69 Feedback Qualitative-Quantitative

When should qualitative or quantitative assessments be used?

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

—Albert Einstein

“Test day,” to most students, means studying, reviewing, and perhaps a bit of cramming to remember as much as possible. But to a teacher, a test gathers important information – does the student really get what I’ve been trying to teach him for the past few weeks? Standardized tests, a big issue in modern education, are certainly not the only kind of test teachers use, and tests aren’t the only way teachers can assess what students have learned. But years before No Child Left Behind, educational researchers at the University of Utah predicted that American educators were going to be “increasingly required to provide evidence” that students are learning what they are supposed to learn. Consequently, teachers now and in the future will have to figure out how to measure whether students have learned the material or not – and just how much of it they’ve learned (Worthen, Borg, and White 1993). Out of this challenge have come many ways to study, classify, and apply different kinds of educational assessment.

Quantitative Assessment

Countless books and articles have been written on the subject of educational measurement, but one way in particular to classify methods of assessment is to categorize them as either quantitative or qualitative.

Quantitative assessment, as the name suggests, focuses on numbers, or quantities. Usually, something that is quantitative can be measured and expressed in units (Wikipedia 2007). For instance, a quantitative test might include multiple-choice questions or fill-in-the-blank questions – these types of questions can easily be classified as “right” or “wrong” and the results tallied to produce a grade. Each right or wrong answer is a unit, and the group of units makes a number that is supposed to show whether or not the student knows the material.

For example:

  1. Solve 5x + 4 = 24
  2. What is the name of the capital city of France? (Satterly 1984)

Quantitative tests, like multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank, are often seen as merely encouraging rote memorization – and they often do. For instance, asking a student, “Which part of speech is used to describe a noun?” from a list of four choices does not necessarily require the student to fully understand adjectives and how to use them. On the other hand, well-constructed questions can measure learning on a variety of levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy, including application and synthesis, if they ask the student to do high-level thinking in order to come up with the best answer (Satterly 1989). A teacher might give the student a sentence and ask him to choose the word that functions as an adjective – giving him the opportunity to apply what he knows to a new situation (Bloom 1984?).

Qualitative Assessment

Qualitative assessment, on the other hand, is not based on numbers or units, but on observations that often can be subjective. Many kinds of essay questions (those asking for things like the student’s opinion on a controversial issue, an analysis of a situation, or a free-response interpretation of a literary work) are examples of qualitative assessments. Though essay tests are often graded on a scale of points, based on criteria, the teacher still has a lot of leeway in deciding what constitutes an acceptable response.

Uses for both types in the classroom

While either kind of assessment can be used for almost any set of material, in some cases a certain kind of test is especially useful. Some subjects seem to fit a certain kind of test more than others.

In math classes, for instance, quantitative assessments often come in handy to measure whether or not a student knows how to solve an equation. There is one correct answer to the problem, and each student’s answer either matches or doesn’t. Some teachers give points for each step completed correctly, while others simply mark the answer right or wrong, but each approach produces a quantitative, objective point amount that the student is awarded for that problem. An 80 on a math test shows that the student knew some of the material, or partially understood it, but didn’t know or understand all of it.

When testing students on English literature, however, qualitative methods of assessment sometimes work better – to test whether students are able to generate their own ideas about one of the novel’s themes, a teacher might give an essay test that asks students to analyze and discuss some aspect of the work at length. A student may earn an A because the teacher believes he has grasped the work at an appropriate level; or he may receive a lower grade if the teacher feels something important was missing. Even though points may be awarded for certain parts, no absolute standard applies in judging the overall quality of the essay.

Gray Areas

In his book Assessment in Schools, David Satterly discusses several major types of classroom assessment. For example, two major kinds are recall/completion and essay. There are many ways to construct each type of test, and a virtually limitless amount of questions that can be asked.


Recall/completion questions (like “In what city was the Declaration of Independence signed?”) and multiple-choice questions (like “Which number is the radius of the circle in the diagram?”) ask a student to remember a simple fact, and they are usually meant to be completely objective. There is only one “right” or “best” answer – for instance, “Philadelphia” or “4 inches.” This allows the teacher to page through a pile of tests, easily mark whether or not a student wrote the correct answer, and add that right or wrong mark to the tally of scores to produce a quantitative grade. However, few test questions can really remove teacher discretion from the grading process. The teacher may think there is a single “best” answer, but a question that asks where something occurred can, arguably, be answered to the specific city, state, country, or hemisphere. The Declaration of Independence was signed in Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in North America; but specific questions – asking “what city” instead of “where” – can help make the answer more clear-cut (Satterly 1989).


