Initial Publication Date: May 17, 2006

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.

Jump down to

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:
  • Authentic, real world
  • Fair and challenging
  • Consistent with course goals
  • Actually a learning experience in and of themselves

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

  • The Minute Paper:

    Have your students write their answers to one of the following questions:
    1. What was the most important thing you learned during class today?
    2. What important question remains unanswered?
    3. What was the muddiest point remaining at the end of today's class?
    4. Muddiest Point (Mosteller, 1989). What percentage of mud was due to:
      • Unclear presentation by instructor?
      • Lack of opportunity to ask questions?
      • Your lack of participation in class discussion?
      • Your lack of prior preparation?
  • Eric Mazur's ConcepTests

    (Mazur, 1997): Pose a multiple choice question for your students to consider. Give students time to think and record their answers, individually. Take a class poll; count or estimate how many students chose each answer. Give students time to convince their neighbors of their answer. Poll again. Depending on the results of the second poll, you can decide whether the class is ready to move on, or the topic needs further discussion. David McConnell has written an extensive introduction to the use of ConcepTests in geoscience courses.

  • Just-in-Time Teaching:

    Just-in-Time Teaching provides a method for assessing how well your students understand the out-of-class reading assignments. In this method,
    1. The instructor writes and posts questions, a day before class
    2. Students answer the questions online
    3. The instructor reads student answers an hour or so before lecture
    4. The instructor adapts the lecture
    5. The instructor gives feedback to the students in the course of the lecture
    6. Students give feedback to the instructor after the lecture

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.

Example: Groundwater typically occurs in underground pools or lakes.

  • I'm absolutely certain this is true
  • I'm pretty sure it's true
  • I have no idea if it's true or false
  • I'm pretty sure it's false
  • I'm absolutely certain it is false
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,

  • Tell your students what level of detail you want in their explanations. (For example: "Write as though you were explaining the steps to a beginning geoscience student who had never solved this type of problem. Be prepared to talk through your solution during our next class.")
  • Explain the purpose of the exercise to your students, emphasizing the importance of their explanations.
  • After you collect their solutions, read (or skim) all of them. Pick a range of responses: right answers, well documented solutions; wrong answers, well documented solutions; etc. Compare between the broad categories... look for logic trends & common solution paths. Identify 3-4 major insights or suggestions to share with students.

Assessing Skill in Application and Performance: Application Cards

Diagram of an index card
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

  • Example from Fine Arts: Shakespeare on Film
    Students create a short dialog between William Shakespeare and Orson Welles in which the two compare notes on the "stagings" of Othello.
  • Example from Geology: What Drives Polar Exploration?
    In this first-year student seminar course at Stanford, Professors Rob Dunbar and Alan Cooper have students assume roles of various expedition members and conduct one of Mawson's "staff meetings."

Assessing Instruction

  • Student "Small Group Evaluation"

    A trained consultant interviews your students during the last 20 minutes of class and anonymously records the feedback to the following questions:
    • What is going well in this class? What is helping you learn?
    • What could use improvement, and what specific suggestions would you make for change?
    • (Optional): What can you, as students, do to make this course even more successful?
    For variations on this evaluation, see Angelo and Cross's "Group Instructional Feedback Technigue (GIFT)" and other similar techniques discussed in their book.
  • Classroom or Videotaped Observation

    • Ask a colleague or consultant from the teaching center to observe your class and share ideas about teaching.
    • Have your class videotaped so you can see yourself in action. This works especially well when you also view the tape with a colleague or consultant.


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.