Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Boost to Learning for Students & Teachers

8 Sep

I check in with the “Edutopia: What Works in Education” blog with greater frequency when August moves me into revising courses and September into designing class sessions for the new term. Edutopia writers regularly offer clear-eyed, research-rich and classroom-informed ideas that teachers can adapt for use right now.

The post I have circled back to most often in recent weeks is “Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding.” The post prompted me to consider new formative assessment prompts – 5 Words, Opinion Papers, and an Intrigue Journal, for example – that I can integrate alongside some regulars, like Muddy Moments and 60 Second Papers.

If you’re new to using formative assessment prompts as a part of your teaching to understand their learning, this TILT post will offer some background on CATs as well as highlight two great resources – including Edutopia’s – for starting out.

If you’re a practiced users of CATs, our post can serve as a reminder of the basic reasons why we incorporate this tool, and will introduce you to some new approaches in the same two great resources.

 What Are – and Why Use – CATs?

Drawing on Michigan State’s Office of Faculty and Organizational Development, CATs can be described in this way:

CATs and other informal student feedback techniques are formative activities embedded in the midst of learning to help learners see what and how they are learning, and to allow instructors to monitor learning throughout the semester. The prompts take many forms – quizzing but also drawing, speaking, modelling, and writing; whatever the form, the goal is to asks students about their learning – both the what and the how – via short, frequent, interactive checks. For learners, this is a moment to make learning gains and struggles and practices explicit. For teachers, these are opportunities to gather qualitative data from which we can not only offer global, immediate feedback but also make informed decisions about next teaching – or re-teaching – moves.

Formative assessment prompts become classroom research tools for investigating the everyday questions of teaching, such as “(How) Was my teaching effective?” or “What is still confusing students?” or “What difficulties are students encountering?” or “How can I improve my teaching/how can students improve their learning in this course?” CATs can be designed to assess – to gain information about learning and teaching related to – Development of Course Knowledge and Skills; Learner Attitudes, Values, and Self-Awareness; and Cross-Group Reactions to Instruction Method. CATs can take shape as reading assurance quizzes, as a sequence of varying (mis)conception checks across a unit, as inclass application or authentic audience practices, as “preparing for class” (homework) prompts student complete with peers or on their own, in writing or online.

And, as the Edutopia blogger notes, via a meta-study reporting on 250 empirical studies, embedding formative assessment as a regular learning practice works to double student learning – whatever the grade level of the student learner. For students, the Iowa State Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching points out the benefits include

  • development of self-assessment and learning management skills;
  • reduction in feelings of isolation and impotence, especially in large classes;
  • increased understanding and ability to think critically about the course content;
  • fostering an attitude that values understanding and long-term retention;
  • seeing teachers’ interest and care about students learning success in our classrooms.

Two Great Resources

Whether working with first year writing students, upper division philosophy students, or my graduate future faculty, I need to use formative assessments, or CATS, to “dip into” the learning and teaching stream as a means of making learning explicit – students seeing “where they’ve gotten to” relative to a class session or course goal, teacher-me gaining a glimpse of the route taken as well as any road blocks temporarily or solidly blocking those journeys. The qualitative data that I gather becomes fodder for making next (re)teaching decisions, and for the immediate feedback, global and yet nuanced through the data collected, I can offer.

Iowa State’s “Strategies to Check Student Learning in the Classroom” ( offers – as an example – five basic prompts useful in uncovering “Course Knowledge and Skills” across a broad range of disciplines:

Kind of Evaluation Name How It’s Done How to Use Time Needs
Course Knowledge and Skills One-Minute Paper* During last few minutes of class period, ask students to use a half-sheet of paper and write “Most important thing I learned today and what I understood least.” Review before next class meeting and use to clarify, correct, or elaborate. Low
Muddiest Point* Similar to One-Minute Paper but only ask students to describe what they didn’t understand and what they think might help. Same as One-Minute Paper. If many had the same problem, try another approach. Low
Chain Notes* Pass around a large envelope with a question about the class content. Each student writes a short answer, puts it in the envelope, and passes it on. Sort answers by type of answer. At next class meeting, use to discuss ways of understanding. Low
Application Article During last 15 minutes of class, ask students to write a short news article about how a major point applies to a real-world situation. An alternative is to have students write a short article about how the point applies to their major. Sort articles and pick several to read at next class, illustrating range of applications, depth of understanding, and creativity. Medium
Student-generated test questions* Divide the class into groups and assign each group a topic on which they are each to write a question and answer for the next test. Each student should be assured of getting at least one question right on the test. Use as many of the questions as possible, combining those that are

Edutopia’s “53 Ways to Check for Understanding” ( reminds me that some of my favourite CATs are worthy of continued use; for example, the Summary Poem Activity, Invent a Quiz, and Explain Your Solution can be adapted to science (chemistry haiku), to engineering (students adding to the quiz bank daily), and to mathematics (narrating problem-solving strategies within a homework set) as easily as they can be to fine arts or social science or humanities or professional disciplines.

Even more, these 53 quick checks for understanding provide prompts that have taken my thinking – as a long-time user of CATs – in new directions:

  • Opinion Chart: List opinions about the content in one half of a T-chart, and support your opinions in the right column.
  • Intrigue Journal: List the five most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the readings. Include page #s and a short rationale (100 words) for your selection
  • 5 Words: What 5 words would you use to describe _____? Explain and justify your choices
  • Illustration: Draw a picture that illustrates a relationship between terms in the text. Explain in one paragraph your visual representation.
  • Anticipation Guide: Establish a purpose for reading and create post-reading reflections and discussion.

Again, Why Use CATs?

Learning takes time and interactions with other learners, teachers, and a single learner’s own emerging understanding.  In this, learning needs to be seen, its practices made explicit through practice and feedback, its difficulties acknowledge and discussed, and its incremental changes recorded regularly. CATs can call attention to the pieces, the processes, and the development of learning – with teachers and learners alike the agents in learning who can effectively make use of the data in taking next steps.


One Response to “Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Boost to Learning for Students & Teachers”


  1. Assessments - 4 November 2014

    […] If you’re new to using formative assessment prompts as a part of your teaching to understand their learning, this TILT post will offer some background on CATs as well as highlight two great resources – including Edutopia’s – for starting out. Via […]

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