Tag Archives: assessment

Online tools for assessment and engagement in large classes

This post featuring Prof. Ken Ragan is the latest installment in our ongoing series about assessment tools for large classes. On October 7 from 8:30-10:00 a.m., Prof. Ragan will be the guest speaker at a breakfast workshop on “Evaluation and Feedback for Large Classes”. For details and to register, go here.
“Experiment. I used to feel like I couldn’t experiment.”

One might imagine that experimentation would occur naturally in an undergraduate physics course – and indeed, the biweekly laboratory sections of Physics 101 are abuzz with students engaged in active discovery. But what about in a lecture hall filled to the brim with nearly 700 students: is there a place here for experimentation as well? Professor Ken Ragan thinks so, especially when it comes to trying out new ways of engaging, giving feedback, and assessing his students. Continue reading Online tools for assessment and engagement in large classes

Click record: Hi, [name]. I’ve just finished reading your paper and I’d like to give you some feedback …

Thus begins the audio recorded feedback I provide students with on their oral and written assignment drafts. When I refer to audio feedback, I mean assignment feedback I give to students in the form of an audio recording. This means of feedback is an effective and efficient alternative to providing students with handwritten comments. Continue reading Click record: Hi, [name]. I’ve just finished reading your paper and I’d like to give you some feedback …

PassNote: A feedback tool for improving student success

Purdue University has developed a very interesting tool (PassNote) to help streamline formative feedback to help both instructors and students. It was featured in the September issue of Educause Review Online: “PassNote: A Feedback Tool for Improving Student Success“. It is a free tool that can be used by any instructor without a login. Instructors are provided with “feedback prompts” that can be drag and dropped into a message, copied to the clipboard, and sent to students. Purdue provides a summary below: Continue reading PassNote: A feedback tool for improving student success

A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations

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. Continue reading A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations

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!

Student writing: old school skill needs an updated approach

In recent conversations with faculty members, many have affirmed the importance of old school skills in higher education. One of these skills is writing.  Oftentimes, universities expect students to arrive with these skills fully developed and therefore, not much time is spent in-class helping students to practice and improve. The results, when assignments are handed in, can be disappointing.

So, what can instructors do to improve student writing? The answer: design assignments that promote student learning and build in opportunities for reflection and feedback.

There is no doubt that this takes time, but even short assignments can be a powerful way to help students develop these much-needed communication skills. The key is to plan assignments carefully and devote some in-class time to make sure students understand your expectations

Here are some strategies to improve student writing:

  1. Frame your assignment around a question or problem, not a topic.

Engage students in a meaningful task by asking them to address a question or investigate a problem. This type of assignment provides structure while introducing students to the type of issues common in your discipline.

Consider these ideas:

  • Pose a research question instead of presenting a topic. For example, instead of “Write about climate change and variability in weather”, you would ask students to argue why the cold winter of 2014 in North America is not a sign that the climate change is a myth.
  • Assign students a specific task rather than leaving the assignment open-ended. For example, giving students the freedom to choose their own research question promotes their autonomy but it also has its drawbacks: 1) you may need to do extra background reading to assess their papers fairly; 2) they may be too junior to choose a question that is appropriate in scope (an extremely challenging task, even for experts!)
  • Ask students to consider alternative points of view and reach a conclusion of their own.
  • Assign students a role and ask them to defend a particular position. Sometimes students are too unfamiliar with a discipline to take a well-reasoned position. Assigning a role may alleviate anxiety and allow them to focus on their argumentation skills instead.
  1. Select from a variety of types of writing
    • Academic writing is by scholars for scholars. It reflects the skills most valued in higher education:  citation, documentation, reasoning and evidence.  Examples: summaries, critiques, research papers, research posters.
    • Professional or Vocational writing is what you find in the world of work. Students use the forms of writing they are likely to encounter during their careers. This varies according to discipline. Examples: case reports, 2-page summaries, fact sheets, policy papers.
    • Civic or Popular writing is for the public. This type of writing seeks to inform opinions and decisions of the public. Examples: Newspaper editorials, letters-to-the-editor, open letters, speech at city council meeting.
    • Personal and Interpersonal writing reflects psychological or interpersonal interests. It can build connections with other people or satisfy an individual’s needs for expression. Examples: reflection journals, blog entries, interviews.
  1. Tell the writers who their readers are. 

Knowing who the audience is helps writers make decisions about language, tone, format and which information to include.

Consider these ideas:

  • Make it clear if you are the only audience (but don’t be disappointed if students are not that enthused)
  • Give students a real audience by having them prepare something for peers, or for an on-line audience
  • Give students a fictional audience by experimenting with the non-academic types of writing described in Point #2 above.

4. Clarify expectations to students.  

Students’ previous writing experience often does not prepare them for work in your class (especially if they are never given explicit writing instruction in your discipline). Therefore, taking the time to provide clear instructions is an investment that usually results in better writing from students. Consider these ideas:

    • Explain why this assignment is important and why writing is important (if you don’t know then maybe you should consider assigning something else or talking to someone at your writing center!)
    • Share assessment criteria & standards with students (rubrics, checklists).
    • Provide models of published work and lead a discussion about their features.
    • Provide examples of work from former students (with permission) and lead a discussion about their features
    • Have students generate their own criteria for an assignment and discuss how they reflect or differ from your own expectations.
  1. Use class time to engage students in conversations about the assignment

By taking time in class to address writing assignments, you help students see how important they are. It can also be an opportunity for peer learning and allow students to test out ideas in a low-risk environment before committing them to paper.

Consider these ideas:

    • Together, analyze the types of readings students are using.
    • Ask students to share what they are currently reading for their assignment and how it relates to the topic of the day.
    • Explain how expert writers construct any part of an assignment (e.g., the Introduction) and invite students to ask questions.
    • Have students brainstorm questions to research for a paper.
  1. Structure in opportunities for revision

The only way for students to improve their writing is for them to keep writing. You can help this process along by giving them several opportunities to write, receive feedback and apply that feedback to their next assignments. 

Consider these ideas:

  • Students submit multiple drafts of the same assignment and you provide feedback for that pinpoints how they can improve.
    • Encourage self-evaluation by providing a short checklist of criteria that students must fill in and submit with their assignment.
    • Encourage peer-evaluation by coaching students on what you are looking for; focusing on a small set of criteria; promote peers giving each other comments, not grades.


Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom.

Too many assignments to grade? Assessment tools for large classes

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.