This post is part of the ongoing series about assessments strategies for large class sizes.
“After teaching for a while, you just start wanting to do things differently.”
That quote, from McGill Professor Jens Pruessner, resonates strongly: teaching is a dynamic and ever-changing activity, and strategies evolve over time. That being said, doing things differently is particularly challenging in large classes: moving ‘beyond the multiple choice’ when assessing students in a class with hundreds of students requires creativity, time, courage, and a lot of energy!
This didn’t faze Jens as he started re-thinking ways of assessing his students in his 300+ student Psychology class titled “Hormones & Behaviour”. The goal of this course is “to familiarize students with the basic concepts and theories in major areas of hormones and behavior, and to stimulate interest and further study in Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.” He wanted to find creative ways to link deeper aspects of research and scholarship directly into the course. In his own words:
“When I was a student it was all about transferring content and not at all about becoming a scholar or researcher. In my course, I want students to learn how to present work to colleagues in conferences and publish in journals. So I wanted to combine content with some knowledge of what it means to work in academia.”
Jens has achieved this goal by having groups of students prepare poster presentations for 20% of their grade in the course, and he spends two days at the end of the term having a mini research conference where the students present their posters. This is very much in a ‘conference style’ since the instructor and TAs spend about 10 minutes with each poster, asking questions and interacting with the students. Given the class size (the most recent offering had over 400 students), group work is part of this process, and in groups of 4-6, students either select a poster topic from a list, or pitch a different idea to the instructor (or TAs). The poster topics are appropriately detailed so that the expectation for the poster content is quite clear. As an example, for a particular topic students might be asked to present a research problem or question and highlight a research paper (from the peer-reviewed literature) that provides a solution to the problem. The students are well aware of the expectations, and are graded according to a rubric that includes these criteria: (1) Thought and Ideas, (2) Organization and Focus (3) Diction and Clarity and (4) Grammar/spelling. They are also given additional feedback according to the face-to-face discussions during the mini-conference.
Overall, Jens feels this assignment has been successful. Feedback from the students include the notion that this is a ‘very modern way of teaching (interacting- group projects)’, that material is presented ‘in a way that is engaging (and often hilarious)’, that ‘this prof has a deep understanding and a reflection process concerning the material’, and finally, that ‘he reflects upon pedagogical philosophy and has an interesting teaching method.’
This class offers students a different medium for thinking about the course and its content, and the poster activity is representative of what really happens at scientific conferences. Working as a group, reading and evaluating literature, presenting their findings, and having to answer questions about their presentation are all key skills for students in a model of higher education which includes a deep connection to research. The mini-conference also has the added value of allowing students to see each other’s work, a process that is typically very tricky with large class sizes. As Jens explains, “Students might not have any incentive to read each other’s papers, whereas they are very excited to see each other’s posters.“
In sum, I think Jens has done something creative, innovative, and remarkably special. He has found a method of assessment for a large class that includes many of the key ingredients for student engagement: real-world scenarios, collaborative work, relevance, excitement about the end-product, feedback, and fun. I hope others follow this model and think about doing poster assignments in large classes.