Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)

One way to enhance your teaching practices is to collect student feedback using Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs).  CATs are a vital addition to your teaching arsenal, because they let you know what is working and what can be improved upon from the perspective of the learners themselves.

CATs can be administered at any time during the semester, and as many times as you would like to give them, but they are often very useful as a way to take stock of the course at the midterm.  We have included some advice for acquiring mid-semester feedback below.

CATs can also be just as effective for individual class meetings, assignments, exams, or group projects as well.  One popular CAT that is ubiquitous in the field of teaching and learning is called the “minute paper.”  This activity simply asks students to spend 1-2 minutes at the end of class writing on a notecard or typing into an online discussion or survey:

  • reflecting on the most important point they have taken from the day’s class
  • asking a question that remains for them about the material
  • providing an assessment of the project they have just completed, or
  • writing anything else that will provide you with immediate feedback.

Another useful CAT is called a Small Group Instructional Diagnosis, or SGID, which we outline in more detail here.

As you can see, the options are many, and the benefits of student feedback for developing an effective teaching and learning environment are substantial.

Mid-semester Assessments in a Pandemic: Supporting Student Learning by Caring for Yourself

Fall 2020 Update: Many faculty across Mason have been working virtually non-stop since the COVID pandemic began. The quick pivot to virtual in Spring 2020, the teaching and/or course development activities accomplished over the summer, and the new options of teaching this fall – often in multiple modalities – have all taken a toll on the well-being of many faculty. If there was ever a time to explore mid-term opportunities in the spirit of self-care, now is that time.

In addition to checking in on how students are doing, as the suggestions below outline, we suggest that your mid-semester check-in start with a self-assessment: how are you doing? If you are overwhelmed, anxious, and/or frustrated, you will have fewer opportunities and less energy to be supportive of your students.

Start by assessing your goals and options: Thinking about the courses that you are teaching, what do you most want your students to know or be able to do by the end of the course. Which of your tasks most directly align with those 2-3 main goals?

Then check in overall: What’s going well? Which of your main course goals or outcomes are you meeting? What seems to be supporting student learning and engagement effectively?

Conversely, where are you experiencing challenges? What assignments or tasks seem less related to your main course goals and outcomes, or not producing the kind of learning you had hoped? Does the work that you are investing in your courses right now reflect your priorities?

And, given your reflections on these questions, what might be some things that you might do differently, or let go of altogether, while still supporting the learning needs of your students?

Identify what you might be willing to change: In an ideal world, you and students would have bandwidth for all of the exciting opportunities you created. In a challenging learning environment — we’re all still wrapped up in the middle of multiple emergencies, after all — you and your students might be able to meet the core goals of the course without so many opportunities.

  • What, if anything, might you be able to take off your syllabus at this point, given how students are responding to the course?
  • Are there ways to streamline some of what you are asking – of yourself or of your students?
  • How can you use your innovative, individualized, expert time most wisely? For instance, can you
    • …rely on materials that already exist rather than creating new ones — saving your creative materials and videos for places where you can encourage or build bridges specifically for your students?
    • …use rubrics, checklists, and/or whole-group comments to provide feedback on low-stakes activities, discussion boards, or final projects that won’t be revisited — saving your individualized feedback for early drafts or proposals of major course projects, or for early homework in a sequence, when students can still apply your feedback directly to their upcoming learning?
  • Are there ways that you could structure more peer support into your course(s)? Without increasing student workload, or with some minor shifting of student workload, can you
    • Help them share their in-progress work or their learning-takeaways, so that they see their learning against a backdrop of others’ learning?
    • Provide options and guidance for them to review one another’s work, even providing a quick “The best part was ___; one suggestion I have (based on the assignment rubric) is ___” comment?
    • Reinforce (or even reward with small bonus credit) student behavior that builds community and/or self-regulated learning, such as using office hours, connecting with TAs or tutors, working with a study group, asking questions, doing small steps of a task, using university resources like Learning Services or academic coaches?

Consider how you support yourself, or help colleagues practice self-care. It is likely the case that making a couple of minor adjustments might make a tangible difference in your experiences teaching this fall. If there’s a bit of “give” to be had, then we encourage you to practice self-compassion and take it. If you are supervising or supporting colleagues, you might look for ways to solicit their experiences and help them adjust.

Check out resilience resources at Mason:

Consider resources about integrating well-being into your classroom:

For resources for supporting the whole faculty member during the COVID-19 pandemic:

How to Seek and Use Student Feedback

Preparation: Before you seek student feedback, you should be prepared to participate in the full process of evaluation and revision:

  • Treat all feedback seriously.
  • Ask questions that will benefit student learners.
  • Show that you act on student feedback.
  • Model useful feedback in what you provide for the students.

