Critics of the U.S. education system have set out to determine which evaluation method produces data that best captures the way students learn and the way they progress toward classroom goals. Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, most educators "agree that we have gone too far in placing too much emphasis on test scores." Today, while educator and student evaluations are still high priorities, product-oriented evaluation techniques, such as standardized testing, are no longer believed to be the most reliable way to conduct a classroom study.
Educators suspect that product-oriented testing, which measures only the outcome of student performance, offers a limited view of what students learn. Rather than evaluating potential areas of improvement, such as problem-solving and creativity, product-oriented testing only displays whether a student can memorize information or work well under pressure. In addition to providing an insufficient perspective on student learning, tests and quizzes produce anxiety that can distract students from classroom activities. Because critical assessment techniques, or CATs, are worked into classroom activities and content, they eliminate the anxiety surrounding quizzes and tests, and they allow teachers to better monitor student morale and confidence.
With CATs, classroom activities are no longer limited to lecturing and exam preparation; they include group projects, applied skills, presentations, foreign language practice, and conceptual learning (such as math and art) in which the process is just as important as the outcome. As these activities take place, teachers can administer CATs and adjust lesson plans based on their results. These adjustments can monitor whether students are engaging with the course material, as well as whether they show signs of long-term retention.
While the methods teachers use to administer CATs vary, several tools have gained popularity among CATs proponents. The following are two major categories.
First, CATs can be used to empower students by encouraging them to share their perspectives. They allow students to see their critiques of the class as important considerations for teachers, rather than as discontentment or rebelliousness. This then gives students the opportunity to be critical and creative in areas where they were once passive recipients:
- Muddiest Point: Ask students to write a short note about which part of a lesson made the least sense to them and why.
- Student-Generated Test Questions: Assign groups, each addressing a topic in an upcoming test, and have students generate potential test questions. You can choose the best questions from each group, so that every student will feel familiar with at least part of the test for which they are preparing.
- Student Report Groups: Call upon volunteers to meet with you in a small group on a regular basis to provide feedback and ideas on how the class is proceeding.
- Exam Evaluations: Include a few questions at the end of a test asking students to rate how successfully the test evaluates their knowledge or skills.
- Suggestion Boxes: Leave a box in the front of the classroom into which students can drop notes expressing issues they might have with the class.
- Small Group Instructional Diagnoses: Invite trained facilitators to meet with students to discuss the effectiveness of the instructor's chosen content and teaching techniques.
Second, CATs can promote comprehension and long-term retention. As an alternative to pop quizzes, these CATs allows instructors to monitor how well students are taking in information, and how competent they are with class concepts and skills:
- One-Minute Papers: Provide students with a short questionnaire at the end of class that asks students to describe their most and least favorite thing about today's class.
- Chain Notes: Pass an envelope around and have each student submit a question about the class content. You can address these questions in later lesson plans.
- Journals: Require students to keep journals to record thoughts and feelings on the class. You can use them to evaluate student attitudes on class content, perceptions of the importance of what they are learning, and comprehension of course material.
- Student Report Groups: Use student representatives as a sample population of your class, and ask them questions about class content.
- Peer Reviews: Host a colleague as a guest observer. Their feedback can provide you with perspective on the extent to which students are connecting with your class goals.
As teachers, CATs can increase your awareness of your assignments' level of success or difficulty. For example, let's say there's a big break coming up and you assign an entire book's worth of reading. On the first day of class after break, you split students into groups, and ask each group to review a specific chapter of the assigned book. At the end of the class, you hand out One-Minute Papers, and get mixed reviews on the group assignment. Two ideas recur in the CATs results: "The assignment distracted me from the reason the book is important as a whole," and "I got assigned my least favorite chapter." You learn it might be valuable to provide an overview before asking students to focus on a specific chapter, or to ask students to volunteer for chapters instead of assigning them. This example CAT has taken up very little class time, and the results can be used for immediate improvement upon the next class meeting.
Another worthwhile CAT is creating student report groups. For example, if you are teaching a large lecture class without an assistant and are concerned about meeting all of the students' needs. You invite students to volunteer as representatives that report to your office after class once a week. In these meetings, you learn that it is unrealistic to expect students to attend the nightly film viewings held on campus once a week, since many students are older and have families, or work at night. Classroom representatives valuably serve students who feel insecure about complaining to the instructor directly, and they serve you as the instructor, who may be unaware of your students' distinct situations.
When planning class activities and assessments, it is important to remember that it is always possible to find more ideas and more ways to approach your students.
- The University of Waterloo's Centre for Teaching Excellence has a website aimed at providing teachers and students with learning tips. Not only does it offer diverse teaching strategies, it also describes multimedia learning approaches, such as ePortfolios and Concept Maps.
- The website Education Dive has compiled a list of nineteen free lesson planning resources. It provides a range of websites, some of which specialize in specific disciplines, like Readworks, and some of which focus on a specific demographic, like SEN Teacher.
- A useful networking site for any needs a teacher might have is Teachers.net. Their message boards present a well-articulated discourse on a wide range of topics, and their lesson plans section has regular updates.
These websites, along with CATs, are bringing important reforms to student-teacher and teacher-teacher dynamics. No longer an occasion for teachers to simply feed students information, education now presents a unique opportunity for reciprocal learning and skill-building both in the classroom and on the internet. Online resources and student perspectives will provide teachers with the skills they need to succeed in the world of 21st Century education.