us in this developmental work, we would love to hear from you. Please email me, in the first instance.

Mark is also evaluating student reaction to the instrument and I’m expecting that we might find out a whole range of interesting things.

Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30(3), 141-158.

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