What are Classroom Assessment Techniques?

Classroom Assessment Techniques, also known as CATs, are activities that can help instructors monitor and gauge how students are learning in their courses.  CATs can focus on different aspects of the learning process by focusing on students’ acquisition of course knowledge, how students are perceiving their own learning, and/or the effectiveness of the instructor’s teaching methods.  Different ways to use CATs in your course will be described in greater detail below.

There are a number of characteristics of Classroom Assessment Techniques that help to describe their purpose, benefit, and utility, proposed by Angelo and Cross (1993).  The process of incorporating CATs into the classroom is part of a learner-centered methodology; the focus of these activities are to help improve the students’ learning rather than focusing on just the behaviors of the instructor.  However, the instructor is an active component of the successful implementation of CATs and needs to use their discretion and judgement about how CATs can be used in their course, what they are interested in assessing, and how they can use the information to improve student learning.  The combination of helping both the students and instructor assess learning and comprehension in the course creates a mutually beneficial situation that helps to facilitate a constructive learning environment with the constant giving of and responding to feedback.

To be most effective, CATs should be used in a context-specific way so that they are addressing an aspect of the course that the instructor is interested in.  As the instructor is identifying the things that they want their students to learn from the course, CATs can be a useful way to determine, prior to an exam, whether the students are learning the material.  However, to assess how well the students are learning the course material or a specific skill, the CATs should be modified and directed in ways that specifically address the areas of content in which the instructor is most interested in monitoring.  A single CAT cannot address all goals for the course.  That is why to be most effective, CATs should be narrowly focused on the area/topic/question of interest.

Additionally, CATs should be used in a formative way to help improve student learning, rather than evaluating the quality of their learning (i.e. grading).  To this end, CATs should be used in an ongoing manner.  CATs are often ungraded activities that are used to help the students check their learning and the instructor to assess how students have learned prior to other forms of, often summative or graded, assessment.  CATs may also be anonymous to ensure that the students can be focused on the process of learning and not the graded result.

CATs are a way to continuously monitor student learning throughout a course and give the students quick feedback about their learning.  To help students make the most of the assessment process, it is necessary for the instructor to come back to the students regularly with the results of these assessment activities.  After assessing how students are learning with a CAT, it is necessary to relay that information back to the students to close the feedback loop.  Closing the feedback loop has the added benefit of demonstrating the value of these activities to the students, providing them with the formative feedback that can help them in the learning process, and enhance the communication channels between the instructor and the students.  For these reasons, the regular use of CATs in your classroom is a component of good teaching (Angelo and Cross, 1993).

Another component of good teaching, is using assessment in other ways in your course to monitor the overall success of your students.  Course-based assessment, uses the same type of process as CATs but applies it to your entire course rather than just an activity or component of it.  To learn more about course-based assessment, how to do it, and how CATs can be integrated in to the assessment process, check out our website on Course-Based Assessment.

How to use CATs in your Courses

 CATs can be used to assess a variety of things in your course.  However, CATs are commonly used to gather feedback on the following three main topics.

  • Course knowledge and student skills – CATs can be used to help monitor and improve students’ learning throughout the course. Students tend to concentrate on activities that will be graded; however, oftentimes the feedback from those graded opportunities may be returned too late in the term to help facilitate student learning.  For instance, students often find out they haven’t learned something as well as they think when they receive their graded exams back.  At this point, it is too late for the students to truly learn the material and demonstrate that knowledge in another assessment opportunity.  CATs can be used throughout the term to help monitor student learning so that topics can be readdressed prior to final, and graded, assessment opportunities.  CATs can be used to look at various levels of student learning – such as activities that encourage students to recall, analyze, problem solve, apply, etc. course content.
  • Learner attitudes and student metacognition – students should be involved in the process of their own learning; however active engagement in their learning requires the students to be self-aware and self-directed. CATs can be a useful way to guide students in the process of metacognition by helping them and asking them to assess their values, behaviors, and awareness as learners throughout the course.
  • Teaching strategies and materials – students can offer valuable feedback on teaching-related and course-related topics such as feedback on the teacher, their methods of instruction, and the course assignments and materials. Since CATs can be a quick way to gather ongoing feedback, they can be useful to assess the effectiveness of the instructor and how they teach.  However, these critiques are most useful when they are designed to provide feedback on those areas that are most useful/acceptable to the instructor.  For example, an instructor may wish to gather feedback on how a newly designed activity worked in a class period or on the quality of the readings to prepare students for a discussion.

