What are you thinking? Using clinical interviews for student assessment

African American mail teacher helping young student work on math problem on white board

Personalized learning is the way in which we can move all students along at their own pace, customized to their own learning style to achieve the high standards that we expect of them. To truly personalize

instruction, teachers should understand at any given moment what students know, what they are thinking about a topic, and what misconceptions are preventing them from gaining more sophisticated knowledge. The best way to truly understand what a student knows and what they are thinking is to give them a task let them approach it in their own way and express themselves without prompting or encouragement.  In other words, we have to “enter the child’s mind” (Ginsburg, 1997) or find the child’s “voice” or “perspective” (Confrey, 1998).

Clinical interviews are sometimes used in educational and psychological research to provide deep insights into students’ thinking. Jean Piaget originally developed the clinical interview as an instrument for his psychological research after he noticed that children gave unanticipated responses to questions or tasks that were quite fascinating, and their mistakes gave important clues concerning the nature of their thinking (Ginsburg, 1981).

Female teacher helping male student assess writing assignment

If we have a clear understanding of the way students’ learn (with guidance from learning science and cognitive science research), we can harness technology to build assessments to be as nimble as a teacher conducting a clinical interview so that follow-up probing is immediate and customized to students’ responses.

A clinical interview is conducted one-on-one, and begins with a common question, but the teacher then customizes probing in a flexible manner in reaction to what the student says to uncover deeper insights. In this way, clinical interviews are “deliberately non-standardized” because the interviews unfold differently for every student (Ginsburg, 1997, p. 2). A clinical interview is quite different from just observing a student, which may give some insight but does not provide the detail needed to truly understand a student’s level of knowledge.  Researchers and teachers have found that clinical interviews often provide a more accurate assessment than other assessment measures because they offer a deeper perspective on students’ thinking and their misconceptions.

It is not easy to conduct clinical interviews because teachers are accustomed to providing praise and guidance to their students.  To be truly effective and elicit students’ pure ideas, teachers must resist the temptation to praise, encourage or discourage particular ideas, and must be completely neutral and create a safe space for children to express themselves without judgment or implicit guidance. Students should not be able to pick up on cues so that they change their performance to please the teacher.

Dr. Herbert Ginsburg is a strong proponent of the clinical interview method and he believes it should be used more frequently in the classroom.  It is a time consuming process and teachers often do not have the luxury of working with their students one-on-one, but Ginsburg believes that teachers may be able to do a lot of “partial” clinical interviews in the classroom where they ask open-ended questions and really listen to student responses to guide follow-up.  In an interview with Scholastic’s Early Childhood Today, Ginsburg noted, “One kid might say one thing, one might say another, but as they say things, you have to try to get more out of them.”

So, how do we reconcile the need for detailed information about students’ thinking as the basis of personalized learning, and the inability of teachers to conduct clinical interviews with all of their students on a daily basis? Can we use other assessment methods to get this detailed information to help us move towards personalized instruction and learning?

In my previous posts I have written about the promise of learning progressions for assessment and instruction. Assessments that are explicitly linked to learning progressions may someday provide a similar level of detail about students’ thinking as the clinical interview. These assessments can be designed to elicit students’ thinking and level of sophistication in their knowledge. Rather than scored correct or incorrect, responses would be scored to place students at a level of a learning progression which describe qualitatively different levels of achievement or the stages that students go through from their initial conceptions about a topic to their most sophisticated knowledge of that topic.  The assessment results would tell teachers the status of students’ knowledge and what misconceptions may be preventing them from attaining more sophisticated knowledge, so that they can react with appropriate instruction.

It is not easy to design assessments such that students at all ability levels can express their thinking in a clear enough fashion so that we can reliably find their location on a learning progression. But, if we have a clear understanding of the way students’ learn (with guidance from learning science and cognitive science research), we can harness technology to build assessments to be as nimble as a teacher conducting a clinical interview so that follow-up probing is immediate and customized to students’ responses. That is our hope and that is what we are working towards.


About the Author
Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer L. Kobrin is a former research scientist at Pearson whose primary role was developing and undertaking a research agenda to explore the promise of learning progressions for improving assessment, instruction, and teacher development. Dr. Kobrin was previously a research scientist at the College Board where she led research efforts to collect evidence of the validity of the SAT, and conducted research on factors related to college readiness and college success. She has co-authored several book chapters on educational assessment and validity, and her work has been published in Educational and Psychological Measurement, Educational Assessment, and Assessing Writing. Dr. Kobrin is an active member of the National Council on Measurement in Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the Northeastern Educational Research Association. She holds a doctorate in Educational Statistics and Measurement from Rutgers University, and a master’s degree in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferKobrin


Works Cited

Confrey, J. (1998). Voice and perspective: Hearing epistemological innovation in students’ words.  In M. Larochelle, N. Bednarz, & J. Garrison (Eds.), Constructivism and Education (Chapter 7, pp. 104-120). Cambridge University Press.

Ginsburg, H. (1997). Entering the child’s mind: The clinical interview in psychological research and practice. Cambridge University Press.

Ginsburg, H. (1981). The clinical interview in psychological research on mathematical thinking: Aims, rationales, techniques. For the Learning of Mathematics, 1(3), 4-11.