What is the cognitive approach to assessments?

Most of the current literature on assessment in higher education emphasizes an outcomes-based approach focusing on products rather than processes. This is because good assessment practice dictates that products are measurable and processes are unobservable. However, the cognitive processes that students utilize when interacting with course content are important to assess because they can show the student's growth and development as independent learners.

When designing discrete point tests, it is possible to focus on PROCESS, particularly cognitive processes. In answering process-focused test questions, students demonstrate their ability to apply knowledge, solve problems, evaluate the relevancy of information, and comprehend terms and concepts. Test items can be designed to tap specific mental processes.

When educators think about cognitive processes, they often refer to Bloom's taxonomy.

In Bloom's hierarchical view of cognitive behavior, one level of cognition builds upon the next so that Comprehension requires Knowledge, Application requires Comprehension and Knowledge, etc. Evaluation, which is the "highest" level of cognition, would therefore involve Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, and Synthesis. The challenge for anyone developing a test is to target these cognitive behaviors purposefully.

Another model adapted from Haladyna (1996) includes cognitive processes that are commonly discussed in higher education today. They are:

  • Understanding similar to Bloom's Knowledge and Comprehension categories. Test questions in this category ask about facts, concepts, principles and procedures. For example, students define a term and identify an example that illustrates the term, or distinguish one term from another term.
  • Problem solving - test questions of this type require students to identify a problem and evaluate the pros and cons of various solutions. Cognitively, this can be a very demanding task. Students must weigh evidence, consider consequences, and apply creativity, among other mental activities.
  • Critical thinking - students engage in critical thinking when they reflect on how new information relates to or contradicts their current knowledge. It includes cognitive activities such as questioning assumptions, weighing pros and cons, developing hypotheses, making inferences, and evaluating sources of information.
  • Creativity - this cognitive behavior is much more difficult to assess, especially using discrete point testing. Other types of assessment, such as project work, portfolios, and performance tests are more appropriate for testing creativity.

See Item Shells  (.pdf, 12 KB) for ideas on how to construct test items that target these cognitive processes.

Last updated: Aug 24, 2011