Which quantum mechanics or modern physics research-based assessment should I use in my class?

posted April 10, 2021
by Adrian Madsen, Sarah B. McKagan and Eleanor C. Sayre

This recommendation initially appeared as an article in the American Journal of Physics:  A. Madsen, S. B. McKagan and E. C. Sayre, Resource Letter RBAI-1: Research-Based Assessment Instruments in Physics and Astronomy, Am. J. Phys. 85, 4 (2017).

There are seven tests covering modern physics and/or quantum mechanics content for sophomore, junior, senior, and graduate level courses. These tests were developed starting in the early 2000s and until very recently. All cover a broad range of topics. These tests are discussed below in groups based on the level of course they are appropriate for. There are two additional graduate quantum mechanics surveys, but these are not research-based and validated, so they will not be discussed further below (McKagan 2009, Singh 2008). Intermediate-level tests, such as for Modern Physics courses, are summarized in Table 1; assessments for upper-level and graduate courses are in Table 2.

Table 1. Modern physics assessments.

Title Content Intended Population Research Validation Purpose 

Relativity

Special relativity

Intro college Silver

Measure changes in students’ conceptual understanding of special relativity and identify students’ misconceptions.

Intermediate quantum mechanics

Quantum Physics Conceptual Survey (QPCS)

Photoelectric effect, wave particle duality, de Broglie wavelength, double slit interference, uncertainty principle

Intro college, intermediate

Silver

Investigate students’ understanding of introductory quantum physics concepts.

Quantum Mechanics Conceptual Survey (QMCS)

Wave functions, probability, infinite square well, one-dimensional tunneling, wave-particle duality, energy levels, uncertainty principle

Intermediate

Silver

Measure the effectiveness of different teaching methods at improving students’ conceptual understanding of quantum mechanics, and to use such measurements to improve their teaching.

Quantum Mechanics Concept Inventory (QMCI)

Wave functions, probability, 1D tunnelling

Intermediate, upper-level

Research-based

Assess students’ alternative conceptions around 1D potential barriers, tunneling, and probability distributions.

Relativity assessment

Relativity Concept Inventory (RCI)

The Relativity Concept Inventory (RCI) (Aslanides and Savage 2013) is the only RBAI that covers special relativity and is for introductory undergraduate courses that cover relevant relativity topics. This is a pre/post conceptual multiple-choice assessment where students are asked to also rate their confidence for each question. Topics covered include time dilation, length contraction, relativity of simultaneity, inertial reference frames, velocity addition, causality, and mass-energy equivalence. The questions were developed based on a list of concepts informed by the learning goals for a relevant course, textbooks, and the research literature. Use the RCI if you want to assess your students’ conceptual understanding of special relativity and the effectiveness of your instruction.

Intermediate quantum mechanics assessments

There are three tests designed for sophomore-level quantum mechanics: the Quantum Physics Conceptual Survey (QPCS) (Larkin et al. 2011, Wuttiprom et al. 2009) the Quantum Mechanics Conceptual Survey (QMCS) (McKagan et al. 2010), and the Quantum Mechanics Concept Inventory (QMCI) (Falk 2004). There is one additional quantum assessment, the Quantum Mechanics Visualization Instrument (QMVI), which can be used at multiple levels, including intermediate, upper-level, and graduate quantum, so it will be discussed in the “Upper-level quantum mechanics assessment and beyond” section below.

Quantum Physics Conceptual Survey (QPCS)

The Quantum Physics Conceptual Survey (QPCS) (Larkin et al. 2011, Wuttiprom et al. 2009) is a pre/post conceptual assessment that can be used at the introductory level (if you have covered these topics) and in a sophomore-level modern physics course. There are no equations on the QPCS and most questions focus on wave-particle duality and the photoelectric effect (this is the only quantum test which includes the photoelectric effect). Most of the questions are structured in a way that asks the students about what happens when they do a specific experiment. The multiple-choice questions on the QPCS were developed based on topics common across several introductory quantum syllabi, expert opinion, and student ideas that emerged through open-ended questions. It was developed in Thailand and tested in Thailand and Australia.

