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One of My Favorite Things: Classroom Assessment Techniques

Amy Gross, PhD

While it may not be the book I reach for before bed or in a thunderstorm (perhaps because there are no vampire or supernatural themes?), I do have a favorite teaching resource book. While it is not new, and some would consider it a classic,  I am always a  bit surprised when I ask a group of faculty if they have heard of it and the number that have not!

My favorite teaching resource book is Classroom Assessment Techniques by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. I think it is my favorite because it makes sense, is easy to use, and inspires me with quick ideas. Chances are you are familiar with some of the “CATs” (as they are referred to by those in the “know”). There is something here for everyone – regardless of discipline, class size, or class level. The whole idea behind CATs is to use various assessment techniques to monitor learning throughout a course or learning experience before graded tests or papers reveal that there have been gaps. What is so cool is that as the authors present various techniques, they indicate estimated levels of time and energy required to prepare the CAT, for students to respond to the assessment, and for faculty to analyze the collected information.  And, there are lots of quick techniques to just get you started.

To give you a flavor, here are some of my favorites:

Teaching Goals Inventory (TGI). When I have worked with faculty to define their teaching goals or objectives for a class, it can be overwhelming because we all want to accomplish so much. But the question is, how much can we really expect students to learn in a semester or quarter long course? The challenge is thinking about what we address in our course, versus what we expect students to learn throughout their entire academic career. The self-scoring TGI starts big – 52 goals and then boils it down to 6 clusters. Now that is manageable. For me, this is a critical first step to deciding what other CATs (or any other teaching method) you employ because we must first decide what it is we students to learn. You can give it a try online.

Muddiest Point. I really love the imagery of this technique. When something just isn’t making sense, it seems “muddy.” (Maybe I like it because it makes me think of the mudpies I made when I was kid.) Simply pass out notecards near the end of class and ask students to briefly write down what is still unclear or “muddy.” Collect the cards and you can very quickly sort them into common themes to see what might be important to address again during the following class meeting or in online discussion groups between classes. This technique “saves face” for students who may not want to admit in front of the entire class that they still don’t understand something – even though they are not likely alone. I have also used this technique for faculty training sessions either at the end of the first day or even before a lunch or shorter break. Let’s be honest, it is not always easy for us to admit in front of our colleagues when we are confused about something either.

Application Cards. In the field of psychology, the application of theories and principles to real-world experiences is a key objective for me. The use of application cards (or some variation of it) is really helpful to gauge students’ ability to do this. Like many other CATs, this one is relatively quick and easy to use. After discussion any theory or principle, distribute note cards and ask students to write down an example of where they may have observed the principle or theory in action. After collecting the cards, a quick review lets me see how deeply they understand the concept. This can also be a take-home assignment (find an example in the news or a magazine article). With more difficult concepts (like operant conditioning), students could work in pairs to generate two or three examples. Endless variations possible!

Classroom Assessment Techniques – It’s a classic and one of my favorites that I keep within close reach. I can quickly find some quick ideas to mix things up a bit, giving students an opportunity to show me what they know – and for me to get a sense of what I need to do differently to help them successfully learn. Give it a “google” and you’ll find lots of applications shared by others. What are your favorites?


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

Teaching Goals Inventory – Online form

Websites with CAT information:

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