Dangerous Liaisons - UW Libraries

January 27, 2017

CAT Reminders

Reed Garber-Pearson


Image: cat mirror, licensed under CC-BY 2.0

I do apologize if this title was misleading, but I thought it the most effective way to draw in library readers. But alas, this post has nothing to do with the beloved library mascot (but here’s an obligatory cat video if you need one). Instead, it has to do with Classroom Assessment Techniques (yes, those kind of CATs). I got some great tips and reminders from our fearless assessment librarian Jackie Belanger. While Jackie often takes on a broad tri-campus scope in her assessment work (think Triennial Survey), she is also down-to-earth and has a critical view on how assessment can be easy, fun and ultimately useful for our continued growth as teachers. No matter where you’re at, a sense of curiosity and willingness to develop and change is all it takes.

My own approach to assessment has been loaded with questions, all of which Jackie has patiently listened and responded to over the years. I recall belabored attempts to break free of the mold that I thought assessment practices would capture me in. I was concerned that evaluating students based on pre-determined learning goals did not capture the structural and institutional barriers that many learners face. And I have an unrequited concern with putting numbers to learning. But here’s the thing, assessment can be as simple as points of reflectionYou don’t need quantitative data to assess a situation or practice. All you need to do is ask a question and reflect. Here are some starters suggested by Jackie: What am I curious to know about student learning? How can I best understand what students have learned and gain insight into how I can improve? When lesson planning, build those questions directly in. Start from your outcomes and ask yourself what activities you can build in to show you how students have done with those intended goals. After the session, put those two pieces together and figure out what could be changed in future iterations. In two short years, classroom assessment has gone from difficult to almost second-nature for me, and I find myself in a continuous cycle of revision and improvement. 

There are many simple CATs that you can immediately implement into your own practice. Here are some favorites from Jackie herself:

  • 1-minute paper. It’s low-teach, easy to implement, and captures student voices directly. Think about your prompts for the paper. Ask them what they learned and if they have any questions. These questions you can follow-up with in an email to the instructor.
  • Observation is something that comes naturally to many instructors, but the key is to document them as you go. For example, if one of your outcomes is that students will be able to successfully search for and find a journal article, walking around with a simple checklist during hands-on time and noting which students have been able to do this can be really helpful. 
  • Peer observation is something we encourage the graduate students to participate in but we don’t do this often enough as professionals. It can be time consuming, but useful for improvement as teachers. So consider asking a colleague to join you next time you facilitate a session!

Assessment can seem daunting when you’re just starting out, but Jackie’s take-away message is that it’s a continuous and iterative process, and you do have time for it in a one-shot. There are many easy, effective ways to understand student learning and it’s ok to experiment with finding the ones that work for you. There is much support in the libraries to help you do this work, starting with Jackie.