Skip to Content

Gauging Student Understanding: CATs are puuuuur-fect

Do you find yourself wondering whether your online students are really learning? Whether they are really getting it? During face-to-face classes, an instructor often can use visual cues, such as a puzzled look or a nodding head from a student, to gauge whether students are understanding a certain concept. If they don’t, an instructor has the flexibility to easily explain the concept again or even change the lesson’s activities to ensure that students get it. But what if you are teaching online and can’t always see these visual clues?

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs), developed by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross (1993), are popular activities for instructors to receive feedback about lesson effectiveness and student understanding. While CATs were developed with face-to-face teaching in mind, these quick, easy-to-use, and often non-graded techniques can be easily adapted to online education. You might have heard about popular CATs, such as Minute-Paper, Muddiest Point, or Pro-Con Grids, but did you know these are just three of 50 CATs which instructors can use to gauge student understanding?

Disclaimer: No animals were harmed while writing this blog.
Disclaimer: No animals were harmed while writing this blog.

In the following section, we present several CATs and suggest ways to implement them online. In the future, we hope to share diverse methods and tools for CATs. So, stay tuned!

Chain Notes

Purpose: Assessing Learner Reactions to Teachers and Teaching
In this activity, the instructor posts a single question (“What am I learning right now?”, “What is most intriguing about today’s class?”) and asks students to submit a quick and short answer. Students’ responses provide feedback on engagement and insights on what is really on their minds. In an online class, one could use an online whiteboard (e.g., Padlet), microblog (e.g., Twitter), survey/polling tool (e.g., Poll Everywhere), or discussion forum to post the question and gather the responses.

Minute Paper

Purpose: Assessing Prior Knowledge, Recall, and Understanding

This technique requires students to write a one-minute-paper about a certain question or topic (e.g., “What is photosynthesis?”) posted by the instructor or other students. Due to the short timespan, respondents need to be brief and cannot spend time with research; thus, revealing current understanding or misconceptions. In an online environment, one could use a discussion board, microblog (e.g., Twitter), email, or blog to interact and engage students.

Concept Maps

Purpose: Assessing Skill in Synthesis and Creative Thinking

Concept Maps allow students to draw connections and see relationships between major concepts. For example, an English instructor could ask students to draw the relationship of literary elements (e.g., hero’s journey) and the main character in a novel. Other application of concept maps include creating outlines for writing assignments. For an online class, there are many digital concept mapping tools available (e.g.,, mindmeister) that allow students to draw and share maps with their instructor and peers.

If you would like to learn more and see additional online CATs, check out the following resources:

  1. Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.
  2. Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2004). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty.
  3. VCU Center for Teaching Excellence. (2009). Formative assessment techniques online.

Are you a CAT-person? Do you have a great example of integrating them into your class? Please share your ideas in the comment section.