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Assessment

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Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)

What Are CATs?

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are generally simple, non-graded, activities designed to give you and your students useful feedback on the teaching-learning process as it is happening.

Examples of CATs include the following.

  • The Background Knowledge Probe is a short, simple questionnaire given to students at the start of a course, or before the introduction of a new unit, lesson, or topic. It is designed to uncover students’ preconceptions.
  • The Minute Paper tests how students are gaining knowledge, or not. The instructor ends the class or module by asking students to write a brief response to the following questions: “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?”
  • The Muddiest Point is one of the simplest CATs to help assess where students are having difficulties. The technique consists of asking students to jot down a quick response to one question: “What was the muddiest point in [the lecture, discussion, homework assignment, film, etc.]?” The term “muddiest” means “most unclear” or “most confusing.”
  • The What’s the Principle? CAT is useful in courses requiring problem-solving. After students figure out what type of problem they are dealing with, they often must decide what principle(s) to apply in order to solve the problem. This CAT provides students with a few problems and asks them to state the principle that best applies to each problem.
  • Defining Features Matrix: Prepare a handout with a matrix of three columns and several rows. At the top of the first two columns, list two distinct concepts that have potentially confusing similarities (e.g. hurricanes vs. tornados, Picasso vs. Matisse). In the third column, list the important characteristics of both concepts in no particular order. Give your students the handout and have them use the matrix to identify which characteristics belong to each of the two concepts. Collect their responses, and you’ll quickly find out which characteristics are giving your students the most trouble.

Why Should I Use CATs?

CATs can be used to improve the teaching and learning that occurs in a class. More frequent use of CATs can…

  • Provide just-in-time feedback about the teaching-learning process
  • Provide information about student learning with less work than traditional assignments (tests, papers, etc.)
  • Help students become better monitors of their own learning
  • Help students feel more connected, even in large or online courses 

How Should I Use CATs?

Results from CATs can guide teachers in fine-tuning their teaching strategies to better meet student needs. A good strategy for using CATs is the following:

  1. Decide what you want to assess about your students’ learning from a CAT.
  2. Choose a CAT that provides this feedback, is consistent with your teaching style, and can be implemented easily in your class.
  3. Explain the purpose of the activity to students, and then implement it.
  4. After class, review the results, determine what they tell you about your students’ learning, and decide what changes to make, if any, to your instruction.
  5. Let your students know what you learned from the CAT and how you will use this information.

Where Can I Learn More About CATs?

The standard reference on CATs is Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd edition, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross (Jossey-Bass, 1993). This book includes 50 CATs, indexed in a variety of useful ways. 

A number of web sites also feature information on and examples of CATs, including the following.

Grading Student Work

What Purposes Do Grades Serve?

Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson identify the multiple roles that grades serve:

  • as an evaluation of student work;
  • as a means of communicating to students, graduate schools, and future employers about a student’s performance in college and potential for further success;
  • as a source of motivation to students for continued learning and improvement;

Additionally, grading provides students with feedback on their own learning, clarifying for them what they understand, what they don’t understand, and where they can improve. Grading also provides feedback to instructors on their students’ learning which can inform future teaching decisions.

Why is grading often a challenge? Because grades are used as evaluations of student work, it’s important that grades accurately reflect the quality of student work and that student work is graded fairly. Grading with accuracy and fairness can take a lot of time, which is often in short supply for university instructors. Students who aren’t satisfied with their grades can sometimes protest their grades in ways that cause headaches for instructors. Also, some instructors find that their students’ focus or even their own focus on assigning numbers to student work gets in the way of promoting actual learning.

Given all that grades do and represent, it’s no surprise that they are a source of anxiety for students and that grading is often a stressful process for instructors.

Incorporating the strategies below will not eliminate the stress of grading for instructors, but it will decrease that stress and make the process of grading seem less arbitrary — to instructors and students alike.

Source: Walvoord, B. & V. Anderson (1998). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Developing Grading Criteria

  • Consider the different kinds of work you’ll ask students to do for your course.  This work might include: quizzes, examinations, lab reports, essays, class participation, and oral presentations.
  • For the work that’s most significant to you and/or will carry the most weight, identify what’s most important to you.  Is it clarity? Creativity? Rigor? Thoroughness? Precision? Demonstration of knowledge? Critical inquiry?
  • Transform the characteristics you’ve identified into grading criteria for the work most significant to you, distinguishing excellent work (A-level) from very good (B-level), fair to good (C-level), poor (D-level), and unacceptable work.

