Classroom Assessment Techniques

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are a collection of activities to gather feedback during instruction. Typically, CATs solicit responses from students to provide instructors with information to help them modify their teaching strategies to help students learn more efficiently and effectively.  

For instructors, CATs can have the following impacts:

  • provide frequent feedback to act upon immediately
  • provide useful information about what students learn
  • reduce the burden of time required for testing impact of instructional innovations
  • address student misconceptions or lack of understanding
  • foster working relationships with students
  • encourage students to perceive teaching and learning as an on-going processes
  • increase participation and engagement levels from students

For students, CATs can have the following impacts

  • provide frequent feedback about what they do and do not understand
  • empower them to become more active in taking responsibility for their own learning
  • foster self-directed learning
  • introduce the act of reflection, self-assessment, and learning management skills
  • focus attention on key areas for learning
  • reduce feelings of isolation and lack of control, especially in large classes
  • increase understanding and ability to think critically about concepts
  • foster an attitude that values understanding and long-term retention of learning
  • indicate the instructor’s interest in their success and promote a partnership in learning between student and instructor

For instructors, CATs are a quick and easy means of giving students feedback about their progress and identifying concepts or areas that require more attention. For students, CATS provide frequent feedback that empowers them to become more active in guiding their own learning.

Seven characteristics of CATs (Cross and Angelo, 1993)

  • Learning-Centered: focus is on the observation and improvement of learning [e.g prior knowledge, misconceptions, or misunderstandings students may have over course content)
  • Instructor-Directed: individual instructor decides what to assess, how to assess, and how to respond to the information gained from assessment
  • Formative: differs from tests and other forms of student assessments in that they are aimed at course improvement, rather than at assigning grades. The assessments are often anonymous and not graded. 
  • Mutually-Beneficial: students reinforce their grasp of the course concepts and strengthen their own skills at self-assessment while instructors increase their teaching focus.
  • Which concepts, skills, and knowledge am I teaching?
  • How can I determine if students are learning?
  • How can I help students improve as they learn?
  • Context-Specific: targets the particular needs and priorities of the instructor and student as well as the discipline in which they are applied
  • Ongoing: iterative in that they provide instructors and students feedback about learning which can be evaluated and used for improvement actions.
  • Best Practice-Based: built upon current standards to make the assessment of learning and teaching more systematic, flexible, and frequent.
  • Assessing student knowledge prior to instruction helps instructors tailor class activities to student needs.
  • Assessment during a class helps instructors ensure that students are learning the content satisfactorily.
  • Using CATs immediately after instruction helps to reinforce the material taught and uncover any misunderstanding of the content before it becomes a significant barrier to progress.

Examples of CATs

Background Knowledge Probe

Background knowledge probes are simple questionnaires that survey student understandings that will be needed to succeed in a course. These questions highlight important concepts for the students and inform the instructor about the students' prior knowledge and abilities. These probes can best be used at the

  • beginning of a course
  • start of a new unit or lesson
  • prior to introducing an important new topic

to find out whether your students' background and preparation are aligned with your expectations. If they are not aligned, you can use the data to change lessons or syllabi or to guide students to appropriate resources for possible supplementary assistance.

Misconception/Preconception Check

The misconception/preconception check differs from the background knowledge probe in that it

focuses directly on prior knowledge (or beliefs) that may actually hinder further learning. These preconceived notions include resistant emotional issues that are controversial or sensitive, or issues in which students may have developed intuitive but inaccurate theories. Often, they can only be dislodged by having students deal directly with them to understand why they are untrue. This can be done by

  • sorting the responses to a new set of targeted questions,
  • discussing the general types of misunderstanding with the students,
  • giving students a chance to explore the limitations of their misunderstandings, and then letting them respond to a new set of problems with an opportunity for additional feedback and self-correction.

These questions can help you prepare these types of checks:

  • What misconceptions or preconceptions might be commonplace among students who take this course?
  • Which of these are most likely to interfere directly with learning for the course?
  • How can I deal with these misconceptions once they are identified?

