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Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs): Low-Stakes Strategies to Assess Active Learning 

The CTL resource Getting Started with Active Learning offers a framework for active learning in which instructors have students encounter new information, engage with course content, and reflect on what they learned and their learning process. As with any learning activity implemented in a class session, checking what and how students learned from an active learning method is a critical next step to ensure that students have met the learning objectives you set for them. 

This resource introduces classroom assessment techniques (CATs) as a way to assess what students have learned from active learning methods. 


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The CTL is here to help! 

You don’t have to navigate classroom assessment techniques alone. The CTL is available to support you in determining which CATs are most suited for your course context! Email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation. 

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs): Low Stakes Strategies to Assess Active Learning. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/assess-active-learning/

What Are Classroom Assessment Techniques?

If you plan to implement a learning activity that is designed for students’ active learning, classroom assessment techniques (CATs) can be a great way to assess what and how students have learned from the learning activity. 

CATs are quick, low-stakes methods used to gauge student understanding and knowledge. Traditionally, they are designed to be administered in real time during a live class session, but they can also be conducted asynchronously with the help of technology (e.g., via CourseWorks Quiz or Discussion, Ed Discussion polling or discussion threads, Poll Everywhere, etc.). 

Through CATs, you collect information about ongoing student learning so that you can provide students with feedback and guidance. With such support, students can become more self-directed learners who actively engage in their learning process. 

Three Essential Elements of an Effective Classroom Assessment Technique

An effective CAT should have a clear purpose of assessment, should help students produce a concrete and assessable learning artifact, and should be followed up with a clear instructor response on how the results will impact student learning.

Image 1: Three essential elements of an effective classroom assessment technique

1. Clear assessment purpose 

Within the overarching goal of collecting information about students’ ongoing learning, what specific aspect of student learning do you want to assess? There can be many different purposes for assessing student learning. These might include assessing: 

  • how well students have recalled and understood new information that they have encountered in class;
  • how well students have applied and integrated the given information they have learned as they engaged with course content; 
  • what meaningful connections students have made in their learning process as they reflected on their own learning.

2. Concrete and assessable learning artifact

You can ask students to produce concrete and assessable learning artifacts through an assignment or activity. These learning artifacts then become the basis of your assessment and corresponding feedback you provide to your students. Examples of such learning artifacts include:

  • Poll results
  • Written responses to pre-work such as watching video clips, reading selected texts, etc.
  • Online discussion posts
  • Case analysis
  • Written or oral reflections

3. Instructor response to learning artifact data

Determine how you will interpret the data you collected and what you will do with the data. Some questions you might ask include: 

  • Why might some students have performed well in a given assignment or activity while others might not have performed as well? 
  • Based on the collected data, what changes or adjustments might you make in the way you structure your future lessons? 
  • What kind of feedback will you provide to your students? 

After thinking about these questions, share the assessment results with your students, how you interpreted them, and what you will do in response. Your response can range from simply sharing your observation and feedback with your students to restructuring upcoming lessons or assignments. 

Examples of Classroom Assessment Techniques

This section provides examples of CATs organized around three specific assessment purposes:

  • To assess prior knowledge, recall, and understanding
  • To assess students’ application of knowledge and skills
  • To assess student reflection and self-awareness of their learning process

For each example, you will find a description of the CAT and a corresponding implementation guide. Please note that a CAT can serve multiple assessment purposes depending on its implementation and learning context. The CAT examples below are drawn from the work of Barkley and Major (2015) and Angelo and Cross (1993) and have been adapted based on the three assessment purposes listed below. 

Image 2: Classroom Assessment Techniques at a Glance

1. To assess prior knowledge, recall, and understanding

Before introducing your students to new course content, you may want to identify what prior knowledge students might have on the selected course content. After introducing new course content, you may want to assess how students have learned and retained new knowledge. The following CATs offer ways to check students’ prior knowledge and gauge how well they recall and understand course content that they encounter in your class.

Prediction Guide

Prediction Guide is a technique that asks students to make predictions prior to a learning activity. After engaging in the learning activity, students return to their predictions to evaluate its accuracy and correct potential misconceptions. Prediction Guide can be used to activate students’ prior knowledge and to help students connect new ideas to existing knowledge. It can also be used to compare students’ knowledge before and after engaging in a given lesson to assess improvement as a result of the lesson.

How to implement Prediction Guide: 

  • Prepare 8-10 dichotomous statements (e.g., agree/disagree; yes/no; fact/opinion) that require students to make predictions about the new content they are about to encounter. Using an online tool (e.g., Poll Everywhere, Google Doc, etc.) can help collect student answers electronically.
  • At the beginning of class, have students respond to each statement and then present your lesson (e.g., through lecture, demonstration, reading assignment, etc.). 
  • Afterward, ask students to re-evaluate their answers in light of the new information learned from your lesson. 
  • After collecting student answers, consider creating a bar graph or pie chart to visually display the results (Poll Everywhere can automatically generate results). 
  • Share the results with students when giving feedback.

