Faculty Today

Short written assignments for large classes

This post featuring Prof. Tamara Western is the first in our blog series  about  assessment tools for large classes. On March 14 @ 12pm, Prof. Western will be the featured guest at a new brown bag lunch series on the same topic. For details and to register, go here


Just over two years ago, Tamara Western inherited a rather daunting teaching challenge: a large, Freshman-level introductory non-major’s biology course – this course includes students from many disciplines and covers a lot of material. Tamara wasn’t satisfied with how students in the class were being assessed: previously, the course had two mid-terms and a final examination, and all questions were multiple choice. The reliance on multiple choice questions was not a surprise. The course typically has enrollment of over 250 students, and without a lot of teaching assistant hours, it was a struggle to envision alternative ways to assess students.

Tamara felt there had to be a better way. At a Teaching & Learning Services workshop, she was inspired to try something new and innovative. She decided to assign short-written assignments as a key assessment tool in the class.  She also wanted to incorporate tools to help students link the course content to things that were happening in the ‘real world’. Tamara explains the broader rationale for this assignment, and it makes excellent pedagogical sense:

It’s important for students to link ‘real life science’ & popular culture to what is taught in class. Comparing what they find in ‘real life science’ [news reports] & popular culture to what is taught in class may help students delve deeper into a particular class topic. Also, being able to write about these in a coherent manner is a critical skill in science.

Tamara Western, Biology Professor at McGill University
Tamara Western, Biology Professor at McGill University

Tamara took a serious leap of faith in order to improve the teaching and learning experience. Instead of just assigning one short written assignment, she assigned three! But again, the rationale is a good one, as she explains: “…it seems unfair to have individual assessments worth 75% or to have course grades based on 2-3 days out of a semester. I also like having them work on a variety of things.” Giving students the opportunity to receive feedback on writing and improve that skill over the course of one term is extremely important.

Here’s how the assignments work:

For the first assignment, students have to find a news article on the Web about science, summarize the article, and then evaluate the sources used in the article. This assignment is 250 words and is graded on a scale of 1-3 points.  The second assignment compares what has been learned in class with a second science news article, and the students have to develop a series of questions based on the comparison. It is 400 words in length and worth 7 points. The third assignment is done in groups. Students are randomly assigned to groups of four and each group has to choose and watch a movie or TV show that includes biology, summarize the movie or TV show and then evaluate the realism of the presentation of science in it. That assignment is worth 10 points. Combined, the three assignments added up to 20% of the students’ final grade in the class.

From Tamara’s perspective, the assignments are manageable, in large part because she developed a clear and straightforward grading rubric, and her expectations were made clear to the students. Tamara worked closely with her TA, and shared the grading with the TA; both were impressed with the quality of the work.  Although it may seem daunting to have to read so much material, the assignments are short and on topics that are interesting to the students as well as the instructor.  This is a key point: if students can be engaged and interested in the topics they are writing about, the quality will increase.  Tamara feels having the third assignment be in groups is important as this allows for a different kind of writing experience.  Since students already receive feedback on two individual assignments, they are in a good position to attempt peer-writing. Also, this third and final writing assignment is conducive to group work since it includes an opportunity for students to share the entertaining and educational experience of watching and critiquing the movie Contagion, or the TV show The Magic Shoolbus or House.

Tamara continues to tweak some of the details about these assignments, but she sees it as something that will stay as a key assessment tool in her large non-major’s biology class. Although the idea of reading so much written material from such a large class may seem daunting, Tamara has an excellent model: the topics are relevant to students, the expectations are clear, the assignments are short, and the marking is manageable. This combination allows for an innovative approach to assessment in large classes that provides feedback to students. This is also a model that may work effectively across many disciplines.

A big thanks to Tamara for agreeing to share her assignment details! If you would like a to see Tamara’s grading rubrics, please drop us an email!

2 comments on “Short written assignments for large classes

  1. debbiedisco

    What a brilliant idea! I’ve been trying to come with ways to incorporate a bit of writing in an intro bio class, so I’m very interested and would love to see the example rubric. Whom should I email?

  2. Pingback: Welcome back McGill – Here’s some things you may have missed | Teaching for Learning @ McGill University

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