Assessment of Genetics Understanding : Under What Conditions Do Situational Features Have an Impact on Measures?

Understanding how situational features of assessment tasks impact reasoning is important for many educational pursuits, notably the selection of curricular examples to illustrate phenomena, the design of formative and summative assessment items, and determination of whether instruction has fostered the development of abstract schemas divorced from particular instances. The goal of our study was to employ an experimental research design to quantify the degree to which situational features impact inferences about participants’ understanding of Mendelian genetics. Two participant samples from different educational levels and cultural backgrounds (high school, n = 480; university, n = 444; Germany and USA) were used to test for context effects. A multi-matrix test design was employed, and item packets differing in situational features (e.g., plant, animal, human, fictitious) were randomly distributed to participants in the two samples. Rasch analyses of participant scores from both samples produced good item fit, person reliability, and item reliability and indicated that the university sample displayed stronger performance on the items compared to the high school sample. We found, surprisingly, that in both samples, no significant differences in performance occurred among the animal, plant, and human item contexts, or between the fictitious and “real” item contexts. In the university sample, we were also able to test for differences in performance between genders, among ethnic groups, and by prior biology coursework. None of these factors had a meaningful impact upon performance or context effects. Thus some, but not all, types of genetics problem solving or item formats are impacted by situational features.


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