We recently discussed assessment, in general, at any level in the academic environment. You can revisit that post here.
Today our focus is on classroom assessment; that is, understanding what is going on in your classroom. We are all familiar with summative assessment techniques such as assignments, quizzes, papers, and exams, but let’s consider formative assessment.
Teaching Versus Learning
As in our previous discussion, our first task is to identify what we are assessing.
We are familiar with the array of rubrics used to assess our teaching such as peer reviews and Student Course Experience Surveys. Our focus rather will be on assessing student learning. We “do” teaching, but we are accountable for student learning. The argument with learning-centered, but not teaching-centered, assessment is that teaching and assessment go hand-in-hand and assessment is not the final goal.
Formative Assessment Techniques
I learned early in my teaching career that sometimes the best teachers are the best thieves. When I became serious about in-class formative assessment, I decided to examine what worked for others, starting with a book by Angelo and Cross titled, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. I also brought up the subject with instructors experienced in formative assessment and borrowed a bit from courses I peer reviewed.
Here are a few of my favorite formative assessment techniques.
Quick Response Note: Assessing Student Knowledge and Understanding
The basic idea here is to gain insight into students’ current level of understanding of course material by asking them. There are plenty of variations, but one is to pass out notecards and ask them to write down what was the most important idea they learned during the class and what questions remain.
If I am looking for what they took away from an assignment or reading, I typically offer this activity at the beginning of class. If I am looking for feedback on how well they understood the material covered during the class period, I administer this near the end of a class period. Not at the very end, my experience is that doing so rushes their answers and doesn’t necessarily provide a result based on self-reflection. I ask them to submit these anonymously unless they prefer to provide their name to facilitate individual follow-up. A similar exercise is the muddiest point. At any point during the class period, students are asked to share the muddiest point thus far during the class period.
Whenever possible during these activities, I use Think, Pair, and Share so students not only self-reflect, but also have the opportunity to share and discuss their ideas with other students.
The information provided by students gives me a second chance with the material. I follow up the next day electronically when there is a common thread of questions best addressed by providing additional reading materials or videos. For other queries, I follow up on questions important but not obvious from class or reading materials during the next class period. I also prepare and post a short daily written response to all questions.
"…sometimes the best teachers are the best thieves. ”
Student Back Brief: Assessing Student Ability to Share Back Material in a Unique Context
Asking students to brief you on material from class and apply it to a unique situation allows both you and the student to assess their understanding. My favorite is the one-sentence summary. Students are asked to write a single sentence that summarizes a topic by reporting on who, what, when, where, how, and why. I first offer an example such as, “According to my child, after an extensive internet search: Everyone should always mulch their leaves with the lawn mower rather than raking and bagging them because the leaves provide nutrients to the soil and things that live in the soil and reduce pressure on landfills, so use your lawnmower and enjoy your afternoon.” While this information certainly did not come from me in a lecture, his words succinctly summarize what he learned browsing the internet. “This is what I am looking for,” I tell my students.
I also like the pro and con grid. In economics, it is a fairly easy application as there are typically good and bad associated with every choice. Having students go through the material from the unit and identify the good and bad effects of a policy or other choice and perhaps even weight their importance allows them to recall the material and figure out how it all fits together. When done in groups, they can present and discuss these concepts which makes this strategy even more effective.
Using the Tools: Assessing Skill in Problem Solving
This is a technique we are all familiar with in some form; assessing the ability of students to approach a problem by thinking about the concepts and tools necessary to do so. An example in economics is the concept that profit maximization occurs when marginal cost equals marginal revenue. Without offering an economics lesson, this principle can explain the positive (versus normative) part of an economic decision. My goal might be to get students to understand that the principle applies when farmers make input use decisions (e.g., how much fertilizer to apply). So, I ask them to formulate an answer to the question “how does a farmer decide how much fertilizer to apply?” with a focus on how they would find that answer, including identifying what economics principles apply.
Other Assessment Techniques
Other techniques I frequently use include writing exam questions, anonymous sharing, and the chain note.
Having students write quiz or exam questions is an awesome way to get a feel for what students believe is important. Once they have developed their questions, testing one another, either in groups or with the entire class, allows them the opportunity to explain a concept to those who get it wrong. As an added benefit, I have additional questions for the next exam.
Asking students to share anonymously can provide a lot of insight. We often do not get an opportunity to learn about what individual students believe and about their opinions and values. I can present the predicted effects of increasing the interest rate on economic growth, or how different state income tax rates may affect residents, but what is really interesting and what students ought to be able to do, is offer their reasoned opinion and be able to communicate and defend that position, that is, contribute the normative side of economics. This is not easy but can be initially aided by offering them information about what their peers think, such as through an anonymous poll.
A chain note is surprisingly informative. It is sometimes challenging to get a feel for where your students are in paying attention, level of understanding, and so on. This is especially true with remote learning and masks. The chain note is an activity where students pass around an instructor-provided notebook and, when it comes to them, they indicate what they are thinking about and/or what they see going on with regards to teaching and learning. It is important you choose a question that will provide you the information you desire. For example, if you are interested in whether they are listening, you might simply ask “What are you thinking about right now?”. If the answers tend away from course content, that may be an indication you might consider more interactive exercises.
There is a lot of information and several ideas here. I challenge you to choose one formative in-class assessment technique from this blog or elsewhere that you are not using and give it a try. I want to hear about your experiences, in the comments below, let me know which technique you tried and how it went.
About the Author:
Cheryl Wachenheim is a professor in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. She has been teaching at NDSU for twenty-two years, each better than the previous. She has two children.