Issues Magazine

Assessment of Academic Reasoning Skills


Sam Hambur and Sean Pywell, Australian Council for Educational Research

Tests of “academic reasoning” focus on the mental processes that underpin school and tertiary studies, rather than the specific knowledge and skills of particular academic disciplines. They can be thought of as general, generic or cross-curricular reasoning assessments.

The terms “general”, “generic” and “cross-curricular” refer to breadth of transferability. While reasoning processes are learned in a particular context, and their form varies from discipline to discipline, they do not have to be learned totally anew in each new context; that is, reasoning processes can be transferable.

Such tests assess students’ capacity to reason in a range of contexts, some of which will be familiar to the student, some of which will not. The expectation is that the wider the range of contexts in which students are able to reason, the more likely they are to be able to reason within contexts with which they have yet to become familiar. It is this expectation that leads people to label tests of this kind as “aptitude” tests.

One way of classifying such reasoning skills is to categorise them as formal or informal.

Formal reasoning encompasses logico-quantitative abilities, including the interpretation and application of ideas presented as numbers, text, diagrams, graphs and tables, in particular the processes of “dealing with information”, “decision-making” and “problem-solving”. Formal reasoning addresses the styles of reasoning typically elicited in, but not limited to, the domains of mathematics and science.

Informal reasoning encompasses verbal and visual comprehension, holistic judgements about meaning, and socio-cultural understandings (e.g. the interpretation of subjective human constructs). In particular, informal reasoning assesses comprehension, interpretation and critical thinking. Informal reasoning addresses the styles of reasoning typically elicited in, but not limited to, the domains of the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Another classification system utilises three broad domains: quantitative reasoning, critical reasoning and verbal/socio-cultural reasoning. This system can be readily adapted to a two-component system by splitting “critical reasoning”.

There are other classification systems, some of which refer to IQ-test measures such as fluid and crystallised intelligence.

In Australia, such generic reasoning skills tests include the following Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) tests: the Australian Scaling Test (used to put all students on a common scale for selection into university); the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (used for selection of mature age students into Australian universities); and the General Achievement Test (used for several purposes in Victoria, but in general as a comparison of academic ability against classroom assessment outcomes).