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Checking Students' Learning

Classroom Assessment Techniques (commonly called CATs) are brief classroom activities designed to help shape and focus subsequent teaching based on students’ current understanding and ongoing learning needs. They are quick and easy ways to check how well students are learning course content that’s been recently covered. Moreover, they allow students to monitor—and quite possibly strengthen—their own learning.

The following are some common characteristics of CATs:

  • Requires student participation
  • Is instructor led
  • Allows students and instructors to receive ongoing feedback
  • Is formative--provides students with ungraded feedback
  • Is ongoing
  • Is rooted in good teaching practice: linked to objectives, allows for adjustment, and focuses subsequent teaching

Examples of Classroom Assessment Techniques

  • Background Knowledge Probe: Give students two or three short answer questions or 15-20 multiple choice questions that ask them about their attitudes and understanding (e.g., their motivations, beliefs, values, misconceptions about the subject matter, etc.). This can be used as a diagnostic pre-test.
  • Focused Listing: Direct students’ attention to a single important name, concept or relationship and ask them to list as many related concepts and ideas as they can. Recommended time limit of 2 -3 minutes or 5-10 items. This activity can show what students identify and recall as salient.
  • Clear Skies: Ask students to write down the clearest or most important point they’ve learned during the class session. This can be used in combination with the “Muddy Waters” activity below.
  • Muddy Waters: Ask students to write down what they perceived as the muddiest point in a lecture, reading, etc. Collect responses, then clarify muddy points during the next class.
  • Concept Maps: Diagrams that spatially show mental connections (shown as labeled lines) that students make among various concepts (which are written in circles). These can give you a graphic view of your students’ organization of knowledge.
  • Paper or Project Prospectus: A detailed plan for a project or paper?it can include the topic, purpose, issues to address, audience, organization, and time, skills, and other resources needed?whatever your guidelines are for the project. This activity can be ongoing, especially if the course if project-based. Be sure to give students feedback before they move ahead to the next steps.
  • Everyday Ethical Dilemmas: These are case studies that propose ethical problems related to the course material. Write two to three questions that force students to take and defend a position; have them turn in responses anonymously. This also can be assigned as homework.
  • Self-Confidence Surveys: These are brief, anonymous surveys focusing on students’ confidence in their ability to perform course-related tasks. Find the low-confidence areas in the results and give additional instruction and practice accordingly.
  • Punctuated Lectures: After your students listen to your lecture or demonstration, stop and ask them to reflect on what they were doing during your presentation and how it helped or hindered their understanding. Have them write it anonymously and turn it in. Read and offer suggestion on how they can improve listening and self-monitoring skills.
  • Application Cards: After a lecture or demonstration, have students write down one or more real-world applications of the material. Select the best ones from a wide range of examples and read to the class at the next meeting.
  • Reinforce and Remind Students about Course Goals: Ask students their goals at the beginning of the course and at the midterm ask them to write how they think they are doing in meeting those goals. Also, when students hand in assignments or tests, ask them to write a paragraph that answers the following question: Why are we doi​ng this assignment? 

Adapted from Angelo and Cross (1993) and Nilson (2010).

For further reading

Angelo, T. A. and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.*

Enerson, D. M., Plank, K. M., and Johnson, R. N. (2007). An Introduction to Classroom Assessment Techniques. Retrieved from

Haugen, L. (1999). Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). Retrieved from

Mezeske, R. J. and Mezeske, B. A. (2007). Beyond tests and quizzes: Creative assessments in the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.*

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.*

* These books are available from the TLA library.

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