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Using ‘thinking aloud’ to investigate judgements about A-level standards: Does verbalising thoughts result in different decisions?

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Greatorex, Jackie 
Nadas, Rita 


The 'think aloud' method entails people verbalising their thoughts while they do tasks, resulting in 'verbal protocols'. The verbal protocols are analysed by researchers to identify the cognitive strategies and processes as well as the factors that affect decision making. Verbal protocols have been widely used to study decisions in educational assessment. The main methodological concern about using verbal protocols is whether thinking aloud compromises ecological validity (the authenticity of the thought processes) and thus the decision outcomes. Researchers have investigated to what extent verbalising affected the thinking processes under investigation in a variety of settings. Currently, the research literature generally is inconclusive; most results show just longer performance times and no alternative task outcome.

Previous research on marking collected decision outcomes from two conditions:

  1. marking silently;
  2. marking whilst thinking aloud. The mark to re-mark differences were the same in the two conditions. However, it is important to confirm whether verbalising affects decisions about grading standards. Therefore, our main aim was to compare the outcomes of senior examiners making decisions about grading standards silently as opposed to whilst thinking aloud. Our article draws from a wider project taking three approaches to grading.

In experimental conditions, senior examiners made decisions about A-level grading standards for a science examination both silently and whilst thinking aloud. Three approaches to grading were used in the experiment. All scripts included in the research had achieved a grade A or B in the live examination. The decisions from the silent and verbalising conditions were statistically compared.

Our interim findings suggest that verbalising made little difference to the participants' decisions; this is in line with previous research in other contexts. The findings reassure us that the verbal protocols are a useful method for research about decision making in both marking and grading.



Standards, A Level/AS Level

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Research Matters

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Research Division, Cambridge University Press & Assessment

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