How to get Started with CATs

The time and effort necessary to develop and implement a CAT can vary depending on the CAT used.  When starting to integrate CATs into your course, it is recommended to start with CATs that don’t require a great deal of time and that are relatively simple to implement (for examples, check out our Examples of CATs page below).  It can also be beneficial to start using CATs in a course that you are familiar with as an instructor, a course that is going smoothly, and a course that students are doing well in.  While these things are not necessary when initially using CATs, they can help facilitate the integration process and provide the instructor with an opportunity to develop confidence and experience with using CATs in their classroom.

Angelo and Cross (1993) identified three steps when using any CAT in your classroom:

  • Planning for the CAT – after you have picked a course where you will try out CATs, pick a day where you will try using a CAT. Make sure that you reserve enough class time for the CAT.  It is recommended to use one of the quick CATs (see Minute Paper, Muddiest Point, and One-Sentence Summary below) as you are gaining familiarity with how to use CATs.  These CATs are also very adaptable and flexible to use and can be modified to fit the course content for that day.  Determine what you want to assess, choose a CAT that would be appropriate to assess that topic, and then figure out how to introduce it, frame it, and present it to your students.  Some of the more involved CATs may also require materials and other things to be prepared in advance.  If that is the case, make sure you have the supplies that you need prior to the day that you will use the CAT.
  • Implementing the CAT – It is important to let your students know beforehand that you will be using some type of CAT, what the purpose of the activity is, and to be clear about the purpose of the CAT. CATs are typically used to assess the students’ learning to assist them in the course, and not to serve as a graded assignment.  Students may be more engaged in the activity when they can see the potential benefit to them.  Therefore, remind the students that the activities are about assessing how they are learning the material and that you will be coming back to them to help address any problem areas.  It is also important to make sure that the students understand the procedure for the CAT, so that they are not confused about the time that will be allotted, the procedure that they will need to follow, the end result, etc.  After you have completed the CAT, you will need to collect the responses and review them.  Ideally, the results will be reviewed immediately after the CAT has been completed so that the feedback can be returned to the students as soon as possible.
  • Responding to the CAT – After the CAT has been completed and you have reviewed the results, it is important to close the feedback loop for the students. Reviewing the results of the CATs shows the students that you are using the information they are providing to help them learn the material and improve in the course.  Helpful things to address include what you learned from their responses (i.e. are their common misconceptions about the material, additional applications of a concept, new examples to discuss, etc.), if you have decided to make any changes to the course or the content based on the results, if the results have suggested new tips or strategies to help the students in the course, and whether there will be any other follow-up for the activities they completed. 

Common Problems when Using CATs

CATs can be a helpful way to continuously monitoring the learning of your students.  In the above sections, advice has been offered about using them most effectively.  However, there are a few common problems that should be reiterated so they can be avoided.  Common problems include:

  • Not explaining the purpose of a CAT – students need to understand what they are doing and why it is a good and effective use of their time. Without explaining the purpose and why it is a helpful process, students may consider it to be a non-valuable use of their class time.
  • Using only a single type of CAT in your course – there are a huge variety of CATs that can be used in your classroom. Using different types of CATs can help assess different aspects of learning and the course.  Also, using a variety of CATs can keep students engaged in the process.  For examples of commonly used CATs, see below.
  • Only using a CAT once in your course – CATs are most effective when they are used on an ongoing basis to continuously monitor student learning. Making CATs a regular process of your course can help familiarize your students with the process and help them in the process of monitoring their learning.
  • Not feeling empowered to modify the CAT to the needs of your course/students – CATs are meant to be flexible. If the CAT is not assessing the aspect of learning or the course that you are most interested in assessing, it is not going to be as useful as it could be.  Feel free to modify pre-existing CATs in creative ways to fit your course and the course content.
  • Not helping students to see how the data are being used by you or how it can be used by them to help improve their learning, and therefore, their overall performance in the course.
  • Not closing the feedback loop – To be most effective, students need to benefit from the feedback that they have provided; this keeps them involved in the process. If students don’t see the benefits of their time spent participating in various CATs, it can make them less willing to participate in these activities in the future.
  • Over complicating the process of data collection and/or summarization of the results. 

 

Below is a list of commonly used Classroom Assessment Techniques.  Most of these require relatively little preparation and are mostly quick and easy to incorporate in your courses.  For examples of other more involved CATs, refer to Angelo and Cross (1993) and the other website resources presented below.

Misconception / Preconception Check

Focus: Uncovering prior knowledge or beliefs that may hinder or block further learning.

