Theoretical and Research Context for SAVE Science

What is the best way to assess whether students understand and retain the knowledge they learn in science classes? The current climate in the United States puts the burden of assessment on standardized tests, which do not give a full picture of what a student knows, because they cannot effectively test understanding of scientific concepts or the nature of scientific inquiry. At the same time, the use of open-ended questions to test conceptual understanding requires a reading proficiency that many students do not have and raises questions of whether science or reading ability is being tested.

With the emergence of Multi-User Virtual Environments as teaching tools, technology makes it possible to teach and assess students without the limitations sometimes imposed by a lower reading ability. Research has shown that using these virtual environments for assessment offers details about student understanding while also providing information about students' strategies in solving problems.

Pilot implementations of the science MUVE known as River City have shown the environment to be highly motivating for students, particularly students with lower academic backgrounds. Using these virtual environments for assessment builds on that motivation and has the potential to provide both broader and deeper understanding of student learning.

To date, little research has been done on whether MUVEs can be used to situate assessments effectively within virtual environments. One concern for using MUVEs for assessment involves "cognitive load" — the amount of stimulation and information a student can absorb without being overwhelmed or taken off task. Some students involved in a River City study, for example, reported not knowing where to focus their attention in the environment and difficulty in keeping track of the many sources of information encountered.

In its classroom field-testing, the SAVE Science project is studying how well virtual environments can situate assessments and the impact such virtual assessments have on the understanding of both student knowledge and students' self-efficacy in science. In addition, SAVE Science is investigating the principles of design that shift the cognitive load of users toward "essential" sources of information within virtual environments and promote interaction with assessment "hotspots."