Research shows end-of-year science exams do not provide full picture

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

High-stakes science exams are failing to provide students with enough questions that include or require visual representations, despite them being common practice in the classroom, according to new research.

A study led by Australian Catholic University (ACU) Professor Len Unsworth has found a “misalignment” between the low prevalence of visual representations in Year 12 examinations, compared with their common usage in the teaching and learning of physics, chemistry, and biology in the classroom.

Professor Unsworth said the emphasis on written questions and responses meant students were not using the explanatory power of multimodal representations or getting the chance to show their full understandings.

“We need to make sure the assessments reflect what most science teachers agree is the best practice in teaching,” Professor Unsworth said. “Student interpretation and creation of visual representations play an integral role in their learning, so it’s concerning not to see these processes better reflected in final year examinations.”

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Professor Unsworth examined the use of visual representations in final year physics, chemistry, and biology examinations from the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), the New South Wales Higher School Certificate (HSC), New Zealand’s National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), A-Level Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), and Singapore’s A-Level H2 between 2014 to 2019.

Visual presentations included pictorial, photographic, and cartographic visualisations, charts, real-life drawings, electron micrograph images, timelines, graphs, and diagrams.

The research found that of the constructed response items (CRI) requiring student responses in the exams, visualisations for student interpretation were used in 30 per cent of physics questions, followed by 25 per cent for biology and 17 per cent for chemistry.

Diagrams were the most common visualisation accounting for 23 per cent of the CRIs for physics, 14 per cent for biology, and six per cent for chemistry. Graphs were most common on physics exams at 11 per cent, followed by biology at seven per cent and chemistry at five per cent.

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Visual representation is a powerful learning tool

When taking individual exam types into account, New Zealand students had the most exposure to visual representations in biology at 91 per cent – more than five times that of HSC students at 17 per cent, and more than three times greater than those in VCE exams at 26 per cent.

But New Zealand’s exam structure differed from the other exams, with only three extended response questions per subject. Accordingly, New Zealand students also fared better when it came to visual representations in physics at 45 per cent, compared with 39 per cent for VCE students, and 27 per cent for HSC examinees. HSC students had the most visual representations for chemistry with 22.5 per cent, compared with 18 per cent for New Zealand, 17 per cent for Singapore, and just 13 per cent for the VCE.

The figures were drastically lower when it came to CRI’s that required students to draw a diagram or graph in each subject in each jurisdiction, ranging from one to four per cent. The percentages ranged from 0.3 per cent to six per cent when it came to questions requiring students to modify a graph or diagram.

Professor Unsworth said multimodal teaching, learning and assessment experiences were needed for students to have the opportunity to develop a rich understanding of scientific topics. He has also co-authored a new book, Reading Images for Knowledge Building: Analyzing Infographics in School Science (1 ed.), to help science teachers improve their use of visualisations through practical learning experiences in the classroom.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]