Quantum Mechanics Conceptual Survey (QMCS)

The Quantum Mechanics Conceptual Survey (QMCS) (McKagan et al. 2010) is a highly conceptual multiple-choice assessment for sophomore-level students. The QMCS can be given as a post-test only at the end of the term in a sophomore-level modern physics course. It can be given as both a pre- and post-test to measure student learning in a junior-level course or higher. Some of the questions on the QMCS probe ideas that students have about quantum mechanics, as uncovered in student interviews. For example, one question asks about electrons moving in sinusoidal paths, because interviews found that this is how many undergraduates think about the motion of an electron. The QMCS does not explicitly include equations, but it does ask students to think about qualitative relationships in equations. The questions on the QMCS were developed based on faculty interviews, a review of textbooks and syllabi, observations of students, and a literature review of known student difficulties. A few of the questions on the QMCS come from other tests (questions 10 and 11 are from the QMVI). Further, the QMCS covers many quantum mechanics topics, but only has 12 questions, so is limited in what it can tell you about what your students learned.

Quantum Mechanics Concept Inventory (QMCI)

The Quantum Mechanics Concept Inventory (QMCI) (Falk 2004) is a pre/post multiple-choice assessment which is very conceptual in nature with no equations included and simple language. The question format gives statements from a hypothetical student about a given concept and your students have to pick which one they agree with. It was designed to diagnose students’ alternative conceptions about quantum mechanics, so each answer choice is associated with a specific alternative conception. It is meant for sophomore and junior-level students. Questions are based on students’ ideas about quantum as documented in the literature. The QMCI was developed in Sweden.

Unlike the QMCS, the questions on the QMCI are about a narrow range of topics, with most questions asking about tunneling through one-dimensional barriers. Similar to the QMCS, the QMCI is very conceptual in nature and only has a few questions (nine for the QMCI), so it is limited in what it tells you about what your students learned.

Recommendations for choosing an intermediate quantum mechanics assessment

If you are teaching a sophomore-level modern physics course, use the QMCS if you want a broad overview of course topics and the QMCI if you want an in-depth test of one-dimensional potential barriers, tunneling, and probability distribution. Use the QPCS if you want to test photoelectric effect or a more in-depth treatment of wave particle duality. Use QMVI if you want a very detailed look at the relationship between the wave function and shape of potential. The QMVI contains questions from several levels of quantum mechanics, so expect your sophomore-level students to do poorly on most questions.

Upper-level quantum mechanics assessments and beyond

There are four tests that are designed to assess students’ understanding of quantum at the junior level: The Quantum Mechanics Concept Assessment (Sadaghiani et al. 2013, Sadaghiani and Pollock 2015) (QMCA), the Quantum Mechanics Assessment Tool (QMAT) (Goldhaber 2009), the Quantum Mechanics Survey (QMS) (Zhu and Singh 2012), and the Quantum Mechanics Formalism and Postulates Survey (QMFPS) (Marshman 2015). The Quantum Mechanics Visualization Instrument (QMVI) (Cataloglu 2002) can be used at several levels and will also be discussed in this section.

Table 2. Upper-level quantum mechanics assessments.

Title Content Intended Population Research Validation Purpose 

Upper-level quantum mechanics

Wave functions, probability, infinite square well, 1D tunneling, energy levels, measurement, time dependence

Upper-level

Silver

Assess students’ knowledge about main topics of quantum measurement at the junior level. Also compare outcomes of different curricular approaches.

Wave functions, probability, infinite square well, 1D tunneling, energy levels, measurement, time dependence

Upper-level and graduate

Silver

Assess students’ conceptual understanding of quantum mechanics, specifically their proficiency with the formalism of quantum mechanics in 1D.

