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Testing and Assessment:
The Role of Assessment in Learning-Centered Teaching

In learning-centered teaching, the focus shifts from “What am I going to teach today” to “What do I want students to learn today.” If a professor takes this latter question seriously, then he or she should be willing to give up some of the time in the class that would otherwise be devoted to lecturing (i.e. delivering more content) and interject occasional activities that are designed to gather data from the students as to how well they are understanding the material, or how well they are developing a particular skill. These activities have been referred to as classroom assessment techniques (or CATs) in the teaching and learning literature and one of the best sources of information about CATs is a book by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross called Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (1993). The following website offers a good overview of some of the main points in the book http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/

The basic idea is that learning-centered instruction requires the continuous collection of student feedback (data) on what, and how well, they are learning. In addition, these data can help inform the professor as to the effectiveness of various teaching methods or technologies. As such, the data that is collected is mutually beneficial. This is the primary difference between summative assessment and formative assessment. Summative evaluations are designed to audit a student’s performance whereas formative assessments are designed to inform and transform how students are learning and how teachers are teaching.

The following websites are a great source of information regarding the distinctions between assessment, evaluation, and grading; acquisition and analysis of student feedback; formative assessments; and classroom assessment techniques.

The Role of Feedback

In an article available from the internet entitled Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessmenthttp://ditc.missouri.edu/docs/blackBox.pdf, authors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam make the following argument, “We start from the self-evident proposition that teaching and learning have to be interactive (p.2).” They go on to say “…the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs ((p.2).” In other words, frequent, prompt, performer friendly feedback coupled with an immediate opportunity to apply the feedback provides the best opportunity for learning. The authors proceed to seek answers to the following questions:

  1. Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards?
  2. Is there evidence that there is room for improvement?
  3. Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment?

In sum, the authors are able to answer these questions with an unequivocal yes.

Getting started

The first step is to consider what your teaching goals are for a particular section of course material. Then, consider what the learning objective(s) are for each of your goals. In other words, what do I want your students to be able to do in order to demonstrate that they either understand the material, or that they have acquired a particular skill. This process can often involve a thorough reconsideration of your course design. There is an online resource that is very helpful with assisting professors with thinking through there course design from course goals to learning activities and assessment techniques. This resource is called the Teaching Goals Inventory and it is located at http://www.uiowa.edu/~centeach/tgi/.

Once you have decided on your instructional goal and learning objectives you are now in a position to select a CAT that is suitable for assessing your learning objective. If none of the following CATs are suitable then you can tweak them or create one of your own. When modifying existing CATs or designing your own, remember to make sure the CAT has two fundamental characteristics - authentic performance and prompt, performer friendly feedback. For more about authentic activities and feedback, please go to the following websites on Authentic Education:

Large Class Context

Teaching a large enrollment class will certainly influence your ability to design and implement CATs. It is not so much the size of the class as it is the theater seating. You can be in an amphitheater-style room with 100 people and feel rather intimate whereas 100 people in a theater-style room can be intimidating—for both the instructor and the students. However, there are some techniques that are more suitable for large classes than others. Some things to consider are:

  1. How comfortable are you at facilitating large group activities and large group discussions?
  2. How much time will it take to implement and analyze the data?
  3. Who is providing the feedback?
  4. How much help do you have?

In response to the aforementioned questions, you should be comfortable at facilitating large groups or it may backfire on you. Students know when you have left your comfort zone and some will take advantage of the circumstances. Try to use very brief and easy to analyze activities—especially if you don’t have any TA’s. Technology can often be used to help offset the amount of time it could take to successfully implement a CAT (see below). There is a negative correlation between class size and instructor feedback. However, Students can still get feedback from each other, as well as from rubrics—which can be used by the instructor to convey the level of expectation and the criteria for evaluation (or assessment). For more information on peer to peer instruction, please explore the work of Eric Mazur at the Mazur Group http://mazur-www.harvard.edu/

CATs for large classes

  • Note-sharing
    Periodically, pause for a couple of minutes and allow groups of 2 – 3 students to compare notes—filling in the gaps that they have and highlighting important information. Make a distinction between note-making and note-taking.
  • Background Knowledge Probe
    can use on the first day of class, or before introducing a new topic. Prepare 2/3 open-ended, 5/6 short answer, or 10/20 multiple-choice questions that probe the students' existing knowledge. At next class meeting, let the students know the results and how this will affect them as learners.

    A variation of this is called the Knowledge Survey. Instead of providing answers to multiple-choice questions, here students would disclose how confident they are in answering each question accurately. For more information on knowledge surveys, please go to the following URL http://www.isu.edu/ctl/facultydev/KnowS_files/KnowS.htm
  • Misconception / Preconception Check
    particularly useful in classes with controversial/sensitive issues. Select a handful of troublesome beliefs that are common and most likely to interfere with students' learning, and create a simple questionnaire. Explain to your students the purpose and when they should expect to receive feedback.
  • Think-Pair-Share (Aka Peer to Peer instruction)
    There are several ways to implement this technique. Pose a question or problem to the class and have them each write down their first impressions, thoughts, etc. Then ask them to compare and contrast their responses with each other. Ask them to try to persuade each other using examples and logic and to try and come to a consensus on their response They can either write down their collective response to be turned in, or, to share it in a large class discussion.
  • Minute papers
    in the last 10 minutes of class, ask the following questions, "the most important thing that you have learned today?," "1-2 important questions that you have regarding the lecture?," "what subject would you like to know more about?" (you can also ask questions regarding the lecture or chapter) Have students write down answers, collect-can be used to start the next class lecture, etc.
  • Pick your Poison
    Have your students write test questions from material that was recently covered. Tell them that you will select the best questions and put them on the next exam.


Given the issues associated with teaching a large enrollment class, technology can often be used to help with the deployment of the activities, the gathering and management of the student responses, and the analysis. Here are two examples of how technology can be helpful when using CATs:

  • Discussion Boards are a great way to assess how your class is thinking. Whether it is a question that was written with one answer in mind (convergent) or a question that is written to elicit a wide range of responses along with the rationale for selecting individual responses (divergent), discussion boards are a great way to assess how well your class is thinking about a particular topic, issue, or question.
  • Classroom Response Systems (CRS) are a great technology for assessing student thinking in the classroom. There are several different brands out on the market today; VCU has adopted the Classroom Performance System by eInstruction. The technology allows you to ask both convergent and divergent questions, get immediate responses from students, and display those responses in a chart—providing both the instructor and the students the opportunity to respond to the feedback immediately. Furthermore, the scores are automatically graded and imported into a gradebook.

The Bottom Line

Use your class time wisely. It is the only opportunity for you to meet face-2-face with most of your students at the same time. Take advantage of this opportunity to liven things up with an authentic activity that will allow both you and your students to self-assess and self-adjust.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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