Why Assess Student Learning?

There are few experiences more disheartening to a teacher than reading a group of midterm papers or exams only to find that students are way off the mark. And when this happens at the end of term, the experience is even worse. In the late 1980’s, researchers Patricia Cross and Thomas Angelo compiled a collection of strategies that teachers can use to learn what students know, how they think, and what they are learning. These techniques, called Classroom Assessment Techniques, demonstrate that we don’t have to wait for graded assignments and tests to find out how students are doing, that we can build short assessments into our daily teaching, and that we can use this information to refine our teaching approaches and to guide students to better learning. Today, many faculty members build assessment opportunities directly into the design of their courses, along with lectures, discussion, assignments, etc. Assessment techniques are not grading practices; they are used by teachers to answer basic questions about what students know and how they know it.

All teachers, in fact, use some assessment techniques. Typical examples include: asking students, on the first day of class, what courses they’ve taken in our discipline; during a lecture, looking out at students’ faces for signs of understanding; or the ever present “any questions?” at the end of class. These are all, technically, assessment techniques, but they aren’t very effective ones – the courses students have taken don’t always tell us what students actually know or know how to do; facial expressions of understanding are misleading; and students’ response to the query “any questions?” (which is usually silence) is completely inscrutable. The techniques we discuss in this section are more powerful and more valid, because they are intentional and well designed. Assessment questions can be open-ended and exploratory, but they can also be highly specific and targeted to a unique element of students’ knowledge, attitudes, study habits, or ways of reasoning. In general, assessing student learning involves the following steps: figuring out what you want to know, and how the information will be used; deciding if you want individual results or information about the class as a while; choosing a mechanism for gathering and analyzing data; choosing a mechanism for communicating the results to students.

For those who have never used assessment techniques, we suggest starting small. The “Minute-Paper” is a good first step. Choose a class session that you would like to assess. It can be a lecture, discussion, lab or any other type of class. Save a few minutes at the end of class during which you will ask students to respond to questions on a blank piece of paper or note card. You can try these questions…

  • What is the most important thing you learned in today’s class?
  • What is one thing you don’t quite understand?
  • What is a big question that was raised by today’s class?

… or come up with questions of your own. Ask students to drop their answers in box on the way out the door, with names or no names…it’s your choice. Review the results and share your overall impression with students during your next meeting. Do the results give you insights that you can use in your teaching?

Although the opportunities for assessing student learning are limitless, as are the questions one could ask, we are going to organize our discussion of assessment techniques using the following categories:

  • Assessing prior knowledge
  • Assessing skills and modes of approaching course content
  • Assessing understanding of course content
  • Assessing attitudes and experiences

Recommended Reading

  1. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross
  2. Classroom Assessment Techniques, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University


  1. Selected Classroom Assessment Techniques,” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan
  2. Strategies to Check Student Learning in the Classroom,” Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University