Student, Context and Instructional Features Assessment Methods

Introduction | Assessment of Student Learning | Resources on Student Assessment
Assessment of Context and Instructional Features


Assessment is frequently thought of only as the process of finding out what students know and are able to do. However, student learning doesn’t take place in a void; thus it is important to also understand the context within which the learning is taking place., i.e., assess the demographic, social, economic, technological and other factors about the world in which the students and the institution find themselves. Another factor which impacts students is the nature of the curriculum, and whether instructional methods are aligned with learning outcomes and current research about effective instructional practices.

The following two sections provide some suggestions and resources for assessing student learning as well as the context and instructional features.

Figure 1 provides a diagram showing the types of assessment addressed below.

Figure 1 - Assessment Methods
Assessment Methods

Assessment of Student Learning

There are many books and other materials on student assessment methods. We have selected two sources to highlight here that will provide you will very useful information and references to other materials.

Rick Stiggins, Director of the Assessment Training Institute, has published a book (Stiggins, 2001) and a set of videos (Professional Development Package: Comprehensive Training Materials for Student-Involved Classroom Assessment) with excellent information. The major limitation of these materials is that they focus on K-12 classrooms so they take a bit of translating to the community college context. However, the general information about types of assessment and his very clear ways of explaining the many assessment concepts that exist make his materials worthwhile.

Rick’s interactive instructional videotapes (each with an small self- instruction booklet) have the following titles:

In his book, Rick organizes classroom assessment techniques into four basic categories:

  1. Selected Response Assessment: This is traditionally called objective testing and typically involves questions such as multiple choice, true-false, matching and fill-in.
  2. Essay Assessment: Assessment that elicits brief original written responses to essay exercises posed by the teacher who then reads the response and judges quality.
  3. Performance Assessment: Students involved in activities that require them to demonstrate mastery of certain performance skills or their ability to create products that meet certain standards of quality.
  4. Personal Communications Assessment: Any personal communication between student and teacher that communicates to the teacher valuable information about the student's achievement.

Another excellent source of examples and information specific to Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) in STEM disciplines at the postsecondary level is the Field-Tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) for Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology Instructors ( This website provides excellent self-instructional, web-based modules that introduce classroom assessment techniques of value in STEM courses. Each example was written by a college or university instructor who uses the technique.

We have abstracted descriptions of their techniques to answer the questions: “What it is?” and “Why use it?” We have organized their techniques into Stiggins’ four general categories to facilitate crosswalks between these two resources.

  1. Selected Response Assessment: This is traditionally called objective testing and typically involves questions such as multiple choice, true false, matching and fill-in.

    The FLAG group has examples of multiple choice tests as well as two other techniques—Conceptual Diagnostic Tests and Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG). Here is information from their website on these techniques. (Information from their website is similarly provided for the other three broad categories of student assessment below.)
    1. Multiple Choice Test
      What? Multiple-choice tests are fundamentally recognition tasks where students must identify the correct response. They can be used to measure knowledge, skills, abilities, values, thinking skills, etc. Multiple-choice tests consist of a number of items that pose a question for which students select an answer from among a number of choices. Items can also be statements to which students find the best completion.
      Why? Multiple choice testing is an efficient and effective way to assess a wide range of knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities. When done well, it allows broad and even deep coverage of content in a relatively efficient way.
    2. Conceptual Diagnostic Test
      What? A conceptual diagnostic test aims to assess students' conceptual understanding of key ideas in a discipline, especially those that are prone to misconceptions. They are discipline-specific. Although the format typically is multiple-choice, unlike traditional multiple-choice items the distractors are designed to elicit known misconceptions.
      Why? It is used to assess how well students understand key concepts and what misconceptions they have in a STEM field prior to, during, and after instruction.
    3. Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG)
      What? The SALG is a web-based instrument consisting of statements about the degree of "gain" (on a five-point scale) which students perceive they've made in specific aspects of the class. Instructors can add, delete, or edit questions. The instrument is administered on-line, and typically takes 10-15 minutes. A summary of results is instantly available in both statistical and graphical form.
      Why? The SALG instrument can spotlight those elements in the course that best support student learning and those that need improvement.

  2. Essay Assessment: Assessment that elicits brief original written responses to essay exercises posed by the teacher who then reads the response and judges quality.
    1. Minute Paper
      What? A Minute Paper is a concise note (taking one minute), written by students (individually or in groups), that focuses on a short question presented by the instructor to the class, usually at the end of the session.
      Why? The Minute Paper provides real-time feedback from a class to find out if students recognized—or were confused by— the main points of a class session.
    2. Weekly Reports
      What? Weekly Reports are papers written by students each week, in which they address 3 questions: What did I learn this week? What questions remain unclear?, and What questions would you ask your students if you were the professor to find out if they understood the material?
      Why? Weekly Reports provide rapid feedback about what students think they are learning and what conceptual difficulties they are experiencing.

