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Nearly all undergraduate biology courses rely on quizzes and exams. Despite their prevalence, very little work has been done to explore how the framing of assessment questions may influence student performance and affect. Here, we conduct a quasi-random experimental study where students in different sections of the same course were given isomorphic questions that varied in their framing of experimental scenarios. One section was provided a description using the self-referential term “you”, placing the student in the experiment; another section received the same scenario that used classmate names; while a third section's scenario integrated counterstereotypical scientist names. Our results demonstrate that there was no difference in performance throughout the semester between the sections, nor were there differences in students’ self-reported stress and identity. However, students in all three sections indicated that they most preferred the self-referential framing, providing a variety of reasons that suggest that these variants may influence how well a student reads and processes the question. In addition, our results also indicate that the framing of these scenarios can also have a large impact on some students’ affect and attitude toward the question. We conclude by discussing implications for the biology education research community and biology instructors.


This article was originally published in CBE—Life Sciences Education, volume 22, issue 4, in 2023.

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