|Conceptual questions are questions that require a student to create an answer rather than simply to recall something or to activate an algorithm. Conceptual questions are higher-order questions. They fall into the third of the three broad categories used to assess student knowledge.
Three categories of questions
- Recall questions
- ask students to recall facts, equations, or explanations. Examples are
- What is the symbol for sodium?
- Write the equation used to determine standard state enthalpy changes from standard enthalpies of formation.
- Which of the following compounds is insoluble: KCl, KNO3, AgCl, AgNO3?
- Algorithmic questions
- ask students to use information or processes in a familiar way. A programmed computer could answer many of these questions. Examples are:
- Write the electron configuration of a cobalt atom and identify the number of unpaired electrons.
- Determine the mass of CuO necessary to prepare 25.0 grams of Cu(NO3)2.
CuO + 2HNO3 Cu(NO3)2 + H2O
- Using VSEPR, identify the molecular structure of NH3.
- Determine the chloride ion concentration in a saturated solution of AgCl (Ksp = 1.8 x 10-10).
- Higher-order questions
- require some combination of the following:
Higher-order questions often involve at least some concepts or behaviors that are unfamiliar to a student. Consequently, what constitutes a higher-order question depends on where students are located on the academic ladder. Novice students may find stoichiometry problems conceptually challenging, but after practice these become routine algorithmic exercises.
- Translation of information from words to symbols or from symbols to words.
- Interpretation of information in order to select relevant data or to determine the interrelation among parts.
- Extrapolation in order to infer consequences.
- Application of principles to new problems or situations, that is, to problems or situations that contain some elements of newness or unfamiliarity.
- Analysis of information for underlying principles and relationships or for clues to information needed to address a problem or question.
- Synthesis of a logical hypothesis, experiment, or model from a collection of inputs.
- Evaluation of new information, experiment, or model.
Examples of higher-order questions are scattered throughout the Conceptual Questions web site.
Where do conceptual questions fall in the categories of questions?
Conceptual questions are higher-order questions. As such, they may
- Assess student understanding of the underlying ideas behind chemical phenomena.
- Require students to explain an unfamiliar phenomenon.
- Test the transfer of knowledge to a new situation.
- Require students to adapt an explanation to a new situation.
- Require students to identify the underlying concept in order to recognize which algorithm to invoke.
- Cause a student to visualize a system and use it to reach a conclusion.
- Have more than one acceptable answer.
- Require students to analyze information to select relevant data.
- Be used in the classroom as occasions of learning as well as on examinations for evaluation.
Remember, whether a student finds a question to be conceptual or not will depends on the knowledge and experience level of that student. The question "Is it more difficult to remove an electron from a chlorine atom or from a sulfur atom?" is likely a conceptual question for students starting a study of periodic properties but becomes an algorithmic question for a student familiar the material.
How do we identify a conceptual question?
Conceptual questions present a chemical situation that a student has not trained with and ask the student to
- Justify a choice.
- Predict what happens next.
- Explain why something happens.
- Explain how something happens.
- Link two or more areas or topics.
- Recognize questions phrased in a novel way.
- Extract useful data from an excess of information.
Conceptual questions require more than simple recall. They require students to synthesize answers or to evaluate a problem in order to select the mathematical tools necessary to arrive at an answer. Many conceptual questions are non-quantitative. Some conceptual questions may have several acceptable answers.