If you ask for student feedback but are unwilling or unable to make any changes, students will feel that their voices aren’t valued or that their time has been wasted.

Implementation: Remember that while it makes sense to use CATs at midterm, that’s not the only way/time to use them. You could

  • Solicit feedback regularly, by asking students to respond to a set of questions, to write a question they have, or to comment on what was valuable or confusing about a particular activity.
  • Ask for input on each major assignment – give students a point or two for answering a few questions about the assignment as part of the work they submit.
  • Ask for input early in a newly designed or redesigned course (usually some point 3-5 weeks in) that focuses on specific changes you have made — this is early enough that you can make some course corrections (or breathe a sigh of relief!).
  • Repeat a mid-semester CAT at the end of the term, to supplement the university standard course evaluation.

Response: Follow up with your students after any CAT. You may do some or all of the following:

  • Share (some of) the responses with students (always anonymizing individual data): It can be useful for individual students to see whether their experience is aligned with that of others in the course.
  • Identify one or two changes that you have decided to make, your rationale for the change in order to support student learning, and your expectation of how that change will affect students.
  • Identify one or two student requests for change that you understand but will not make — perhaps because the request is not part of a majority experience, perhaps because the change would have other negative consequences for student learning, perhaps because the change is not possible given other factors — and suggest how students who are struggling might use your input or other resources to improve their experience.

It can be tempting but counterproductive to indicate that students should just work harder or take the course more seriously (even if this is likely true for some students). Without knowing the exact challenges that individual students face, you may make assumptions that unfairly denigrate students’ efforts. You may find it more helpful to use the feedback from the CAT to revise the next semester’s course start, so that you can more clearly set expectations for your course’s challenges, rationales, and rewards.

Mid-Semester Feedback: Setting the Stage
  • Mid-semester feedback, like all student feedback, can be a valuable tool to find out how students are learning in your class and what you might do to increase their likelihood of success. An excellent tool for fine-tuning your teaching to a particular class, it can help you to understand what’s working well and what you might do differently to better meet your teaching goals and students’ needs.
  • Seeking this feedback does not have to take a lot of time or resources; you can decide how structured or extensive you would like this feedback to be. These decisions often depend on your class size and your own evaluation of how well your class(es) are going. For example, if you have a large class or if your expectations for student learning are being met, you might choose a less structured assessment. On the other hand, more structured feedback can be useful to identify specifics aspects of the learning experience that you want to monitor more closely.
  • Students are typically happy to provide this information; often they see it as an indicator of your interest in their learning. You can choose whether it is anonymous or not. While not necessary, you might consider offering participation points as an incentive for more structured assessments. Do remember if you seek mid-semester feedback students will expect you to respond to it in a meaningful way.
Options for Student Feedback: Questionnaires

We recommend that CATs emphasize student learning rather than student satisfaction. Where possible, try to frame your questions to help students focus on what they are learning and how elements of the class are supporting that.

Survey 1: Start-Stop-Continue

A very basic survey uses short-answer questions to help students identify key factors in their learning:

  • In order to support your learning in this course, what is one thing we should START doing, or do more of? How would that help your learning?
  • In order to support your learning in this course, what is one thing we should STOP doing, or do less of? How would that help your learning?
  • In order to support your learning in this course, what is one thing we should CONTINUE doing? How does this help your learning?

Survey 2: Key Course Elements

A Likert-scale survey can let students give you feedback on key elements of your course.

Please rank the following on a scale of 1-5 considering how they are helping you learn the material/concepts in this course, with 1=Not at all and 5 = Very much:

  • Textbook reading assignments
  • Course lectures
  • Class discussions
  • Assignments
  • Instructor feedback
  • Please add a comment on how any of the above might be improved to better support your learning

Survey 3: Student Experience, short answer

It can be helpful to ask students to identify their own role in learning in a course, as some of the questions here do:

  • What’s going well for you in this course – how am I supporting your learning?
  • What are you doing to support your learning in this course?
  • What are 1-2 things that would strengthen your learning experience in the second half of the semester?
  • What 1-2 things might you do to continue and/or strengthen your learning in this course?

Survey 4: Student Experience, Likert Survey

If you ask students to agree/disagree with statements, you can find out about patterns of experience, even in a large course. Remember to include questions about student learning — and to focus on areas that you could reasonably alter if many students indicated a problem.

