Using concept inventories: can we tell if active learning approaches work?

Manjula D. Sharma, Helen Georgiou



Evaluation of active learning strategies occurs predominantly through the use of concept inventories, helping consolidate the finding that active learning strategies are far superior to ‘traditional’ lecturing with the recommendation that active learning approaches should be implemented more broadly (Freeman et al., 2014). The use of concept inventories has its flaws such as trivialising student understanding by the assignment of numerical marks and the fact that concept inventories cannot provide sufficient detail for perfecting the teaching environment. However, the use of these inventories persists, offering advantages such as a means of comparing across years, tracking cohort understandings and are relatively easy to implement (Sharma et al., 2010).


The aim of this presentation is to compare different concept inventories.

Design and methods

The study used 5 inventories across 12 separate courses with 8000 first year university students.


The study has several findings. First, we find that instructors can readily extract information on persistent student alternative understandings that could be addressed through instruction. Second, an individual institution or several institutions could track the effect of different instructional approaches over years. Third, effect size and Hake gains are complimentary, for example Hake gains of 0.25 return effect sizes of 0.67, providing different lenses for interpretation.


The use of concept inventories is reasonably wide spread. Our study utilised several concept inventories as well as several analyses, finding that concerted effort is needed in the interpretation of scores on concept inventories.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Sharma, M. D., Johnston, I. D., Johnston, H., Varvell, K., Robertson, G., Hopkins, A., Thornton, R. (2010). Use of interactive lecture demonstrations: A ten year study. Physical Review Special Topics- Physics Education Research, 6.

Proceedings of the Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education, The University of Queensland, Sept 28th to 30th, 2016, page X, ISBN Number 978-0-9871834-4-6.


active learning, concept inventories, conceptual change

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