The Muddiest Point:
Are Our Students on the Same Page as We Are?
Revisiting our CAE Teaching Excellence Workshops
Brissenden, University of Arizona; Prather, University of Arizona; & Slater, University of Wyoming
In our workshops instructors often express concerns about not knowing the extent to which their students left class understanding the main point, or the Big Idea, of a given day's lecture. This can be coupled with frustrations from students, after test day, along the lines of "But we never even discussed that in class!" So how is it we can learn what our students think was the Big Idea, and how can we help them refocus if it doesn't match with ours? This is where the Muddiest Point Paper becomes a very useful Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT).
The Muddiest Point CAT is a short, in-class writing assignment that generally tries to clear up one of the following:
- Our muddiest point: Did my students get the Big Idea?
- Our students' muddiest point: What are my students still unclear about?
- Our shared muddiest point: Do my students and I have the same expectations of content and difficulty for test day?
So how do we employ the Muddiest Point CAT to answer these questions? Here's a how-to guide:
Asking the Question
- Decide before class which of the muddiest points you would like to clarify, and prepare a slide with one of the following questions:
- What was/were the main ideas of today's lecture?
- What are you still unclear of about today's lecture?
- What test question do you think I might ask you to see if you understood today's lecture?
- About five minutes before the end of class ask students to take out a piece of paper and either write their name on it or not. (You can have students answer the question anonymously or give them participation points for the day. The choice is yours.)
- Tell students that you want to make sure they understood the main points of today's class, so you would like them to answer the question you'll be putting up. Let them know that you're doing this for them—that you want to know if you need to revisit this topic during the next class period or not so that they can be successful on test day.
- Show the overhead and allow students a few minutes to answer the question.
- While collecting the papers, tell students that you’ll carefully look over their answers, and that you will tell them the results at the beginning of the next class.
Analyzing the Data
- You don’t actually have to read each and every response carefully. What you’re looking for are themes and patterns. Even for a class of 300 it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes reading to start seeing them emerge.
- Write down key themes or patterns. That is, what did they think the main ideas were? What were the primary ideas they were unclear about? What were the types of questions they thought you would ask on test day?
- Decide if most students are "getting it."
- If the answer is yes, let them know the next day of class.
- If the answer is no, let them know the next day of class.
- In either case, tell the students what they said to you:
- About 60% of you said ___________________ was the main idea of our last class.
- About a third of you thought ______________________ was really confusing.
- Many of you thought I might ask you _____________________ on our next test.
- Follow this up with further instruction or additional activities if your students aren’t understanding at the level you expect. Or move on to the next topic if they are.
To learn more about Classroom Assessment Techniques, and how they fit into the overall design of your course, we offer the following resources:
The role of assessment in the development of the college introductory astronomy course: A "how-to" guide for instructors.
Brissenden, G., Slater, T. F., & Mathieu, R. (2002). Astronomy Education Review 1(1).
The Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide
Developed by the National Institute for Science Education, College Level-One Team.