Faculty Today

Too many assignments to grade? Assessment tools for large classes

Leacock 132

Teaching large-classes can be extraordinarily difficult and intimidating. In addition to having hundreds of faces peering at you from the lecture hall, you must also find a method for assessing students in a fair manner, and hopefully in a way that truly reflects the learning outcomes for a course.  Furthermore, communicating to students about how they are doing throughout the course can be very challenging in a large class.  There is also the challenge of having enough (or any) Teaching Assistant hours, or the sheer volume of material if you were to give a 1000-word written assignment to a class of 460 students (um, that’s equivalent to reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone about six times!).   If you add the potential for questions about the assignments, from even a small proportion of students in the class, it starts to make sense why so many large courses fall back to the comfort of an endless string of multiple-choice questions on exams and tests.  

Imagine these empty seats all filled to capacity! Large classes are a challenge and an opportunity.
Imagine these empty seats all filled to capacity! Large classes are a challenge and an opportunity.

Surely there is a better way?

In 2012, a group of faculty and students, with representatives from Teaching and Learning Services, the Library and the McGill Writing Centre embarked on a University-wide project to explore some ways to meet the challenges of assessing students in large classes. The objective of the Assessment Working Group was to understand practices within the University, and to learn about creative and effective methods for assessing students and providing feedback in large undergraduate courses.  Additionally, there was recognition that sharing these ideas and tools with a broad audience is essential: instructors are more likely to consider alternative assessment tools if they know that these alternative tools exist and are feasible.

The Assessment Working Group first came up with a working definition for a ‘large class’. This is not trivial: For example, when teaching a foreign language, a large class could be 35 students; in another context, a large class could be defined by the size of the largest lecture theatre on campus, or if that’s not the limitation, there’s always that introductory physics course with 650 students!  The working group ended up settling on the following definition: a large class was defined as a “course that has more than 100 students enrolled or is one of the largest courses within your department or Faculty”. This definition captures the freshman physics course, but also captures a language course.

 Last spring, instructors teaching large courses across McGill were invited to fill out a survey about their practices as related to assessment tools, and from that list of over 160 respondents, several were asked for a detailed interview about their methods for assessment. These interviews included wonderful details about the ‘why’, and ‘how’ surrounding the assessment methods, but also provided insights into the process of setting up assignments for large classes, and the challenges of moving away from more traditional methods of assessment.

Over the next few months, some of these case studies will be presented as blog posts. We hope you follow along to learn about innovative ways of assessing students in large classes. We will present methods that are interesting (for the instructor and the student!), easily managed, creative, and that can effectively address learning outcomes for the class. We’ll draw upon experiences from a range of disciplines, across the University.

We will soon publish our first post in the series (and highlight this upcoming event!), drawing upon experiences from a large introductory course that includes short-written assignments as an assessment tool: No wizardry involved: this can be done without 460,000 words to read.

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