TechnoCATs: Classroom Assessment Techniques with Clickers

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are simple, non-graded, usually anonymous, in-class activities designed to give you and your students useful feedback on the teaching-learning process as it is happening.  The standard reference on CATs is Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross (Jossey-Bass, 1993). This book includes 50 CATs, each described in detail with examples from a variety of disciplines.  You’ve probably heard of a few of these, such as the minute paper, muddiest point exercise, and background knowledge probe.

CATs provide what is known as formative assessment, something I’ve frequently blogged about.  This is assessment of student learning intended to inform future teaching.  Formative assessment is often contrasted with summative assessment, which is performed in order to evaluate student performance.  Summative assessment comes at the end of a learning experience; formative assessment happens as the students are learning.  Feedback from formative assessment can provide instructors with useful insight into what students are understanding, what they are not understanding, and how they might target their teaching to their particular students.

At the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference, Charlotte Briggs (University of Illinois-Chicago) and Deborah Keyek-Franssen (University of Colorado-Boulder) presented the results of a very useful study.  They combed through all 50 CATs in the Angelo and Cross book and determined that 23 of them could be used with clickers.  I’ve long thought of classroom response systems as a sort of “technoCAT,” a technology-enhanced classroom assessment technique, since they provide such useful formative assessment of student learning.  Charlotte and I connected via Twitter some time ago, and she had let me know that this analysis of the Angelo and Cross book was in the works.  I was very excited to see her work presented at the ELI meeting!

Charlotte and Deborah’s PowerPoint slides are available, as is their handout listing all 23 CATs that can be performed with clickers.  In their slides, they provide the following example of a CAT that can be used “as is” with clickers.

Background Knowledge Probe: Which of the following is NOT a characteristic of Romanticism?

  1. Attention to “the natural”
  2. Valued “folk” literature, such as fairy tales
  3. Had a strong geographical center in Düsseldorf
  4. Referred to “the blue flower” as a central symbol for longing
  5. Valued medieval literature and art.

You can imagine asking this kind of clicker question at the start of a unit on Romanticism–or a unit that referenced Romanticism but didn’t focus on it.  If knowledge of Romanticism is important for participating in the discussion that followed, then this question will let instructors know how much time they need to spend reviewing Romanticism at the start of the unit.

The background knowledge probe CAT is one that I referenced in my book since it’s such a common use of clickers.  Where Charlotte and Deborah’s work gets more interesting is in their analysis of the other 49 CATs in the Angelo and Cross book!  For instance, they identify 12 other CATs that can be used “as is” with clickers, including such CATs as approximate analogies, problem recognition tasks, self-confidence surveys, and goal ranking and matching.  They also identify 10 CATs that can be modified to work with clickers.

For example, Angelo and Cross describe the “one sentence summary” CAT, in which students are asked to write a one-sentence summary of a reading or lecture using the WDWWWWHW format: Who Does What to Whom When Where How and Why.  Charlotte and Deborah note that students aren’t able to construct and submit these sentences using clickers.  However, they can be given a potential one-sentence summary and asked to identify its flaws.  The example they share in their slides is this one:

One-Sentence Summary: Find the errors in WDWWWWHW: A grand jury is a panel of judges (who) that decides if someone should be charged with a crime (does what to whom) when the offense might be a felony carrying prison time (when) if federal courts and most state courts (where) by listening to arguments by attorneys from both sides (how) so common sense and community perspectives are part of the criminal justice system (why).

  1. Who and Why
  2. When and Where
  3. How and Why
  4. Who and How
  5. Does What to Whom and How

This clicker serves much the same purpose as a “traditional” one-sentence summary, in part because it’s a “multiple mark” style of question, asking students to identify not one, but two things wrong with the given summary.  If your clicker system allows actual multiple-mark questions, allowing students to select as many incorrect elements as they wish, the question becomes even more complex–and thus closer in usage to the one-sentence summary described by Angelo and Cross.

Charlotte and Deborah make a few very good points about modifying CATs to work with clickers.  They note that doing so “tends to down-grade the complexity” of the CAT itself.  With the one-sentence summary, for instance, you lose the ability to see what surprising things students might say in their constructed sentences.  However, Charlotte and Deborah point out that class discussion of the clicker question can restore that complexity.  As they write, “Instructors often get the most out of clickers when they are used to prompt discussion,” which is a point I always make when I talk about teaching with clickers.

Here’s one more great example along those lines.  Instead of asking students to write down the “muddiest point” of a lecture at the end of class, Charlotte and Deborah suggest in their handout the following:

List potential topics on slide and include an “other” option. Ask students to indicate the topic with which they had the most difficulty. If a significant proportion of the class selects “other”, probe the class to identify other “muddy” issues.

For other ideas on adapting CATs for use with clickers, take a look at their handout.  The Angelo and Cross CATs book is well-known in some educational circles (not so much in others, unfortunately), and Charlotte and Deborah’s work serves as a nice introduction to teaching with clickers for those familiar with the book.  Conversely, those already teaching with clickers are likely to find a few new ideas for using them as they explore the CATs framework.

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