More so than any other type of test, essay tests contain both qualitative and quantitative aspects in full array. Most essay questions require the student to connect ideas, apply concepts to new situations, and, in general, utilize more of the higher-level thinking skills at the top of the Bloom’s Taxonomy diagram. It is indeed difficult for a student to formulate a viable solution to a current political issue if he does not thoroughly understand the arguments on both sides. Of course, the more a question moves toward the qualitative realm – and away from simple rights and wrongs – the harder it is to grade, simply because there is no absolute standard of correctness for the teacher to measure it against.

Perhaps largely due to this workable balance between the qualitative and the quantitative, a well-constructed essay questions is considered by many an excellent way to assess whether a student has reached a “deep understanding” of the material, and is able to reorganize it and reapply it (Borich and Tombari 2004).

Multiple Choice Questions

Click to reveal the answer.

What kind of test item is the following?

“Students, I’d like you to decide whether this scene from the novel is about the theme of social injustice. Be sure to back up your statement with examples from the text.”

A. Qualitative, because there is no single right answer.
B. Quantitative, because there is only one answer the teacher will consider correct.
C. Quantumative, because it is an essay question with no choices.
D. All of the above.

A. Qualitative, because there is no single right answer.

If a science teacher wants to see how much a student remembers about cell parts and their specific functions, which test method is he/she likely to choose?

A. A qualitative method in which the student writes an essay analyzing the cell parts and proposing his own interpretation.
B. A quantitative method in which the student answers multiple-choice questions matching the parts of a cell with their functions.
C. A qualitative method in which the student picks one cell part to research and draw a picture of.
D. A quantitative method in which the student writes a report giving facts about the people who discovered cell parts and the background behind each discovery.

B. A quantitative method in which the student answers multiple-choice questions matching the parts of a cell with their functions.

If an English teacher wants to measure a student’s ability to understand two selections from different periods of literature, which test method is he/she likely to choose?

A. A qualitative method in which the student writes an essay comparing and contrasting features in the two selections.
B. A quantitative method in which the student answers opinion questions in the multiple-choice format.
C. A qualitative method in which the student chooses one of the two books and writes about its relevance to today.
D. A quantitative method in which the student matches the works’ titles, authors, and historical facts.

A. A qualitative method in which the student writes an essay comparing and contrasting features in the two selections.

Which is the best example of a completion question to which there is one single “right” answer?

A. Where was George Washington born?
B. What was the name of George Washington’s wife?
C. What was George Washington’s most important achievement?
D. Who painted George Washington’s portrait?

B. What was the name of George Washington’s wife?

Which is the best example of a question to which there are many possible “right” answers?

A. Who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
B. Who is Huck’s friend and traveling companion in the novel?
C. What is the main difference between Huck and Tom?
D. What major American river does Huck travel down?

C. What is the main difference between Huck and Tom?

Essay Question

Click to reveal a sample response.

Briefly discuss some assessment needs of the field in which you will be teaching (e.g. elementary, history, P.E., special education) and give examples of test questions you might ask your students that fit these assessment needs.

My subject, secondary English, deals more with qualitative assessment than many other subjects do. An English teacher probably devotes many of her tests to questions that ask students to take ideas from things they have read and apply creative thought to it. For instance, she probably includes essay questions, literary analyses, and oral/written interpretation. But English teachers also use quantitative assessments like multiple-choice and true-false. In my future classroom, I will probably try to use a mixture of qualitative and quantitative assessment: simple right/wrong questions to measure factual knowledge, whether students remember the parts of speech or all the characters’ names, and writing assignments to get students to interpret, create ideas, and think on a high cognitive level. For instance, to test students on a novel they have just read, I might use a combination of 1) an oral class discussion of the novel’s ideas and themes, 2) simple recall quizzes covering plot, character, setting, etc., 3) a writing assignment asking students to create an interpretation of a passage from the novel, 4) some kind of creative project that takes an idea from the novel and builds on it visually. Any combination of these ideas this would allow students to express their understanding in different ways and on different levels and help them really grasp what I’m trying to teach them.


  • Borich, Gary D., and Martin L. Tombari. Educational Assessment for the Elementary and Middle School Classroom. 2nd ed. Columbus: Pearson, 2004.
  • “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Counselling Services. 2005. University of Victoria. 3 Feb. 2007 <http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/program/hndouts/bloom.html>.
  • Phillips, Bob. Phillips’ Book of Great Thoughts and Funny Sayings. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1993.
  • “Qualitative Properties.” Wikipedia. 18 Jan. 2007. Wikimedia. 3 Feb. 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualitative_properties>.
  • “Quantitative.” Wikipedia. 2 Feb. 2007. Wikimedia. 3 Feb. 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantitative>.
  • Satterly, David. Assessment in Schools. 2nd ed. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
  • Worthen, Blaine R., Walter R. Borg, and Karl R. White. Measurement and Evaluation in the Schools. New York: Longman, 1993.


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