This article discusses three quick techniques which can alert the instructor to potential problems. The first helps students understand course goals, the second evaluates the effectiveness of group work, and the third is a general way of finding out how things are going in time to make changes. As I continue to experiment with various informal classroom assessment techniques, I have come to favor assessment tools which use no more than ten minutes of class time and require no more than an hour after class to tabulate and form a response. The three techniques included here provide quick ways to find out what is going well and what is not, and allow me to address any problems in a timely manner.
Ball State University is a comprehensive community with approximately 17,000 undergraduates. The University offers a strong undergraduate liberal and professional education and some graduate programs. Most University courses are taught in small classes of 35 or fewer students by full-time faculty.
My classes tend to sort into three categories: content courses for departmental majors, colloquia courses for our Honors College, and a mathematics topics course that fulfills a University general studies requirement. While each class develops its own unique personality, each of these categories brings its own challenges.
Background and Purpose
A section of our general studies topics course generally includes 35 students, mostly first-year, with widely varying mathematics abilities and declared majors in the creative arts, communications, humanities, social sciences, and architecture. Students in this course often enter the course annoyed that a mathematics class is required by the University. I want my students to examine the role of this course in their college curriculum.
At the first meeting I follow a brief course introduction by distributing copies of the General Studies Program Goals, as found in the Undergraduate Catalogue.
General Studies Program Goals The General Studies program is designed to help you develop knowledge, skills, and values that all graduates of the university are expected to share. The program of General Studies has the following goals:
After reviewing these six goals, I ask student to select the goals which they believe are important to all graduates, and of these, to choose one which they think the course will help them to achieve. I then ask students to write a paragraph identifying the goal and why they think it is important to all graduates.
Through this activity, I am able to focus the class on the general studies mission of the course. While this method effectively forces a positive reaction from each student, it allowed me to solicit student reactions and learn what they might expect from this class. This activity also creates an expectation for additional classroom assessment activities in the course.
Use of Findings
I tabulate the responses and share them with the class the next day. All six goals are generally included among the responses. As the course progresses through the term, when examples or illustrations could support these goals, I can to refer back to this list and the supporting student paragraphs. This activity helps me effectively combat the nagging question of relevance which can often plague a general studies course.
Courses for majors can also benefit from an initial overview of the course's intent, purpose, and breadth. You can also solicit the students' perceived course objectives and compare them to yours and those of the university.
Background and Purpose
Our departmental majors, including undergraduates and master's candidates in actuarial science, mathematics, mathematics education, and statistics, range broadly in ability and motivation. These students take our Discrete Systems course after one term of Calculus. Group laboratory projects have developed in recent years to become part of the Calculus sequence, but the experience can vary greatly from instructor to instructor. Since Discrete Systems includes several topics that can naturally support group exploration, I elected to develop similar projects for this course.
After the second project was completed, I wanted to learn how my students' perception of this activity compared to my own. Therefore, I developed an evaluation form and solicited responses from each student.
Group Projects Evaluation Form
After tabulating the responses, I found that over 75% of the class rated their ability to work together in groups "Well" or "Extremely Well" in the first two questions. In fact, about 45% of the class responded "Extremely Well" to both questions. In response to questions 3 and 4, positive aspects of group work included: different points of view (45%), better understanding of class topics (40%), improved library skills (35%), improved computer skills (15%) and group commitment (10%). The comments to the final question included several versions of "Finding time when we both can work on the project was the biggest challenge."
Use of Findings
I returned copies of these tabulated responses to the class the following day, along with the following paragraph:
Based on your responses, most of you view the group projects as a valuable part of the course. In addition to focusing on specifically assigned "group questions," the group structure promotes discussion of class topics, improves study skills, and helps to develop class rapport. Because I agree that group work is a valuable part of this class, and since the scheduled class time offers a guaranteed opportunity for groups to meet, I intend to devote parts of future class times for group discussion. Though the projects will not be completed during such short meetings, these times may allow groups to share ideas, report progress, and plan strategy. I intend to use a similar evaluation instrument following the final report. JWE
I have found that the third and fourth questions can be adapted as an effective evaluation tool, as well as a prompt for classroom discussion. For example, when another Discrete Systems class recently visited our Annual Student Symposium, a poster session for student research projects, I asked the following three questions:
Background and Purpose
My Honors College colloquia tend to attract a broad spectrum of curious upper class students, including majors in architecture, art, computer science, mathematics and music. Each Colloquium course develops in a different way. Even when a topic list is repeated, class dynamics can change drastically from term to term.
I recently taught a colloquium course on "Common themes" using Douglas Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach , to examine traits common to Bach's music, Gödel's mathematical logic, and Escher's graphic art. Having taught this course several times, I have learned the necessity of providing sufficient foundational knowledge in each of these areas so that effective discussions can occur in class. This time, I found that after the first few weeks the class discussions and activities had drifted precipitously from my initially announced goals and I knew that a few students were somewhat frustrated with this shift. While I had used other informal assessment tools in this course (such as the minute paper), the appropriate assessment activity for this occasion was much more focused.
I asked the students to anonymously answer the following three questions:
These are difficult questions, both for the student and for the instructor. However, my class had a healthy atmosphere, I asked sincerely for their feedback, and I received specific and helpful responses from each student. Some students observed that the videotapes I had used at times were "boring." A few students thought that discussions had drifted too far into mathematics without sufficient foundation. Students also observed that some alternative activities, such as creating examples of self-reference in literature and the arts, were very effective. Most importantly, the third item provided a valuable resource for additional ideas: another guest speaker, an experiment using video feedback, and a culminating group project.
Use of Findings
This activity gave me the chance to solicit and immediately react to my students' concerns and desires, rather than waiting until "the next term." I summarized the results and reported them to the class the following week, along with my intentions: to arrange a tour to the Art Museum by the Curator of Education, to greatly reduce the use of videos, and to continue a significant amount of class discussions. I also solicited volunteers to set up the video feedback experiment for the class. The class collected their favorite examples and illustrations and compiled a "Proceedings" which was distributed to each participant at the conclusion of the course.
This should not be the first assessment tool you use in a course. Your students must know by your example that you value their sincere responses and that you will react appropriately to their comments.
As Angelo and Cross  often say, "Don't ask if you don't want to know." An effective classroom assessment should attempt to confirm or refute your suspicions. Before you solicit student responses, identify what you want to learn, what you think you will find, and what you intend to do with the results. Without feedback of some sort, these activities lose their assessment quality, and become quizzes and study tools. For me, techniques that are quick to develop and administer tend to be used most often. One must remember, however, to allot the time to evaluate and respond to the students.
 Angelo, T.A., and Cross, K.P. Classroom Assessment Techniques, second edition. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1993.
 Hofstadter, D. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal
golden braid. Basic Books, New York, 1979.