  3. Performance Assessment: Students involved in activities that require them to demonstrate mastery of certain performance skills or their ability to create products that meet certain standards of quality.
    1. Performance Assessment
      What? Performance assessments are designed to judge student abilities to USE specific knowledge and research skills. Most performance assessments require the student to manipulate equipment to solve a problem or make an analysis. Rich performance assessments reveal a variety of problem-solving approaches, thus providing insight into a student's level of conceptual and procedural knowledge. Scoring rubrics are typically needed to evaluate performance assessments.
      Why? Facts and concepts that can be measured with multiple-choice tests are fundamental in any undergraduate STEM course. However, knowledge of methods, procedures and analysis skills are equally important. Student growth in these latter areas are difficult to evaluate with conventional multiple-choice examinations. Performance assessments, used along with more traditional forms of assessment, provide a more complete picture of student achievement.
    2. Concept Maps
      What? A concept map is a diagram of nodes, each containing concept labels, which are linked together with directional lines, also labeled. The concept nodes are arranged in hierarchical levels that move from general to specific concepts.
      Why? Concept maps assess how well students see the "big picture." They provide a useful and visually appealing way of illustrating students' conceptual knowledge.
    3. Mathematical Thinking
      What? The Mathematical Thinking Classroom Assessment Techniques (Math CATs) are designed to promote and assess thinking skills in mathematics. They help students know what to do when faced with problems which are not identical to the technical exercises commonly encountered in mathematics classes. The FLAG website provides five mathematical thinking assessments focused on: (1) fault finding and fixing;(2) plausible estimation; (3) creating measures; (4) convincing and proving, and (5) reasoning from evidence.
      Why? The Math CATs offer ways to assess and instill a broad range of mathematical thinking skills. These skills include: checking results and correcting mistakes; making plausible estimates of quantities which are not known; modeling and defining new concepts; judging statements and creating proof; organizing unsorted data and drawing conclusions.
    4. Portfolios
      What? Student portfolios are a collection of evidence, prepared by the student and evaluated by the faculty member, to demonstrate mastery, comprehension, application, and synthesis of a given set of concepts. In a high quality portfolio, students organize, synthesize, and clearly describe their achievements and effectively communicate what they have learned.
      Why? Portfolio assessment strategies provide a structure for long-duration, in-depth assignments. The use of portfolios make students responsible for demonstrating mastery of concepts.

  4. Personal Communications Assessment: Any personal communication between student and teacher that communicates to the teacher valuable information about the student's achievement.
    1. ConcepTests
      What? During class, the instructor presents questions about key concepts, along with several possible answers. Students in the class indicate by, for example, a show of hands, which answer they think is correct. If most of the class does not identified the correct answer, the instructor gives students a short time to try to persuade their neighbor(s) that their answer is correct. The question is asked a second time by the instructor to gauge class mastery. Many variations on this general method exist.
      Why? ConcepTests allow the instructor to obtain immediate feedback on the level of class understanding. Students obtain immediate practice in using STEM terminology and concepts. Students have an opportunity to enhance teamwork and communication skills. Instructors have reported substantial improvements in class attendance and attitude toward the course.
    2. Interviews
      What? A formal interview consists of a series of well-chosen questions (and often a set of tasks or problems) designed to elicit a picture of a student's understanding about a scientific concept or set of related concepts. The interview may be videotaped or audiotaped for later analysis.
      Why? The interview may be used to assess students’ understanding for purposes of grading or may be designed to provide the instructor with feedback about how to improve their teaching and the organization of their courses.

Resources on Student Assessment


  1. Field-Tested Learning Assessment Guide for Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology Instructors
  2. Assessment Training Institute, 317 SW Alder Street, Suite 1200, Portland, OR 97204, Tel: 800-480-3060, Fax: 503-228-3014


  1. Stiggins, R. (2001). Student-involved classroom assessment. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. (This book is available in BC’s Professional Growth Center.)
  2. Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
    The following four books are focused specifically on post-secondary education.
  3. Maki, P. (2004). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  4. Walvoord, B. (2004). Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments, and general education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Schuh, J., Upcraft, L., & Associates. (2001). Assessment practice in student affairs: An applications manual. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Walvoord, B. & Anderson, V. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


  1. Assessment Training Institute. Professional Development Package: Comprehensive Training Materials for Student-Involved Classroom Assessment
    Note: This comes with 7 videos and 3 books. In addition, there are booklets that match each of the videos. These materials are available in BC’s Professional Growth Center from Sarah Phinney, Instructional Web Specialist

Assessment of Context and Instructional Features

This section focuses on methods of assessing (a) the context in which the student learning is occurring and (b) the instructional methods/materials and other program features. These are two categories of factors that affect student learning. (See Student, Context, and Instructional Features Assessment Methods for a diagram showing the relationship of student learning assessment to the context and program features assessment.)

The context is often a factor over which instructors have little control, whereas they have much more control over program features. Context and program features are two separate categories of factors that can differ significantly in how susceptible they are to change. However, we have grouped them together here because the methods of data collection are often similar for the two. Figure 1 above shows which methods are most likely to be used for each of these categories.

Context Assessment. Context assessment refers to gathering data about demographic, social, economic, technological and other factors related to the world in which the students and institution find themselves. It may mean gathering information about needs of employers, career interests of students, social structures of the community, growth projections, and many other factors.

