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November 6, 2014

Teaching@Pitt: The value of midterm assessments


Professor Jones teaches a large lecture class that requires four equally weighted tests throughout the semester.

After the first exam, he was dismayed to discover that many students did not understand the basic information needed to build the foundation for more complex topics. When the second exam yielded similarly poor results, Professor Jones decided that a midterm assessment was in order to determine why students were not learning the content that he had prepared for each class.

Midterm assessments differ from the student evaluations of teaching administered by the Office of the Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching (OMET) because they are designed to gather information about the teaching and learning process that instructors can apply immediately. Assessments can be administered through the Courseweb survey tool so that the students remain anonymous and the results are shown in percentages of responses.

Alternatively, they can be handed out and returned anonymously at the end of a class.


The best questions for midterm assessments are based on questions that the instructor has about what might improve the classroom experience for students. Each question should contain only one trait and refer to aspects of the class that can be changed. Open-ended responses are listed immediately after each question.

Questions are commonly phrased as statements requesting responses on a five-point scale:

  • I know what I will be tested on.
  • I feel comfortable asking questions in class.
  • I find myself checking the answers before completely working out the problems.
  • The test was fair.
  • I find myself distracted by mobile devices.
  • I do the assigned readings before class.
  • The readings are well integrated into the lesson.
  • Working in groups helps me to learn.
  • I understand the main ideas after each class.
  • The recitations reinforce the main ideas from lecture.


Many instructors get valuable (and unexpected) feedback simply by using the following two open-ended prompts:

  • The best thing about this class is the ….
  • This class could be improved if ….


Faculty should discuss the results of the survey with their class. This discussion builds trust between the instructor and the students who help to improve the learning experience.

Some instructors may feel comfortable projecting the results so that the students can see and discuss the findings with the instructor in an upcoming class. Be forewarned: It takes courage to display the class responses. Publicizing the results lets students see their ratings in relationship to others. Students who believe the instructor’s role is to lecture may discover that most students enjoy the discussions.

Through a midterm assessment, Professor Jones discovered that students couldn’t understand some of his explanations of concepts because they weren’t basic enough. To improve the situation, some students suggested that he present an initial explanation and then ask the students for examples to further explain or clarify the concept. He immediately made this change in instruction, and was pleased to see that the mean scores had improved on the next exam.

Carol Washburn is a senior instructional designer at CIDDE.