Assessment Conversation with Larry Gruppen

This post originally appeared in the Instructor College Blog hosted on

On October 29th, the Instructor College hosted a conversation on assessment with Dr. Larry Gruppen, U-M professor of Learning Health Sciences. The following is a summary of the conversation.

Formative assessment

Can you assess students in library sessions when they all have different levels of ability, the session is so short, and we don't know the students? As students come into class, chat with them – it helps to build rapport and you can start to get feedback before class even starts. Ask if they’ve had a library session before and what would be useful to them. The entire class can also be asked this question before the formal instruction begins. Throughout the class you can use formative assessment in a variety of ways. It can be as simple as a visual check of comprehension, “Yeah, they got it, it’s clicking.” You can scan the class to check facial expressions, note attentiveness, whether or not they are following instructions, and what they are actually doing at their workstations (a second instructor is really helpful in this case.) The time you invest in any assessment is only worth it if it pays off. Invest in getting to know students a little bit if it will pay off for you in terms of getting honest feedback.

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)

The CATs on the handout are very good, but there are many more. They can be informal, low-cost and easy to apply. Some of the CATs are a bit artificial; for example, a concept map may not fit with your teaching methods whereas a background probe might be worth the investment of time. CATs offer structured ways to assess understanding. Since we teach in a distracting environment, feedback in the session is good. Methods we can try to apply in our classes:

  • Build assessment into the instructional strategy by giving them a problem to work on. Because there’s never enough time in an instruction session, build assessment into your teaching.  This can't be easily done in 30 minutes but it does emphasize that you have a goal for the class.
  • Assigning them tasks can provide feedback rather than trying to infer it “from their level of consciousness” (i.e. how awake they are!).
  • Make sure the goal of your instruction drives what you teach.
    • How to get past the different levels of knowledge that may exist in a given class? It's a problem for everyone who just lectures because they don't get feedback.
    • Ask students to present to their peers. It can be efficient to have students present in the class because peers tend to provide honest feedback and address issues that they have had themselves, which may be the case for classmates, though you lose some of your expertise in instruction which is a tradeoff in the efficient use of time. You want to see the product of their application of what you’ve taught them.
    • Pair those whom you’ve learned already know some of your content with the newbies and have them teach or mentor the new learners. Peers are often more comfortable asking questions about something they don't know in a peer to peer situation.
    • Alternatively, to be more proactive and deliberate, get the advanced learners started on something else more challenging while you train the newbies.
    • But asking them to evaluate their peers doesn't work.  It's tough for them to do this honestly.
    • Building a rapport fosters trust, which leads to students providing honest feedback on their learning.
    • If you've built rapport, make the CATs into questions and talk with the students.
    • If it's important to you get to get information from those that might not participate in a class discussion, use writing as a way to get information from the quieter students.
      • But to get a more broadly-based understanding of issues (e.g. "muddiest point") you might still have everyone write something down.
      • Finally, you have to ask yourself who cares about this information.  If the administration cares, then try to create a structured and rigorous assessment (which might be expensive).  If you care, you have to figure out how much time and effort you want to put into it.
        • Concept maps takes commitment and time, but it can help crystallize ideas and how things come together; helps to see how they are thinking about things. Concept mapping works best if you give them terms they have to organize rather than start with concepts.
        • Some of the techniques might not help the class you are currently teaching, but may help the next one.

Wrap Up

Designing good assessment questions is an almost universal problem. It's easy to assess surface knowledge (the whats and the wheres), but can you give them a problem they can solve on their own?  Don't just assess how they feel about the class. Find out if they can they do something now that they couldn't do before. It is possible for learners to be present and even listen/follow along in a workshop but not evaluate their own understanding. Knowledge is easy to assess but not necessarily what you want to assess, which, in the case of library instruction, is students’ application of tools/skills. We’re relying on them taking what they've learned and applying it later; without a purpose to use the tool, they won't use it.