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Assessing Teaching and Learning

This web page is based on a presentation by Robyn Wright Dunbar, of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University, given at the 2005 Preparing for an Academic Career Workshop.
"Feedback is probably the single most important ingredient in improvement, whether used by teachers to improve their teaching or students to improve their learning" (Cross, 1998, p. 7).

What Is Assessment?

Assessment is a broad term. Any technique that allows you to gather information about what your students are learning is a form of assessment. Take a moment to consider what that includes. Exams, quizzes, lab reports, homework assignments, research papers, and semester projects may leap to mind, but minute papers, informal (ungraded) presentations, class discussions, concept maps, concept tests, and many other methods can also be used to assess student learning.

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Guiding Principles

  1. Assess what you value! How you assess (and especially what you grade) directly impacts the way your students will allocate time and "learning energy."
  2. Get feedback early and often. Don't wait to the end of the term to find out what is going on! Frequent practice, with feedback (even ungraded feedback), helps students figure out whether they are learning what they need to learn. Use CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques—examples are given below) to provide this kind of feedback.

Attributes of Effective Assessment

Think back on your own experience as a student. What were some of your best graded assessment experiences? What made them so good? The most effective assessments have some or all of the following characteristics:

Examples of CATs:Classroom Assessment Techniques

Unless otherwise noted, the following information comes from Angelo and Cross, 1993, who include the following categories in their CATs:

While some CATs are more time consuming, you can also find techniques to assess any of these categories in five minutes or less.

Assessing Prior Knowledge

Pose an open-ended question to your students, and give them a few minutes to jot down their answers, alone or in small groups. Then pool their knowledge: write the question on the board, and ask each student or group to contribute one of their answers, until they run out of information to contribute. Not only will you then know how much they know, but at the end of the exercise, they will all know the same information.

Sample question: Suppose you are considering buying a two-story house, with a basement, in San Francisco. What factors (geological and otherwise) should you consider?

Assessing Understanding

Misconception Check

To assess the prevalence of misconceptions, you can take an informal class poll by proposing a statement and asking your students how strongly they agree or disagree.

Illustration by Robyn Wright Dunbar.

Example: Groundwater typically occurs in underground pools or lakes.

Alternatively, you could ask students to draw a schematic diagram showing where groundwater is stored. Ask them to revisit and revise this drawing as you add concepts about groundwater properties and flow.

Assessing Skill in Problem Solving: Documented Problem Solutions

Instead of just requiring students to solve problems, have them document their solutions: on the left side of the page, they solve the problem; on the right side, they explain each step of their solution. If you already have students do homework problems, you might choose one or more of them—or allow students to choose—for this more detailed treatment. Be sure to allow students enough time to document their solutions; you should assume that it will take your students at least twice as long as it takes you to solve the problems and to write out an explanation of the process.

For the most effective use of documented problem solutions,

Assessing Skill in Application and Performance: Application Cards

Diagram of an index card
Illustration by Robyn Wright Dunbar.
After students have heard, read or discussed an important principle, generalization, theory or procedure, hand out an index card and ask them to write down at least one real-world application for what they have just learned.

Assessing Skill in Synthesis and Creative Thinking: Invented Dialogs

Assessing Instruction


Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P., 1993, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. (2nd edition) San Franscisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Cross, K.Patricia (1998) Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching. in Classroom Assessment and Research: An Update on Uses, Approaches, and Findings. Edited by Thomas A. Angelo, San Francicso, Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mazur, E., 1997, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. New Jersey, Prentice Hall. 253 pages.

Mosteller, F. "The 'Muddiest Point in the Lecture' as a Feedback Device." On Teaching and Learning: The Journal of the Harvard-Danforth Center, 1989, 3, 10-21.

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