Written Reflections

Sometimes referred to as "Minute Papers" or "Muddiest Points," in these popular assessment techniques students reflect immediately following a learning opportunity (e.g., at the end of a class or after completing an out-of-class activity) to answer one or two basic questions like,

  • “What was the most important thing you learned today?”
  • “What was the most confusing topic today?”
  • “What important question remains unanswered?”
  • “What was the muddiest point in _______?”


Data on student opinions, attitudes, behaviors or confidence in understanding can be gathered either during class (e.g., with a classroom response system) or outside of class. These data can provide a view of student engagement with the material as well as prior knowledge, misconceptions, and comprehension.

Checks for Understanding

Pausing every few minutes to see whether students are following along with the lesson not only identifies gaps in comprehension, but helps break up lectures (e.g, with Clicker questions) or online lessons (e.g., with embedded quiz questions) into more digestible bites. 


A quick method for gathering information to improve your teaching. Ask students to respond to three questions:

  1. List one or two things that I, the instructor, am currently doing that are not working (things I should STOP doing).
  2. List one or two things that would be beneficial for me to START doing.
  3. List one or two things I am currently doing that I should CONTINUE. 

As with other assessments of your teaching effectiveness, review suggestions promptly, summarize them for your class, and make adjustments to your teaching as soon as possible or indicate why you will not make the suggested changes.

Suggestion Box 

Bring a small box (maybe a shoe box) or a large envelope to each class session or hang an envelope on your office door. Invite students to provide feedback that focuses on areas of your instruction they would like to see you modify, classroom activities or assignments they might find useful, and topics about which they would like to learn more. When students focus on an area of improvement in your teaching, instruct them to identify not only deficiencies but also how you could improve your instruction in those areas.


An advantage of the suggestion box is that students may feel more comfortable critiquing you and providing constructive feedback because their comments are anonymous. Another advantage is that it does not detract from instructional time to implement. Promptly review students’ suggestions, summarize suggestions for your class, and make adjustments to your teaching as soon as possible or indicate why you will not make the suggested change.


"Wrapping" activities in a set of reflective questions can help students develop self-regulated learning skills, where they monitor their learning and adapt as necessary.

  • Exam Wrappers include questions about preparation strategies, surprises, remaining questions, study goals for the next unit, and so on. This helps students to reflect on their study strategies to identify the best ways to prepare for future exams.
  • Homework Wrappers include questions about students' confidence in applying their knowledge and skills both before and after completing an assignment. This gives students immediate feedback on whether their perceptions are accurate.
  • Lecture Wrappers include questions at the beginning of class about what students anticipate getting out of a lesson and, in turn, questions at the end of class about what the key points were. Having students compare their key points to the instructor's can help students develop skills in active listening and identifying important information. 

Documented Problems

Students are asked to show both their work and their reasoning behind their work in documented problems, enabling instructors to identify

  • conceptual difficulties or lingering misconceptions students may have
  • the basic strategies students are using to solve the problems

and enabling students to

  • clarify their thinking
  • gain more deliberate control over their approach to problem solving
  • assess how well they understand a particular type of problem

Documentation can be as simple as a brief paragraph of what was done (and why) or as extensive as a line-by-line report of each step in a mathematical proof. Students should be given instructions about what constitutes a good written explanation because they are often inexperienced in this and many may continue to focus only on getting the right answer. Encourage them to focus on the processes—not products—of problem solving.

Categorizing Grid

These grids are useful in those disciplines, such as the biological sciences, where students need to master learning how a variety of conceptual taxonomies work before advanced problem solving can occur. To begin, identify a key taxonomy and then design a grid that represents key rules around which interrelationships are built. Keep it simple and avoid trivial or ambiguous relationships at first.

In-class Learning Activities

Having students work in pairs or small groups to solve problems creates space for powerful peer-to-peer learning and rich class discussion. Instructors and TAs can roam the classroom as students work, helping those who get stuck and guiding those who are headed in the wrong direction.


Used to gauge students’ prior knowledge, assess progress midway through a unit, create friendly in-class competition, or provide a review before the test. Quizzes can be great tools that don't have to count heavily toward students' grades. Using quizzes to start units is also a fun way to assess what your students already know, clear up misconceptions, and drive home the point of how much they will learn.