Not “the muddiest point” but “the clearest point”

Several books on college teaching recommend using a classroom assessment technique (CAT) in which instructors ask students to reflect on what they’ve done that day and then write about something that still puzzles them – – the so-called “muddiest point.” For example, Angelo and Cross, in their classic book on Classroom Assessment Techniques, argued that the technique forces students to reflect on their comprehension of the day’s lesson and also to pick out one point that stands out as least understood. Feedback from these short notes gives instructors insight into what they might want to review in the next class or approach from a different viewpoint so as to increase students’ understanding.

Big rainbow trout

Trout picture from Livingston MT

As others have pointed out, there is a potential downside to such questions: they emphasize what has not been learned, rather than what has been learned. Accumulating evidence suggests that when students repeat something, even if it is wrong, it gets reinforced in their thinking. For example, wrong answers on tests can pass into long-term memory as received wisdom. In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, Zull argued that it was futile to bring up and then try to correct misunderstandings and mistaken impressions. He said that such practices only reinforced the very knowledge that an instructor was trying to stamp out. Zull suggested that a better strategy was to focus on the positive and reinforce “correct” answers.

In that spirit, it would seem better practice to end a class by asking students to reflect on “what is the most important thing you learned today?” or “what will you take away from today’s class?” The task can be made slightly more complex by asking students how what they learned in today’s class builds on a previous class or what new ideas they might go online to follow up, given what they learned in today’s class.

An affirmative approach to what’s been discussed in class reinforces a growth mindset by showing students that you are making an assumption not only about that they already know something but also that they are now capable of building on that knowledge and integrating and synthesizing new information. Thus, rather than ask students for their “muddiest point” at the end of your next class, why not try asking them “what have you learned today and what will you do with that knowledge?”

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