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By Robyn Cutright

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Throughout this term, TA Services will feature articles on topics relevant to teaching assistants. Faculty members may also find these articles useful. For this month’s installment, we are reissuing an earlier article by Robin Cutright on the importance of classroom assessment techniques. There is no need to wait until the end of the semester to find out what is working in your classroom and what is not. Conducting one of these activities will provide you with valuable feedback from your students while you still have time to make adjustments. Having had a few weeks of classes under our belts, now may be a good time to conduct one of these assessments. (Katie Phelps, Teaching Fellow for TA Services)

For many TAs, receiving the results of student evaluations at the end of the semester can be nerve-wracking and confusing. Often, student comments are contradictory (some people hated the group work, others loved it) or vague. Some studies have even shown that end-of-semester evaluations tend to reflect how students respond to the instructors’ personalities rather than their effectiveness as teachers (Clayson and Sheffet 2006).

However, remember that end-of-term evaluations are not your only opportunity to find out how students feel about your class. While these evaluations are useful, especially as you design future recitations or courses, seeking student feedback throughout the course can let you know what is working and what isn’t in your class in time to do something about it.

To this end, you might consider employing different informal assessments, or classroom assessment techniques (CATs) throughout the semester. CATs are short, anonymous, ungraded responses from students that help you better understand how your students are learning and subsequently improve your teaching. CATs might ask students to:

  • Summarize the most important point of the class. This CAT helps you gauge how well you are communicating the central themes of the course.
  • Identify the “muddiest point” of the day’s lesson. You can clarify or reinforce points or address any patterns during the following class.
  • Write (and answer) an exam question based on the day’s material. This will give you a sense of how students are preparing for tests, and what material they expect the tests to cover, and it allows you to address any gaps in future classes.

In my own experience, even a simple midterm survey can be an effective CAT. About halfway through the course, I pass out an anonymous questionnaire asking students what they like about class so far, what they don’t like, and what they’d like to see added to the class. This gives me the chance to tailor the rest of the course to what is working well for the students, and to make any requested changes that seem reasonable (such as posting reading guides on CourseWeb, or spending more time working through problems in class).

Informal assessments create an opportunity to initiate a conversation with students about their learning. Because they are more focused and specific than end-of-term evaluations, CATs often generate targeted, constructive criticism, and allow you to evaluate the effectiveness of specific teaching strategies. Ultimately, CATs give you the chance to improve your teaching over the course of the semester, rather than waiting until the end of the term for student feedback.

An assistant professor of anthropology at Centre College in Kentucky, Robyn Cutright previously worked at CIDDE in TA Services.

Clayson, Dennis E. and Mary Jane Sheffet, 2006. Personality and the Student Evaluation of Teaching.Journal of Marketing Education 28:149.



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