Instructional Features Assessment. Assessing the features of the instructional program may mean looking at the curriculum being used and its match to the learning outcomes, whether instructional methods are aligned with learning outcomes or current research about effective instructional practices. It may mean looking at how programs are scheduled and how courses fit together to make up a program.

There are a wide variety of data gathering and analysis methods that can be used for context and program features assessment. Here we present five commonly used methods that provide good bang for the buck. These are largely qualitative data gathering techniques. See the Institutional Research component of the BC website for many fine examples of quantitative data that are already available. These can be used as is, or additional analyses could be done to look at subpopulations of students (See Trend Analysis below.)

  1. Interviews
    Interviews are particularly useful for getting the story behind a participant's experiences. The interviewer can pursue in-depth information around a topic. Interviews may be useful as follow-up to certain respondents to questionnaires, e.g., to further investigate their responses. Usually open-ended questions are asked during interviews. An interview schedule or protocol is used by the interviewer. It specifies the questions to be asked, the sequence of the questions, and guidelines for the interviewer to use at the beginning and end of the interview.

  2. Focus Groups
    Basically, focus groups are interviews, but of 6-10 people at the same time in the same group who have some similar nature, e.g., similar age group, status in a program, etc. The members of the focus group are free to talk with and influence each other in the process of sharing their ideas and views on the topics being focused on. Focus groups are a powerful means to evaluate services or test new ideas. One can get a great deal of information during a focus group session. See Focus Group Methods.

  3. Questionnaires/Surveys
    Questionnaires present a set of written questions to which everyone in a sample is asked to respond. They are a way to reach large numbers of people. They can elicit either qualitative or quantitative information. Before you start to design your questions, clearly articulate what problem or need is to be addressed using the information to be gathered by the questions. Review why you're using the questionnaire and what you hope to accomplish by it. This provides focus on what information you need and, ultimately, on what questions should be used.

    An excellent resource for developing questionnaires is:
    Cox, J. (1996). Your opinion, please! How to build the best questionnaires in the field of education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
    (Check out this book with Sarah Phinney.)

    Questionnaires are often referred to as surveys. However, the term “survey” is a broader. It can also refer to interviews that are conducted with a sample of people. Survey research is the term for the general type of research in which questionnaires or interviews are used as the method of data collection.

    A very detailed, easy-to-use and informative source about surveys, see:
    Fink, A. (ed.) (2003). The survey kit. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
    It has 10 small booklets on topics ranging from how to ask survey questions to how to analyze and report on surveys. It covers both in-person and telephone surveys.

  4. Observations
    Sometimes it is much more useful to actually observe a situation than to have those involved report on it via questionnaires or interviews. Trained observers make ratings of conditions or events by comparing their perception of a situation to a pre-specified rating scale. The rating scales usually have quite detailed written descriptions or pictures that are used to compare to what the observer sees, hears, touches or in other ways senses. The observer is usually quite knowledgeable of that which they are observing (e.g., someone who is observing a classroom with a focus on instructional methods is familiar with a range of teaching techniques). At times open-ended observation guides are also used so the rater can identify instances of a certain type of general behavior or event.

    Classroom observations are often very valuable. It is often especially helpful in evaluative inquiry and action research to have a colleague observe a class. The instructor may ask the observer to watch for particular actions on the part of the instructor and/or the students. For example, the instructor may ask the observer to note if he/she has some type of bias in which students he/she calls on in class or the amount of time spent in lecture versus interaction with students.

    The Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) website has an observation guide for looking at math/science classroom practice to see how it corresponds to the latest in research on teaching techniques. There is an observation form along with video clips of science/math secondary and postsecondary instructors teaching a lesson. You can rate the lessons and then compare your ratings to those of the developers of the materials.
    The website is:
    Also, see the following book for more general information:
    Wholey, J., Hatry, H., & Newcomer, K. (eds). (2004). Handbook of practical program evaluation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  5. Journaling
    Journaling is a reflective activity. When journaling is used in evaluation, participants in an inquiry process are asked to write in a journal at certain intervals to capture their current thinking, behaviors, and/or feelings about designated topics. They may be given a specific set of questions to guide their journaling. The idea is that subtle changes occur in our thinking, behavior, and feelings as we are learning and changing. The journal allows one to capture those shifts.

    Typically, the journal, however, is read only by the person who keeps that journal. At certain points, the journaller is asked to review his/her journal and provide a summary related to the topic of interest and, if desired, provide some excerpts from the journal. It is important that the journaller knows that the journal will not be seen by others so he/she can be very honest and self-revealing. Then the journaller has the option to summarize his/her reflections at the level of revelation that seems appropriate when reporting for the evaluation process.

  6. Trend Analysis
    Trend analysis refers to looking at the same or similar data collected over a particular time period. The analysis is designed to look at shifts over time. Data collected about student success, student retention, differences by ethnic group, gender, age, and other variables is often very useful.

    Quantitative data is most easily analyzed for trends.

    Bakersfield College’s Institutional Research office provides much data on its website ( that can be or has been analyzed to look at trends among students and faculty.