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February 10, 2003

Faculty Development

By Jack Prostko, Director, Faculty Development Center

At this early point in the semester, students have set their schedules and committed themselves to classes, and instructors are well into their syllabi. As we work our way more or less systematically through the major issues in our courses, do we know whether the majority of students are making sense of the material and following our explanations and organization? How clearly can most of us gauge the quality of learning taking place in our courses week to week?

Traditionally, exams and papers let us know what and how well students are learning. But in many courses, exams won't occur for another few weeks, and papers may not be due until just before spring break. Waiting this long to see what's going on inside our students' heads may mean that many students are struggling with a concept from week one, some are harboring misconceptions about what they understand, and others are simply not connecting with the way we're presenting or using information. In order to avoid problems later in the semester, it might be useful to employ some simple classroom assessment techniques to get feedback on student learning.

Classroom assessment focuses on the learner, and provides feedback to both the professor and students on the quality of learning and the effectiveness of teaching taking place in the classroom. Because they are not meant to be tests that classify students, assessments are often anonymous; their purpose is to inform the teacher whether there are gaps between what the students know and what the teacher expects them to have understood.

The kinds of information assessments can provide fall into three main categories:

*the level of students' academic skills and intellectual development
*students' awareness of the effectiveness of their own learning skills
*student reactions to various teaching methods, materials, and assignments.

In understanding where students stand in their academic development (e.g., do they have sufficient background knowledge or academic skills?) and in immediately knowing students' reactions to specific aspects of the class (e.g., do they believe the exams cover the material stressed in class?) instructors can adjust their teaching to help students learn better.

One of the most well know assessment techniques is the "one minute paper," an easy and effective way of getting feedback on a particular question you have for your class. End the class a few minutes early and ask students to respond to a question such as "What was the muddiest point in today's lecture?" or "What were the main points in today's class?" or "What one question to you still have about today's material?" Even in a large class, reading through student responses takes relatively little time. Teachers can then explain in the next class session whether the majority of the class has grasped important material, and can also address questions or problems students have raised.

Thomas Angelo and Patrician Cross, in Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, list dozens of simple methods for measuring students' knowledge and skills. For example, for courses testing problem-solving skills, students can be asked to produce a 'documented problem solution.' In this assessment, students are asked to explain how they go about approaching and solving one of the problems assigned as homework. Instead of assigning the normal number of homework problems, reduce it, but ask students to take one of the problems and, as they solve it, to write down step-by-step what they are thinking at each stage of the problem-solving process.

Since students can often solve problems without understanding larger concepts or why certain steps are necessary, this assessment helps instructors see students' strategies and the degree to which they are concentrating on developing specific thinking skills.

In classes rich in conceptual material, students can be asked to produce 'concept maps,' demonstrating how well they grasp the relationships among concepts in a course. Or ask students to document their use of study time; if you want to increase their awareness of their proficiency in the study skills necessary to succeed in your course, as them to estimate, check, document, and then reflect on how well they use study time. Using one assignment or activity, students estimate how much time it should take to complete the assignment. Afterwards, they write a brief account of the process and the results-allowing you to see how well they use their time and whether their learning skills are sufficiently developed to handle the course material. At the least, students will become much more aware of their habits regarding study time, and this self-consciousness usually encourages them to use this time more effectively.

The resources listed below explain a variety of assessment techniques in greater detail. When using any of these techniques, ask only for information that you feel will help both you and the students. Ask specific questions and use the information as soon as possible; look at the results immediately and respond to them in class. Unless you show that these are an important part of your approach to student learning, many students will stop taking them seriously. Explain, in your response, what good feedback is since students need to learn how to give useful responses. And be very clear about the fact that these assessments are not going to be graded.

Overall, getting this kind of information from your students early in the semester can help you tailor the course more specifically to the needs of the students and improve the learning taking place.

Books (available at the Faculty Development Center)

Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

K. Patricia Cross and Mimi Harris Steadman, Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Web Resources:

Pennsylvania State University

Frederick Mosteller, The "Muddiest Point in the Lecture" as a Feedback Device

University of New Orleans, Teacher Explorer Center

Indiana University

Southern Illinois University

Honolulu Community College

Middle Tennessee State University

Posted by dwinds1 at February 10, 2003 12:00 AM