(Barkley & Major, 2015, pp. 148-152)

Memory Matrix

Memory Matrix asks students to create a table in which they organize newly encountered information and illustrate relationships among different ideas and concepts. Since students do not refer to their notes or course materials, Memory Matrix can help assess how well students recall and/or organize important course content.

How to implement Memory Matrix: 

  • Provide a memory matrix to your students to fill out. 
  • This can be done synchronously in class after lectures, reading assignments, audio/video clips that present a substantial amount of information. 
  • This can also be done asynchronously using online platforms such as CourseWorks. Students can fill out the memory matrix individually, as a group, or as a whole class. 
  • Use student answers in the memory matrix to assess what they have learned (or not learned) and provide appropriate feedback.

Example from a Survey of 19th and 20th Century Western Art:

Instructions – With your group, place the names of major artists in the appropriate cells.

  France United States Britain

Example from Anatomy and Physiology I:

Instructions – How does each part of the digestive system relate to the structures, functions, and enzymes? With your group, fill out each cell with appropriate information.

  Structure Functions Enzymes
Small intestine      
Large intestine      
Gall bladder      

(Angelo & Cross. 1993, pp. 142-147)

Minute Paper

Minute Paper is a technique that asks a variation of two questions: “What was the most important thing you learned during class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?” Minute Paper can be used to discover what students’ takeaways are in a given course topic they have just encountered and what further questions they have about the course topic.

How to implement Minute Paper: 

  • Either at the beginning or end of a class session, set aside a few minutes for students to respond to your minute paper questions. 
  • This can be done synchronously in class or asynchronously outside of class to serve as a warm-up or wrap-up activity. 
  • Students can write their answers on a sheet of paper or answer via an online polling platform such as Poll Everywhere
  • Use student answers to gauge current student understanding and provide appropriate feedback.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993, pp. 148-153)

2. To assess students’ application of knowledge and skills

After encountering foundational knowledge of a discipline, students need to use and engage with the learned information and ideas in meaningful ways, whether it be analyzing data or critiquing different viewpoints. The following CATs offer ways to assess how successfully students apply their newly learned knowledge and skills.

Snap Shots

Snap Shots is a technique that engages students in responding to a given question multiple times, first individually then as a group, in order to come to a consensus answer. Snap Shots can be used to gain a quick and observable record of students’ progress as students work together to reach the correct answer. 

How to implement Snap Shots: 

  • Present a question during class with several possible answers. 
  • In the first round, students individually choose which answer they think is correct (either by a show of hands or through an online polling tool such as Poll Everywhere). 
  • In the next round, have students discuss the same question in small groups and then submit another answer as a group. 
  • Share and compare results (of the initial individual answer and the second group answer) with students and address any misconceptions or misunderstandings that the results might reveal.

(Barkley & Major, 2015, pp. 116-121)

Pro and Con Grid

Pro and Con Grid is a technique that engages students in analytical thinking to produce a list of pros and cons. Pro and Con Grid can be used to assess how students have understood and analyzed a given course topic or issue from different angles.

How to implement Pro and Con Grid: 

  • Provide students with a prompt to respond to in terms of pros and cons, costs and benefits, or advantages and disadvantages of a given course topic or issue. 
  • Use student answers to do a frequency count: Which points are most often mentioned? Have students omitted some points that you expected them to mention? How balanced are the two “sides” of the grid? 
  • Discuss the above questions with your students when you give them feedback.

Example Prompt from Seminar in Bridge and Highway Design (Civil Engineering):

The seminar has just studied two proposed designs for a new suspension bridge. The second design proposes a structure that is significantly more massive and more rigid than the first. Briefly list three to five major advantages and disadvantages you see in the second design.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993, pp. 168-171)

Sequence Chains

Sequence Chains is a technique that engages students in analyzing and then depicting graphically a sequence of events, actions, roles, or decisions. Sequence Chains can be used to assess how students identify specific points in a series and how they apply their knowledge and reasoning to arrange these points in an orderly, coherent progression.

How to implement Sequence Chains: 

  • Either provide students with a scrambled list of items or have them generate their own list of items to organize in a sequence. 
  • Have students document their work and submit it to you. 
  • Collect student work, assess and identify any gaps in the way students made connections between different items, and address those gaps in the next class session and give feedback.

(Barkley & Major, 2015, pp. 214-217)

Application Cards

Application Cards is a technique that engages students in connecting an important principle or concept to a real-life application scenario. Application Cards can be used to assess how well students apply the learned principle or concept to possible real-life situations. 

How to implement Application Cards:

  • Identify an important (and clearly applicable) principle, theory, generalization, or procedure that your students are studying or have just studied.
  • Decide how many applications you will ask for and how much time you will allow for the assessment. Usually 3-5 minutes is enough for one application, with room for adaptation for different contexts.
  • Announce in class what you are going to do and hand out small index cards (an online platform such as Poll Everywhere can also be used to collect student responses). 
  • Collect the Application Cards and let students know when and how they will receive your feedback (e.g., Will you provide written feedback? Oral feedback? Will you compile a list of the different applications that students submitted and share it with the whole class to see? Will students have the opportunity to share their applications and discuss?). 