Procedure

  1. Identify a handful of troublesome common misconceptions or preconceptions that students may bring to your course. One useful way of preparing this list would be to talk with colleagues about things that students often have trouble with in your field or in the course progression in your department.
  2. Create a simple multiple-choice or short answer questionnaire to find out what students know or believe about these topics. If you are interested in knowing how strongly students hold certain beliefs, you can also use Likert-scale questions in your questionnaire.  Depending on what you are interested in learning about, it may be beneficial to ask someone else (e.g., a colleague, fellow instructor) to read your questionnaire to make sure that the questions do not sound condescending or leading.
  3. Before using this CAT, explain your reasons for doing so to your students so that they know your reasons for being interested in their prior knowledge. Since this CAT is interested in their ideas and beliefs, it is important to keep the students’ responses anonymous and ensure that students know that their responses will be anonymous and ungraded.  It is also important to tell your students how you will respond to this CAT after checking your students’ misconceptions/preconceptions.

 

Minute Paper

Focus: Collecting quick written feedback on student learning.

Procedure

  1. Decide what part of your course you want to focus on and when to administer the minute paper. Depending on whether you want to know how well students understood the day’s lecture or last week’s homework, the end or beginning of class may be a more appropriate time to administer the CAT.
  2. Use basic questions such as “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” or “What important question remains unanswered?” Feel free to write more tailored questions to fit your course, content, and students.
  3. Provide students with index cards or scraps of paper and 1-2 questions to answer anonymously. Set aside 5-10 minutes to use the technique and time afterwards (once you have had a chance to review the responses) to discuss the results with your students.
  4. This is an easy CAT to repeat throughout the semester since the questions can be tailored to any topic or activity while still producing helpful results.

 

Muddiest Point

Focus: Collecting information about what the students are still confused about or don’t understand.

Procedure

  1. This CAT should be used at the end of a lecture, the end of a discussion/ presentation, or following a reading assignment.
  2. Ask the students to take a few minutes to write a quick response to the question: “What was the muddiest point in this lecture/discussion/assignment/film/etc.”
  3. Respond to the students’ feedback as soon as possible.
  4. This CAT is most valuable in classes with lots of new information presented each class session as opposed to upper-level courses that require more integration and synthesis of class content.

 

One-Sentence Summary

Focus: Concisely, completely, and creatively synthesizing large amounts of information on a topic.

Procedure

  1. Select an important topic that has been recently covered in your course. The topic should be one that you expect your students to know how to summarize.
  2. As quickly as they can (and not necessarily in a grammatical sentence), ask them to answer the questions involving who, what, when, where, how, and why in relation to a specific topic. For example, “In the story of Cinderella, who mistreats Cinderella, what do they do, when and where does the story take place, how does the mistreatment manifest, and why is she mistreated?”
  3. Next, have students turn their answers into a grammatical sentence that contains all of the information they listed in response to the earlier questions. By including all of this information, be aware that the student’s responses may be long; but the point of the CAT is to help them tie together the information and making it as concise as possible.

 

Concept Maps

Focus: Demonstrating the conceptual schema that learners are developing through the use of diagrams.

Procedure

  1. Select an important and richly connected concept from your course as a starting point.
  2. Instruct your students to brainstorm for a few minutes, writing down terms and short phrases that relate to the concept of interest. Note: this CAT can be done by individual students, by the instructor to present and discuss with the class, or in small groups of students depending on the topic of interest, class size, and classroom space.
  3. Ask your students to draw a concept map based on their understanding of the topic: the central concept of interest will likely be at the center of the diagram with lines connecting to other concepts/phrases/terms. There may be primary, secondary, and even tertiary relationships depending on the complexity of the topic.
  4. In addition to connecting the central concept with primary, secondary, etc. concepts, also encourage the students to identify the types of relationships and connections between those other concepts by creating and labeling lines between different components of the map.
  5. Encourage reflection on the process of breaking a complex concept down into smaller pieces, mapping it out, and visualizing the various relationships in different ways.

 

Problem Recognition Tasks

Focus: Recognizing various problem types in order to eventually match the type of problem with appropriate solution methods.

Procedure

  1. Choose examples of several different problem types. It is especially valuable to identify types of problems that are often difficult for students to distinguish between.
  2. Students should either be expected to name the problem type by themselves or let them match the sample problems with a listed problem-type (with or without an explanation of the type of problem) depending on the level of the students.
  3. To minimize potential confusion, run your problem examples by a colleague or an advanced student to ensure that they agree with how you intend the example problems with the problem type. Also monitor how long it takes them to match the samples with the problem-type to help you determine how long your students will likely need.
  4. Create a handout or slide with the example problems and allow students two or three times the amount of time it took your colleague to respond.
  5. This is a great activity for many STEM courses where how a problem is solved depends on the type of problem it is. Students often assume they can recognize the type of problem it is, but when it is not on a worksheet or in a chapter with the problem type identified, they often struggle with this task.  This type of activity is a great way to give students opportunities to practice recognizing what type of problem they are being asked to address, identify if they are struggling with recognizing or distinguishing between certain types of problems, and low-stakes practice prior to graded assessments.

