Madeline Miller, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Abstract: Assessing students’ progress and development as learners is an important element of teaching. As a teacher, one must also be able to reflect on one’s teaching methods and thereby modify them to best fit the students’ needs. The use of classroom assessment techniques can help achieve both of these goals. This paper will address the purposes of using these techniques and the benefits they offer for both students and teachers. Also included are brief descriptions of several classroom assessment techniques for current and prospective teachers to consider experimenting with in their classrooms.

Keywords: assessment techniques, formative, feedback, strategies

The incorporation of classroom assessment techniques is an age-old concept that teachers have been using for years. Whether a teacher uses a technique that they learned in training, or simply a strategy they conjured up on their own, the need to know if their teaching is being successful and the desire to understand students’ comprehension is instinctive. Despite this innate characteristic among teachers, the first real attempt to document such techniques for teachers didn’t appear until 1988, when K. Patricia Cross and Thomas A. Angelo published “Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for Faculty”. This handbook (and its later editions) has since become a major resource for all other research concerning assessment strategies within the classroom due to its extensive studies and thoroughness.

What are Classroom Assessment Techniques?

Classroom assessment techniques, or CAT’s as they will commonly be referred to in this paper, are strategies teachers can use to gauge how well their students are comprehending and understanding important points during a lesson. The idea is for CAT’s to be a formative approach to assessment, meaning teachers are using the evaluation of students’ learning to modify their own teaching plans. These techniques are completed during class time and are usually unanimous, although they do not have to be. There has been some debate in the past over whether or not the activities should be graded. While many scholars believe CAT’s should be ungraded because students may answer more honestly, others have found that students regard the activity more seriously if it is being counted, even if it’s a very small part of their overall grade (Mihram, n.d.; Enerson, et al, 2007).

There are two main purposes for choosing to use CAT’s in one’s teaching practices. The first is to provide “quality assurance” for students’ education (Leahy, et al, 2005, p.19). By providing feedback on students’ learning, the techniques allow teachers to make adjustments throughout the lesson so that they are being effective teachers. Secondly, CAT’s allow students a chance to see how they are progressing over time. Along with that, it shows students that their feedback can make a difference in what and how they learn, which in turn could lead students to take more ownership of their education (Mihram, n.d.; Leahy, et al, 2005).

Benefits of CATs

There are several benefits to implementing these techniques into the classroom. Teachers gain insight into which concepts their student’s understand the best and which ones are most confusing. They can then use this information to decide when there needs to be more instruction, and when the class is ready to move on to the next topic. In this way, teachers are able to meet the needs of their students most effectively. These techniques can also help teachers understand the ways their students learn the best as well as alert teachers when a certain teaching approach is not working very well. Students have also reported that they feel more involved in the learning process when these techniques are used in the classroom because it requires them to focus on what they’re learning – they become active participants rather than passive learners (Mihram, n.d.).

Other benefits include flexibility and timeliness (Mihram, n.d.). Many of the techniques, although not all, can be used in a variety of ways. They can be adapted to fit large or small class sizes, or modified depending on what subject matter is being taught; they can be used to assess student’s recall or critical thinking skills. Also, CAT’s require very little time, if any, to be set aside – most of the activities can be conducted while regular instruction time is taking place. That being said, although the time needed to administer the assessment is minimal, it does require careful thought beforehand, as well as a lot of consideration afterwards to analyze the data that’s been collected.

Tips for Implementation

First and foremost, only choose the technique(s) that appeal to you. As the classroom teacher, you are best equipped to decide which strategies align with your teaching methods and the structure of your classroom. Don’t try to force it – this will only make your job harder and it will not prove beneficial to you or your students. Along these same lines, if you have never used any of these techniques before, begin by trying only one at a time. This allows you to fully develop the technique in your classroom and figure out what works and what doesn’t. If you attempt to take on several CAT’s all at once, you may become easily overwhelmed and find that each technique is only being conducted halfheartedly (Angelo & Cross, 1988).

When to do a CAT is also a critical question to discuss. Some techniques lend themselves nicely to be used in a consistent manner. In these situations, frequent usage is advantageous in that it helps students see their own progress; it shows students that their teacher is invested in their learning; it provides the teacher with regular feedback so they can continually adjust lessons and teaching methods; and it helps students feel like they have control over their education (University Teaching and Learning Center [UTLC], 2008). However, this is not the case for every CAT. Some techniques work best when used sparingly – only once at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson, or simply once a week. Trying to use these activities too often may make them seem more like burdens and less like tools. Whatever the case may be, it is suggested to do a CAT at least once before students have a test or weighty assignment in order to address any issues students are struggling with (UTLC, 2008).