Examples from Principles of Microeconomics (Economics):

Gresham’s law basically states that “good money drives out bad.” Give at least one contemporary application of Gresham’s law to something other than money.

Examples from Educational Psychology (Psychology):

Psychologists have long noted the effects of “primacy” and “recency” on recall of information. These effects have some implications for classroom teaching and learning. Suggest one or two applications of these implications for teachers using the lecture method.

Examples from Statistics for Health Professionals (Statistics):

Provide three possible applications of statistical significance testing to public health issues currently in the news.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993, pp. 236-239)

3. To assess student reflections and self-awareness of their learning process

For students to be actively engaged in learning, they need to think about their own thought processes involved in their learning (see CTL resource: Metacognition). This metacognitive action of “thinking about your own thinking” allows students to recognize gaps in their knowledge as well as identify and integrate new knowledge into their existing cognitive framework. The following CATs offer ways to assess how students have reflected on their learning process.

Classroom Opinion Polls

Classroom Opinion Polls is a technique that asks students to reflect on their beliefs about course-related issues. Classroom Opinion Polls can be used to discover students’ pre-existing opinions about course-related issues. At the same time, students can discover their own opinions, compare their opinions with their classmates’ opinions, and test their opinions against evidence and expert opinion.

How to implement Classroom Opinion Polls: 

  • Prepare an anonymous* opinion poll (e.g., via Poll Everywhere) regarding a question of values. 
  • Encourage students to reflect on their beliefs before responding to the poll. 
  • Share poll results and discuss them with your students as you prepare to present your lectures or other lesson materials for that day. 
  • This can be implemented before introducing new course content or after introducing new course content to see if there has been a change in students’ opinions. 
  • Summarize poll results and share the main takeaways that you would like them to have in relation to course content. 

*Note: An anonymous opinion poll is a great way to uncover student opinions that are not always fully articulated. However, it is important to ensure a mechanism to uphold a community agreement to respect one another so that no harmful words are shared in the poll (e.g., use multiple choice questions; share open-ended responses after checking them in advance, etc.)

Example from Energy and the Environment (Environmental Studies):

Instructions – Read the following statement and choose one answer that best completes the sentence in alignment with your opinion.

If I found a great house at a great price, close to work and near good schools, that was within five miles of a nuclear power plant, I would (select only one):

  1. Be absolutely willing to consider buying it, and not worried about the plant
  2. Be somewhat willing to consider buying it, but concerned about the plant
  3. Be very skeptical about buying it, and worried about the plant
  4. Be absolutely unwilling to consider it because of the plant

(Angelo & Cross, 1993, pp. 258-262)

“What? So What? Now What?” Journal

“What? So What? Now What?” Journal is a technique that asks students to write journal entries to reflect on their recent learning activities or experiences. What? So What? Now What?” Journal can be used to assess how students reflect on their learning and make meaning out of their recent learning experiences.

How to implement “What? So What? Now What?” Journal: 

  • Provide instructions on how students should write their journal entries:
    • What? What happened? Was there a difference between what you expected and what happened? What did you do?
    • So what? What have you learned? Why does that matter? To you? To your peers? To other stakeholders? Is the experience in alignment, informed by, or in conflict with class texts or other activities?
    • Now what? How can you apply your learning? What information can you share with others? What would you like to learn more about?
  • Ask students to record entries for a predetermined amount of time. 
  • After collecting students’ journal entries, review them and determine how to respond to them. You could provide each student with written feedback or identify any emerging themes or patterns across students’ journal entries and address them in class. Students could also review and comment on each other’s journal entries.

(Barkley & Cross, 2015, pp. 388-392)

Student-Generated Rubrics

Student-Generated Rubrics is a technique that asks students to reflect on what they consider quality work in the course by producing their own assessment rubrics. Students develop these rubrics based on examples of outstanding disciplinary-based products such as an essay, research paper, or lab report. Students then apply the rubric to test rubric viability. Student-Generated Rubrics can be used to assess how well students can identify the features of excellent work and how well they have internalized the meaning of high standards as defined in your course.

How to implement Student-Generated Rubrics: 

  • Put students in small groups, provide each group with 2-3 exemplary models of a given assignment, and ask them to identify and list the characteristics that make the models excellent work. 
  • Based on their list, students create their own grading rubric for the given assignment type. 
  • Collect students’ rubrics and consider using them as the basis for a single, consolidated rubric that you inform students you will be using to evaluate their future work. 

Example Instructions to Students:

  1. Across the three model examples shared with you, identify and list the criteria, dimensions, or traits that standout to you in each model (e.g., “the essay has a clear thesis statement” or “the portfolio is visually attractive and well-organized”).
  2. From the three models, select five traits that seem to be essential and that all three of the models share.
  3. Describe the qualities that make that dimension or trait excellent (e.g., “the thesis is clear to the reader, seems to be appropriately limited in scope, shows synthesis and original thought,” etc.).

(Barkley & Cross, 2015, pp.370-375)