Developing criteria may seem like a lot of work, but having clear criteria can

  • save time in the grading process
  • make that process more consistent and fair
  • communicate your expectations to students
  • help you to decide what and how to teach
  • help students understand how their work is graded

Making Grading More Efficient

  • Create assignments that have clear goals and criteria for assessment.  The better students understand what you’re asking them to do the more likely they’ll do it!
  • Use different grading scales for different assignments. Grading scales include:
    • letter grades
    • numerical point scales
    • completeness scales - complete/incomplete, check/check minus
    • pass/fail
  • Spend more time on guiding students in the process of doing work than on grading it.
  • For each significant assignment, establish a grading schedule and stick to it.

Light Grading – Bear in mind that not every piece of student work may need your full attention. Sometimes it’s sufficient to grade student work on a simplified scale (minus / check / check-plus or even zero points / one point) to motivate them to engage in the work you want them to do. In particular, if you have students do some small assignment before class, you might not need to give them much feedback on that assignment if you’re going to discuss it in class.

Multiple-Choice Questions – These are easy to grade but can be challenging to write. Look for common student misconceptions and misunderstandings you can use to construct answer choices for your multiple-choice questions, perhaps by looking for patterns in student responses to past open-ended questions. And while multiple-choice questions are great for assessing recall of factual information, they can also work well to assess conceptual understanding and applications.

Test Corrections – Giving students points back for test corrections motivates them to learn from their mistakes, which can be critical in a course in which the material on one test is important for understanding material later in the term. Moreover, test corrections can actually save time grading, since grading the test the first time requires less feedback to students and grading the corrections often goes quickly because the student responses are mostly correct.

Providing Meaningful Feedback

  • Use your comments to teach rather than to justify your grade, focusing on what you’d most like students to address in future work.
  • Link your comments and feedback to the goals for an assignment.
  • Comment primarily on patterns — representative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Avoid over-commenting or “picking apart” students’ work.
  • In your final comments, ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them.

Minimizing Student Complaints About Grading

  • Include your grading policies, procedures, and standards in your syllabus.
  • Avoid modifying your policies, including those on late work, once you’ve communicated them to students.
  • Distribute your grading criteria to students at the beginning of the term and remind them of the relevant criteria when assigning and returning work.
  • Keep in-class discussion of grades to a minimum, focusing rather on course learning goals.

Writing Good Multiple Choice Questions

Versatility: Multiple choice test items can be written to assess various levels of learning objectives from basic recall to application, analysis, and evaluation. Because students are choosing from a set of potential answers, however, there are obvious limits on what can be tested with multiple-choice items. For example, they are not an effective way to test students’ ability to organize thoughts or articulate explanations or creative ideas.

Reliability: Reliability is defined as the degree to which a test consistently measures a learning outcome. Multiple choice test items are less susceptible to guessing than true/false questions, making them a more reliable means of assessment. The reliability is enhanced when the number of MC items focused on a single learning objective is increased. In addition, the objective scoring associated with multiple choice test items frees them from problems with scorer inconsistency that can plague scoring of essay questions.

Validity: Validity is the degree to which a test measures the learning outcomes it purports to measure. Because students can typically answer a multiple choice item much more quickly than an essay question, tests based on multiple-choice items can typically focus on a relatively broad representation of course material, thus increasing the validity of the assessment.

The key to taking advantage of these strengths, however, is construction of good multiple-choice items.

A multiple-choice item consists of a problem, known as the stem, and a list of suggested solutions, known as alternatives. The alternatives consist of one correct or best alternative, which is the answer, and incorrect or inferior alternatives, known as distractors.

Brame, C., (2013) Writing good multiple choice test questions. Retrieved [June 15, 2020] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/writing-good-multiple-choice-test-questions/.

Writing Good Multiple Choice Questions

A multiple-choice item consists of a problem, known as the stem, and a list of suggested solutions, known as alternatives. The alternatives consist of one correct or best alternative, which is the answer, and incorrect or inferior alternatives, known as distractors. View the resources below for helpful tips for writing good multiple choice questions.

Beyond the Essay

There's more to assessment than writing essays. Visit the resources below from Vanderbilt University to preview different types of writing assessments that can support a variety of intended outcomes.

About this Guide

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License and was developed from content from Vanderbilt University.

Brame, C. (2013) Writing good multiple choice test questions. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/writing-good-multiple-choice-test-questions/

Chick, N. (2013). Beyond the Essay: Making Student Thinking Visible in the Humanities. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/beyond-the-essay/

Contact CIDD

The Center for Instructional Design and Delivery is available by phone at 301-447-5084 or by email at cidd@msmary.edu.