Lastly, it is important to maintain an open line of communication with your students throughout the entire process. Before doing a CAT, talk through the purpose of it with your students to make sure they understand what you hope to learn from it and how it will benefit them. Afterwards, once you have had time to sift through their responses and feedback, inform them about what you found and explain how it will be used to make things better in the classroom (UTLC, 2008). Without explanation, students might view CAT’s merely as busy work. This could cause them to become disengaged and consequently affect the quality of their feedback in subsequent assessments.

Suggested Techniques

Below is a list of four strategies that can be easily adapted to fit various classroom structures and teaching styles. While this list is not exhaustive – there are over 50 CAT’s that have been tested and reported by Angelo and Cross – I think it is a good place to start for beginning teachers.

Background Knowledge Probe

The Background Knowledge Probe consists of a few simple questions (and perhaps a couple focused ones) asked typically before the start of a unit or when introducing a new important topic. The purpose of this questionnaire is to inform the teacher of how much prior knowledge students have on a specific subject matter. This will help the teacher figure out an “effective starting point” for the lesson as well as an “appropriate level of instruction”(Mihram, n.d., p. 3; Angelo & Cross, 1988, p. 37). While this strategy is most often used as an introduction to a lesson, it can also be beneficial halfway through and at the end to see what the students learned (Mihram, n.d.). This particular technique can be easily modified to fit any subject matter – history, science, math, English, music, and so on. An example of one question that might be found on a Background Knowledge Probe questionnaire would be: “Explain what you know about the Louisiana Purchase?”

Memory Matrix

This technique specializes in assessing recall and ability to categorize things based on their relationships to something else. A Memory Matrix is composed of rows and columns with headings and empty cellblocks (Figure 1.). Students are then instructed to fill in the grid according to what they learned. As in the example, students would fill in the compose that fit into each category. This is most helpful at the end of a lesson in which students are asked to remember a lot of key concepts, such as in music, history, and the sciences (Angelo & Cross, 1988). The teacher then analyzes the completed grids, looking for common mistakes so as to understand what concepts students are struggling with from this point, the teacher can decide how to address this issue (UTLC, 2008).

Germany France Britain

Figure 1. Memory Matrix Example

Traffic Light Cards

This technique is exactly what it sounds like. The teacher simply distributes one red card and one green card to each student. Then, during the lesson while instruction is taking place, students can hold up either card to show how well they understand. If the teacher sees his or her students holding up all green cards, they know to continue. But if the students are holding up red cards, the teacher knows that something was unclear and needs to be discussed further. This type of immediate feedback is helpful for the teacher to see how well students are learning and it also gives the students an opportunity to engage and take control of their learning. This technique is typically practiced in elementary classrooms although it can also be effective in the upper grade levels (Leahy, et al, 2005).

Muddiest Point

The Muddiest Point is another general CAT that can be used for any subject in any grade level. When using this technique, the teacher instructs students to briefly state what part of the lesson or assignment was most confusing for them. This allows the teachers to figure out what material needs to be reiterated. Reviewing every area that each student felt was unclear is a lot of work, and teachers may find themselves simply teaching the entire lesson all over again. As an alternative, I would recommend looking for the top two or three most common responses and focusing on those. This technique also requires students to learn how to “articulate their confusion”, a skill that is very important to have.


As a teacher, you must be willing to constantly change and adapt what you do in the classroom; it is simply the nature of the profession. If you remain stagnant – unwilling to modify lesson plans and teaching methods to adhere to students’ needs – you inevitably run the risk of becoming highly ineffective. However, this can easily be avoided by taking the time to assess both yourself and your students. And one simple way to collect the feedback you desire is to engage in the use of one or more classroom assessment technique. Not only do CAT’s help you determine the level of your student’s understanding and your own effectiveness as a teacher, but they can also directly benefit the students themselves. This paper included four CAT’s that I felt could be easily implemented into any classroom. Nevertheless, if upon trying each one you find that none of them seem to be the right fit for you and your classroom, do not despair. There are plenty more CAT’s that can be greatly beneficial and worth trying, and I implore you to experiment with these other techniques as well.


Cross, K. P., & Angelo, T. A. (1988). Classroom Assessment Techniques. A Handbook for Faculty.

Enerson, D., Plank, K., & Johnson, R. N. (2007). An introduction to classroom assessment techniques. Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

Leahy, S., Lyon, C., Thompson, M., & William, D. (2005). Classroom assessment: Minute by minute, day by day. Assessment, 63(3).

Mihram, D. (n.d.). Classroom assessment techniques. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 1-9.

University Teaching and Learning Center (Ed.). (2008). Classroom assessment techniques (CATs). The George Washington University.