Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment - Western Washington University's Teaching and Learning Center

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Classroom Assessment Technique:
Muddiest Point

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Ann Carlson, M.Ed., clearly and articulately describes the "muddiest point" classroom assessment technique. Considered by many to be the simplest classroom technique presented by Angelo and Cross, it can also be incredibly illustrative of what is most important to address in a course. In writing the script for this module, Ms. Carlson culled the most succinct explanations and useful strategies for incorporating this assessment method into courses.

 

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Classroom Assessment Technique: Muddiest Point

Ann Carlson, M.Ed.
Western Washington University

Introduction

My name is Ann Carlson and, for many years, I’ve been involved in the teaching and learning scene at Western Washington University.

What if I told you that you could improve the student learning in your courses—even your largest lecture courses—in just minutes each week?

Sound too good to be true?  Well, unlike what TV commercials say, there is no such thing as a miracle cure, no matter what it is we are trying to improve. However, when it comes to improving student learning in our courses, there IS a proven assessment method that requires very little time, involves minimal change to your syllabus, is one that students find most useful…AND can deliver optimal results.

This method is called "The Muddiest Point."  It was developed in 1989 by Frederick Mosteller, the eminent Harvard statistics professor, and has been used by educators with great success and to wide acclaim ever since.

There are many variations of the Muddiest Point, but the following is the classic method.

Classic Method

STEP ONE: At the end of your class, hand out blank 3x5 cards. Instruct the students not to write their names on the cards – anonymity is important here.

STEP TWO: Ask your students to write down the answer to this question: What was the "muddiest" point so far in this session?  (In other words, what was least clear to you? Or, what questions do you still have about today’s lecture?)

STEP THREE: Collect the cards.

STEP FOUR: Review the cards and decide on a format for addressing the "muddy points," that your students have identified. You then might:

  • Post questions and answers on course web page
  • Answer questions at start of next class meeting
  • Prepare a handout
  • Slightly revise course content to address frequently occurring questions
  • Send an email response to the class

The Muddiest Point technique is well-suited to large, lower-division classes and it can be adapted for use with lectures, a class discussion, or assignment. Since students' responses to the Muddiest Point question usually consist of a few words or phrases; an instructor can read and sort the responses in just a few minutes.

There is no one right way to do the "Muddiest Point," and you will probably develop your own variation. For example, you may want to set it up as an online discussion, or have students turn in their responses as class begins. An emailed "muddiest point" can be used to gather feedback on readings, which can be used to shape subsequent in-class discussions.

Using the Muddiest Point has many advantages, for students and professors alike.

Advantages

For students, the Muddiest Point

  • Allows them to reflect on what they’ve learned,
  • Helps them retain information, as well as analyze and synthesize information,
  • Supports them in building new knowledge, and
  • Assists them in using their time to study effectively

For the instructor, the Muddiest Point

  • Is more effective than asking for questions
  • Is an efficient way to get a sense of where students are having difficulty
  • Identifies the next steps needed to help students master difficult information or skills.
  • Helps in planning revisions for future versions of the course.

If you’re ready to do the Muddiest Point in one of your courses, keep in mind these tips.

Tips
  • Don’t overuse it: Focusing on muddiest points too often can be discouraging for both students and professors because of the tendency to emphasize the negative.
  • If it turns out there is a theme that shows many in the class are mentioning the same Muddiest Point, you might want to schedule added class time on the subject, post more information on a course website, or re-design an assignment. Whatever you decide, be sure your students have reasonable expectations for your response.
  • Consider alternatives to the muddiest point question such as, the most important point, the most surprising point, etc.
  • In larger classes, create small groups of students and then have each group create a feedback card.

Are you ready to make the Muddiest Point method part of your assessment plan?  The Muddiest Point is just about the simplest assessment technique one can use, and—for a relatively low investment of time and energy—can provide you with excellent and useful feedback that will improve the student learning in your courses.
 

References and Resources

Muddiest Point

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