Formalism and postulates of quantum mechanics

Upper-level and graduate

Silver

Assess students’ conceptual understanding of the formalism and postulates of quantum mechanics rather than their mathematical skills.

Wave functions, probability, infinite square well, 1D tunneling, time dependence, momentum space, 2D potentials, visualization of the relationship between potentials and wave functions

Intermediate, upper-level and graduate

Silver

Probe the development of students’ conceptual understanding of core topics in quantum mechanics across the undergraduate curriculum, especially their visualization skills.

Quantum Mechanics Assessment Tool  (QMAT)

Wave functions, probability, infinite square well, 1D tunneling, energy levels, measurement, time dependence

Upper-level

Bronze

Measure student learning of the quantum mechanics concepts most valued by faculty, assess student learning difficulties, and inform course improvement

Quantum Mechanics Concept Assessment (QMCA)

The Quantum Mechanics Concept Assessment (QMCA) (Sadaghiani et al. 2013, Sadaghiani and Pollock 2015) is one of the newer quantum mechanics assessments for a first-semester junior-level quantum mechanics course. It assesses students’ understanding of five main topics of quantum measurement: the time-independent Schrödinger equation, wave functions, boundary conditions, time evolution, and probability density. The QMCA includes math formalism, but most of the questions rely on qualitative understanding of the relationships between equations rather than quantitative calculations. It contains many questions about the Schrödinger equation and a few about measurement as a theoretical construct (e.g., given a wave function, make a measurement, what is the new wave function). There are many questions that use infinite square well potentials and a couple which ask students to think about non-standard potentials qualitatively. The developers recommend using the QMCA as a post-test for sophomore level modern physics classes. It could be used as a pre-test in graduate level quantum to see if students have sufficient conceptual understanding of undergraduate level quantum topics. The multiple-choice questions on the QMCA were developed using the open-ended questions on the QMAT as a starting point.

Quantum Mechanics Assessment Tool (QMAT)

The Quantum Mechanics Assessment Tool (QMAT) (Goldhaber 2009) questions are open-ended and are a mix of conceptual and math intensive questions, where students are asked to solve equations in some of the questions. The QMAT covers the same five main topics of quantum measurement as the QMCA and is also meant for a first-semester junior-level quantum mechanics. It should be given as a post-test only at the end of the term. It was designed to measure student learning of concepts most valued by faculty, assess students’ learning difficulties, and inform course improvement. The content of the QMAT is based on working with faculty to determine learning goals for quantum mechanics. A couple of the questions were taken from an early version of the QMCS. There is a rubric for grading the test, but the rubric requires extensive training to get acceptable inter-rater reliability. Further, because this is an open-ended assessment it is difficult to compare results to other institutions. There are limited validation studies of the QMAT, and it has been archived by the developers, so you should use the QMCA, unless you specifically want a short-answer test. Further, the QMCA has been more thoroughly researched and validated.

Quantum Mechanics Survey (QMS)

The Quantum Mechanics Survey (QMS) (Zhu and Singh 2012) is a multiple-choice assessment for the junior and graduate-level. The QMS has a wide range of topics including wave functions, the expectation value of a physical observable and its time dependence, the role of the Hamiltonian, stationary and non-stationary states and issues related to their time development, and measurements.66 All questions are restricted to one-dimensional quantum mechanics models. The QMS should be given as a post-test only in a junior-level course, but can be given as a pre- and post-test in a graduate level quantum course. The QMS was designed not only to assess students’ conceptual understanding of quantum mechanics but also contains an extensive mathematical formalism. Although students do not have to complete difficult integrals to solve any of the questions, they do need to understand the basics of linear algebra. Topics covered on the QMS are those that faculty find important for junior-level quantum mechanics courses.

The content covered by the QMS and QMCA is very similar, but the QMS is more difficult and mathematical than the QMCA, and contains a lot more equations. Both have similar formats and levels of research validation.

Quantum Mechanics Formalism and Postulates Survey (QMFPS)

The