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STANFORD - Early in one of his freshman English courses, Stanford University lecturer Richard Holeton asked his students to take a minute and write down the most important thing they had learned in class that day.

Holeton was using the ungraded "classroom assessment" technique, not to test what his students knew, but to see how well they were learning.

"I've been influenced permanently by the power of these simple techniques," said Holeton, who attended a campus workshop on the subject. "They're direct, commonsensical, and obviously useful."

Unlike regular exams or papers, classroom assessments give professors and teachers feedback about their teaching and their students' learning early in the term, while there is still time for improvement.

The idea has gained popularity at Stanford and elsewhere since the 1988 publication of Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for Faculty, by Pat Cross of the University of California- Berkeley and Tom Angelo, now at California State University-Long Beach.

"It is a common practice . . . for faculty to assume that when we are at the front of the room talking, our students are learning what we think we are teaching," Angelo said. "When it comes time to grade tests and term papers, we are often faced with disconfirming evidence. By that point in the term, however, it is usually too late to remedy the problem.

"The purpose of classroom assessment is to discover gaps between what we teach and what our students learn early enough to close, or at least narrow, those gaps."

In workshops offered by Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning, faculty are taught first to think concretely about their goals for each class.

Then they are shown some quick and easy ways of assessing their progress toward those goals, by asking students to complete brief anonymous surveys, one-minute papers, or diagrams relating the class concepts to one another. Math professors might ask students to describe their problem-solving strategies, while history professors might ask students how they plan to do research for their term papers.

Waldemar Martyniuk, a visiting professor who is teaching Polish in Stanford's Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, went to one such workshop and decided to survey his new students on their language-learning experiences and strategies.

One of the things he discovered was that students felt that intense interaction with the teacher helped them far more than homework assignments. Martyniuk tailored his teaching methods accordingly.

"I wish I had done it earlier," Martyniuk said, recalling a previous course that had not gone as smoothly. "I always had made an effort to find out about my students' motivations and goals, but it wasn't enough, apparently. I should have investigated more their ways of learning and the traditions they were used to in learning a language."

According to Michele Marincovich, director of Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning, one of the best things about classroom assessment techniques is that they can give professors feedback without burdening students with additional work.

They also indicate that a professor is interested in teaching and learning for their own sake, and not just in giving grades.

"In-course assessment gives a message to students that they can improve their learning," she said. "It paves the way for a deeper level of engagement between professors and students and helps to break down and isolate the source of students' problems."

So far, more than 65 Stanford professors and their teaching assistants have participated in classroom assessment workshops, which can be offered at the request of departments, programs or faculty supervising teaching assistants. Those who would like to learn more about the subject are invited to call the Center for Teaching and Learning at (415) 723-2208.

-tmj/teach assess-


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