Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point

Transforming students from passive listeners into actively engaged learners need not be a grand task that requires extensive planning. It can start with a simple decision to reserve a short period of class to review and clarify the lessons of the day.  Taking us beyond the relative uselessness of just asking whether anyone has any questions, and seeing none, moving on, the ‘Muddiest Point’ technique requires students to actually think through what they do and do not understand, and forces us as instructors to ensure that comprehension is universal.

How many of us have been guilty of doing this:  pausing mid-lecture, asking students if they have any questions or if the difficult material just covered ‘is clear’, and then seeing no hands, quickly moving on to the next subject? This is a missed opportunity, as the lack of hands may not indicate a lack of comprehension, but rather an unwillingness to admit to confusion (or, it must be said, that they are not paying attention at all). How are we to distinguish between occasions when our lesson is perfectly clear, and those where our students are unwilling to admit to needing clarification?*  One way is building a culture of asking questions, even those students might fear will be labeled “stupid”, perhaps by using a quality of failure grade in the class. Alternatively, a skilled instructor might be able to read the room and identify the signs of confusion, although this is susceptible to  students deliberately misrepresenting their level of understanding as well as environmental factors (in a large lecture class, the first row might be nodding in comprehension while the back five rows, seated too far away to clearly see, are panicking).


A third way offers more reliable data on whether or not our lessons are clear, and has the added advantage of requiring students to actually think through the material.  The Muddiest  Point is a technique discussed in Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross’ book, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (Jossey-Bass, 1993, p. 154-8). A versatile, efficient device, the Muddiest Point is simply asking students to answer the question, ‘what was the muddiest point in ________?” following a lecture, reading, discussion, activity, video, or assignment.  Answers can be kept to a few words or a sentence, and submitted on a piece of paper or index card.  Collect the cards, and by quickly flipping through them you can easily get a sense of where the points of non-comprehension are, and review them accordingly.  You can also, as the authors suggest, ask students to note what points or ideas were the most clear, so that students are expected to think about what they do understand as well as what they do not.

This technique has quite a few benefits.  It calls on the students to pay attention (as they must submit something) and engage in active self-assessment about their own understanding.  Meanwhile, it also provides useful data to the instructor that allows us to assess learning.  And as the authors note, ‘for students who are hesitant to ask questions in class, this technique is a safe alternative” (p. 157).  Rather than just asking students whether they are confused on any point, this requires them to put forward a response, and helps us focus our time on the content with which students are genuinely struggling, rather than what we believe might be unclear.  Several times when I’ve used this technique, I’ve been surprised by what students point to as requiring a better explanation, leading me to rethink how I’ve approached teaching the concept in question.

So try out the Muddiest Point.  It requires only five or ten minutes of class, or can be completed online in between classes, and yet allows for both students and instructors to engage in assessment of learning. In that way its a lot of bang for your buck in terms of a teaching technique–always valuable as we consider ways to transform our classrooms into more active learning spaces.

*As an aside, this is a big part of why debriefing is so essential to a good simulation or game.  Discussing the simulation and its lessons immediately after completing the exercise lets students really reflect on what they did, how it relates to the course content, and, crucially, how the perceptions, actions, and reflections of their classmates might differ.  Just as we can wait until an exam to find out whether students understand our lectures, we can skip debriefing entirely or perhaps only require a written, graded analysis relating the simulation to the course content. Both methods miss a great opportunity for student engagement and learning.

Previous posts in the Engaging Students series can be found here:

Part One, Quotes

Part Two, Lecture Summaries