Please rank the following on a scale of 1-5, with 1=Strongly Disagree and 5 = Strongly Agree

  • Readings and lectures in this course are helping me learn the material.
  • Activities and assignments in this course are helping me learn the material.
  • The instructor’s input and/or feedback is helping me learn the material for this course.
  • The structure of the course encourages student interaction/participation.
  • I understand what is expected of me on assignments and in activities in this course.
  • I can always locate key materials, assignments, and policies in the online course site.
  • I have been doing all of the assigned reading in this course.
  • I have been completing all of the assigned homework in this course.
  • I feel overwhelmed by the complexity of concepts considered in this course.
  • I feel overwhelmed by the pace of topics/tasks in this course.
  • Please indicate one improvement that would most support your learning in the second half of the semester:

Survey 5: Weekly or Bi-Weekly Critical Incident Questionnaire

In his book Teaching for Critical Thinking (2011), Stephen D. Brookfield describes what he calls a “Critical Incident Questionnaire,” which is “a five-item instrument that asks students to review their learning in class for any particular week” (54). Questions ask students to describe moments in the week when they were engaged in, distanced from, puzzled or surprised by the learning, and who helped them the most with their learning recently.

Survey 6: Weekly or Intermittent Experience Survey

In his blog, Robert Talbert describes a Five Question Summary that is designed to uncover how the course is balancing challenge and support, and how students are engaged in the course. Likert-scale questions ask students to rate how challenged and supported they felt, how much progress they have made in their learning, and whether they felt they were part of a “community of learners.”

Survey 7: Broad Reach Survey

The following example provides a few of the categories you might want to address in your assessment, but you can always add more and/or revise the categories below. Introductory large courses are ideal for this type of approach. And you can always choose to ask for both quantitative and qualitative feedback.

How is the pace of the course for you?Too slow 12Fine 34Too fast 5
How is the course’s level of challenge for you?Too easy 12Fine 34Too hard 5
Do the lectures help you better understand the material?No 12Some 34A lot 5
Do the assignments help you better understand the material?No 12Some 34A lot 5
Do the discussions help you better understand the material?No 12Some 34A lot 5
Is the text useful to your understanding of the course material?No 12Some 34A lot 5
Does our class group work help you better understand the material?No 12Some 34A lot 5
Do the online resources for this class help you better understand the material?No 12Some 34A lot 5
Mid-Semester Feedback: Using an Extended Qualitative Assessment

Qualitative approaches to this kind of feedback must be tailored to a specific course. In the following example, the mid-semester feedback is embedded in a student self-assessment of their learning. In a case like this, you will want to offer points for this assignment. Synthesis courses might be especially appropriate for this type of assessment.

Example Assignment:

The midterm self-assessment is a reflection on and assessment of your development and learning at the halfway point. This is useful to identify your strengths and what is going well for you, in addition to examining what is not working and what you can do differently. In this paper you should draw connections and highlight your growth in a coherent analysis.

As we have discussed in our course, it is critical to identify and acknowledge the sources that are contributing to your learning. For this essay you should refer to a minimum of three course texts that have facilitated your growth and development. Make sure to provide evidence for your analysis by using concrete examples, details, and evidence to support and illustrate key points. You will need to include a bibliography as well, either a Works Cited page (if using MLA format) or a References page (if using APA format).

You may want to consider the following questions while brainstorming your essay:

  • What ideas, theories, and learning experiences are most compelling to you thus far?
  • What connections are you discovering among these ideas, theories, and learning experiences within the course?
  • What connections have you identified between what you are learning in this class and other courses? Between this class and your major? Between this class and your learning experiences outside the classroom?
  • How well are you meeting the goals that you set for yourself as a student in this course? What is going well for you? Are there goals you want to revise or add?
  • What is most challenging for you about this course?
  • What can you do differently to meet your goals for yourself and what suggestions do you have for this course?

Your essay should be a minimum of 4 full pages, but do not feel restricted by this length requirement.  You are asked to turn in your draft, your comments from our peer review session, and your revision. The final version is worth 100 points, or 10% of your final grade.

Midterm Self-Assessment Evaluation Criteria:

  • Effective introduction; draws the reader in, creates interest, states main argument(s).
  • Demonstrates complexity – learning and ideas are articulated clearly and with detail.
  • Incorporates specific examples from the texts and life experiences to illustrate/support key points and build arguments.
  • Demonstrates evidence of integrative thinking; author is making connections across texts and other learning experiences.
  • Provides evidence of significant engagement in course ideas.
  • Paper is well structured and organized; smooth transitions and flow; concludes strongly.
  • Shows attention to writing style (e.g., clarity in writing; evidence of having edited and proofread the work, examples/evidence appropriately integrated and cited; bibliography follows APA/MLA format).
  • Meets assignment guidelines (e.g., incorporates 3 course texts, bibliography is included, essay is at least 4 pp in length).