 

Documented Problem Solutions

Focus: Assessing how students solve problems and how well they can understand and describe their problem-solving methods.

Procedure

  1. Select up to three problems of varying difficulty that students have studied during the previous few weeks of the course.
  2. Solve the problems yourself. Be explicit in writing every step used to solve the problems; it can also be useful to note the number of steps and the time taken for each step.  If you determine that any problems are overly complicated or time-consuming, you may not want to use them, or at least revise them to make them more direct or clear.
  3. Distribute the problems to the students and ask them to thoroughly explain how they would solve the problems. Remember to give the students at least twice as long to solve the problems as it took you.
  4. For this CAT, thorough documentation of the steps is more important than correct answers since an incorrect answer will be explained, and more easily corrected, by seeing the logic that led to any errors. This gives the students the opportunity to recognize any faulty logic that they may be using when addressing problems.

 

Application Cards

Focus: Identifying real-world applications for material learned.

Procedure

  1. Choose a concept from your course, such as a principle, rule, or process.
  2. Distribute small index cards or slips of paper and ask students to write at least one to three real-world applications for what they have learned. If other applications have already been presented in the class or readings, encourage the students to think of new applications.
  3. Their anonymous responses can demonstrate whether they are correctly understanding the concept, they can be compiled and shared with the class, provide ideas for the exam or another assessment opportunity, or used to provide additional examples in the future.

 

Student-Generated Test Questions

Focus: Assessing what students find most important and what they understand by having them create fair and useful test questions.

Procedure

  1. Ask students to generate and answer 1-3 questions about what they are learning. Be clear about the value of having them write questions.  You may also want to clue students toward specific topics that you find especially important for that course session.
  2. You may or may not include revised versions of their questions on actual tests, but either way, anticipating possible questions is valuable as a study technique.

 

Classroom Opinion Polls

Focus: A simple way to collect information about student opinions relating to the content of the course.

Procedure

  1. Ask students about their opinion on some issue relating to your course.
  2. These questions can have any number of possible responses: agree/disagree, yes/no, strongly disagree/disagree/don’t know/agree/strongly agree, etc.
  3. This CAT can be useful in identifying students’ opinions and beliefs about course-content, especially when those preexisting opinions can distort the goal of instruction. This method can help students identify their opinions, compare their views with those of their classmates, and then test them against the existing expert evidence.
  4. Remember to explain the value of this exercise, think carefully about the opinion you are soliciting, and consider how you will respond to a variety of responses.

 

Focused Autobiographical Sketches

Focus: Asking students to write about a successful learning experience in their past as it relates to this particular course.

Procedure

  1. Decide which element of students’ learning you want them to focus on and make sure the focus is clearly related to your course goals and objectives. Determine the length of the sketch and ensure that the focus is sufficiently narrow to fit those requirements (e.g., specifying a specific period in life, whether the example should be personal/professional/etc., skill set, etc.).
  2. Determine how these sketches will be assessed; remember these are formative sketches, and not summative.
  3. You may have to direct students to help them identify a successful learning experience and how to determine why it was successful.
  4. Note: focused autobiographical sketches are often most effective when used at the beginning of a term and will likely only be used once throughout the course of the class.

 

Course-Related Self-Confidence Surveys

Focus: Assessing student self-confidence in ability to learn relevant skills and material.

Procedure

  1. Create survey questions to assess students’ self-confidence in relation to specific skills and abilities that are important to their success in the course.
  2. Allow students a few minutes in class to respond to the survey anonymously.
  3. Note: recognize that some students will underestimate their competence, while others overestimate their abilities. Encouraging students to reflect on their abilities and to develop strategies to improve on areas where they don’t feel as confident can help them in the process of learning.

 

Adapted from Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

 

Additional Resources

Books available through the UCAT library

Mihram, D. (n.a.). Classroom assessment techniques. University of Southern California Center for Excellence in Teaching.

Angelo, T. A.  (1998).  Classroom Assessment and Research: Uses, Approaches, and Research Findings.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T. A. and K. P. Cross. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Earl, L. M.  (2003).  Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Other CAT Resources

Enerson, D. M., K. M. Plank, and R. N. Johnson.  (2007).  An Introduction to Classroom Assessment Techniques.  Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State.

CAT Ideas from the Field Tested Learning Assessment Guide for STEM Instructors

Classroom Assessment Techniques from the University Teaching and Learning Center, The George Washington University

Classroom Assessment Technique Examples from The Center for Teaching and Learning, University of North Carolina – Charlotte