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Classroom Assessment

"Classroom Assessment" is a formative assessment practice that many teachers employ. According to Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross in the their book Classroom Assessment Techniques*, CATs are a way for faculty to "obtain useful feedback on what, how much and how well their students are learning." Classroom Assessment Techniques, or "CATs," are un-graded and typically anonymous activities that prompt students to express their understanding or confusion on a topic during, or at the conclusion of, a lesson on that topic.

+ Read more about the value of CATs

Angelo and Cross have refined and categorized dozens of assessment activities that match different teaching goals and are compatible with different academic disciplines. This section draws upon that book.* It is worth noting that despite having "classroom" in the title, many of these activities are amenable, with some modification, to use in online classes. If you are teaching online you may want to try a CAT in that context and share with us how it worked.

Why use Classroom Assessment Techniques?

The use of CATs helps us avoid the trap of assuming our students are learning what we are teaching when they may, in fact, have significant confusions or misunderstandings. Likewise, students may think they are understanding what is being taught when they are not. They often lack the metacognitive skill to monitor their own learning. CATs can gently push students to articulate what they think they know. As Angelo and Cross write (p.3):

"Teaching without learning is just talking. College instructors who have assumed that their students were learning what they were trying to teach them are regularly faced with disappointing evidence to the contrary when they grade tests and term papers. Too often, students have not learned as much or as well as was expected. There are gaps, sometimes considerable ones, between what was taught and what has been learned. By the time faculty notice these gaps in knowledge or understanding, it is frequently too late to remedy the problems."

The reasons why students don't learn is a vast and complex topic. A simple but nonetheless accurate answer that supports the use of CATs is summarized in the popular book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain* (pp 26-31):

-- Students have mental models from previous experience that they use to  understand new things.

 -- These mental models are often wrong or insufficient for the new subject.

-- Mental models change slowly.

-- Questioning is essential to challenging and improving understanding.

Using CATs helps us use assessment as a teaching tool. CATs can help bring to light early warning signs that student's mental models may be off. If that happens, both teacher and student can adjust their teaching or studying to get back on track. A unit or course learning outcome is often the sum of several intermediate steps in learning. CATs help us avoid a glitch at point A that may undermine the successful arrival at points C, D and so on.

The video below describes characteristics of CATs and a couple easy to implement examples.

* These books -- Classroom Assessment Techniques and What the Best College Teachers Do -- are available to view and borrow from the Assessment for Learning library in the Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation.


Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Bain, K. (2004).What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

+ Tips for getting started with CATs

Choosing what CAT to use depends on your teaching goals and what you want to assess. There are over 50 different CATs listed and categorized in the Classroom Assessment Techniques book. We can list some but not all here. Angelo and Cross also recommend taking what is called a “Teaching Goals Inventory” (TGI) to help faculty make explicit to themselves what their teaching goals are. If you think of your goal as "covering" a certain amount of content in lesson you could benefit from the TGI self-assessment. You will see a listing of CATs and a link to an online TGI assessment in the "Digging Deeper" section.

Fortunately, Angelo and Cross recommend “starting small,” by trying one of five easy to implement CATs that are applicable to most subjects and instructional approaches. So that is what we will do. Your challenge is to select one of these to try out in your class and then share with this course community what you learned in the process.

Here are the five recommend CATs with a link to a PDF description, example and implementation guide taken from Classroom Assessment Techniques:


Minute Paper (pdf)

Quickly assesses the learning gained from a specific instructional sequence by asking students "what was the most important thing you learned today?" or "what questions are uppermost in your mind as we end class?"

Used to discover how well learners are understanding concepts during instruction

The Muddiest Poin (pdf)

Determines conceptual errors by asking questions such as "what was the muddiest point in my lecture (for example) today?"

Used to identify what learners find least clear or most confusing

One-sentence summary (pdf)

Students are required to synthesize information about a given topic into one long, grammatically-correct summary sentence. For instance, students answer the questions "Who does what to whom, when, where, how , and why?" about a given topic.

Used to assess how well students can concisely, completely, and creatively summarize a large amount of information

Directed Paraphrasing (pdf)

Using their own words, students paraphrase part of a lesson for a specific audience and purpose. This could be a simple summary or a context specific application such as explaining it to potential customer, client or co-worker. Feedback is provided on students' ability to summarize and restate important information or concepts.

Used to discover the learner's ability to understand and communicate newly learned information

Application Cards (pdf)

Students write down at least one possible, real-world application for an important principle, generalization, theory, or procedure that they just learned.

Used to assess students' connection of newly learned concepts with real-life application: transfer.

Here some recommendations from Angelo and Cross for trying out your first CAT:

Choose a “focus class” to try your CAT in. A focus class should be one in which you feel very comfortable and were it appears that most students are doing well. (They recommend not trying a new technique in what is already a difficult situation.) Choose an upcoming class session and build in time to implement the CAT at the end. Choose a CAT above that best fits what you are doing in the class that day.

Inform students at the start of class that you will be trying a CAT exercise at the end of class. Emphasize that responses are anonymous and this is not a quiz. When the time comes, provide students with clear directions. Write directions out if necessary. Collect and review the responses as soon after class as possible. A quick post-class review will help place the responses in the context of what the class was doing at the time. At a later review, anticipate spending one to two minutes per response, longer for short answer responses (processing Minutes Papers or One Sentence Summaries could take an hour for a large class). For items that can be judged as more or less “correct,” you can tally up those that are “on target,” “close” or “off target.” For others, you can tally points where there is confusion.

Close the loop with students by reporting back what you learned. You can report, for example, the percentage that thought “x was the muddiest point.” Your feedback can be a discussion or written feedback. State what you learned and how you are going to address it as a teacher and how students can address it through their study practices.


-- If a CAT does not appeal to your intuition, don’t use it.

-- Don’t make CATs a self-inflicted burden. Try one. Start simple and keep it simple until it seems fruitful to do more.

-- Don’t have your students use a technique you have not tried on yourself first.

-- Allow more time than you think to process CATs, expecially when starting out.

-- Always close the loop with students. Students can learn the value of self-assessment by how you model it in the classroom. 

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To learn more about Columbus State's institutional course, program and general education assessment process visit the assessment web site.