Tag Archives: assessment

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.

Turning class participation into short written assignments

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

In the entry from the Teaching Professor Blog pasted below, , suggests that instructors give students a participation grade for writing ABOUT participation, not for talking up in class. What a novel idea!  Weimer writes that the common approach to grading participation rewards students who like to talk and know that verbal participation will win them points.  Instead, she suggests that writing short papers  is a more fruitful strategy for helping students appreciate how important interaction is to the  learning process. As she explains, “With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. ” She provides a list of guiding questions that faculty can use to get students started. I like this idea because it opens up the participation grade to more students and gets everyone writing (and thinking!) which is always a good thing. Faculty may worry that more writing means more grading and Weimer addresses this by suggesting that faculty grade these short assignments for completion rather than using a complex set of criteria. I am curious about this strategy so please let me know if you use it already or want to try it out!


Originally posted on October 23, 2013

Grading Participation: An Alternative to Talking for Points

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.

Is grading participation an effective way for students to discover how and why classroom interaction promotes learning? I’ve been considering alternatives, including this one: “Participation, as in what you contribute verbally, is not graded in this course, but your writing about participation is.”

With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. They would write the papers in response to the following prompts.

My Participation Skills – Do you participate? Why? Why not? What do you do when you participate? Ask questions? Answer questions? Only answer when you know the right answer? Make comments? What participation skills would you like to develop? How might you go about working on these skills? At the end of the course, how will you know if your skills in this area have improved?

Observing Participation – For the next two weeks observe participation as it occurs in this class. What do students do when they participate? How does the teacher respond? How well are students listening to each other? What’s the most interesting student comment or question you heard during this observation period? How could participation be improved in this class? What could you do to improve the interaction in this classroom?

Or, for two weeks observe participation in your other courses. How does participation there compare with what’s happening in this course? Be specific—write about behaviors. What are students doing? What is the teacher doing? If there are differences between courses, what are they and to what would you attribute these differences?

The Role of Participation in Learning – Write about any or all of these participation policy questions and, using your answer(s), conclude with a paragraph that discusses the role of participation in learning.

  • Should students have the right to remain silent in a course if they can learn the content without talking about it?
  • Should teachers call on students if they haven’t volunteered? Explain why.
  • If participation is graded, does that motivate students to answer questions and make comments? Does it motivate verbal contributions for the right reasons?
  • If participation is graded, how much should it count?
  • Do students learn things from the comments and questions of other students? Could they learn more than they do? How?
  • What kind of feedback from the teacher and classmates would help improve your contributions in class?
  • The ability to answer questions when called on and to speak up in a group are important skills, how do these skills factor into your future career plans?

My Participation Skills Revisited – Reread your three participation papers and then answer these prompts. Compare your participation skills now with your description of them written at the beginning of the course. Has your thinking about the role of participation in learning changed? What needs to happen now for you to take your participation skills to the next level?

Faculty, I know you are probably thinking, “That’s a lot of papers to grade.” But I think the learning benefit here comes from writing these papers, not from teacher feedback. The objective is to hone observational skills, encourage reflection, and get students engaged in some serious self-reflection. I’d assess these papers with a rubric that mostly looks at whether the student took the task seriously. I’d limit written feedback to one pithy question raised by what the student has written. Some of the feedback will likely apply to many students and that can be delivered in class or online. In either venue, you could use it to encourage discussion about interaction in the class (or online discussion board). And certainly you can modify the assignment structure to better fit your needs—shorter papers, fewer papers, etc.

Do you think the learning potential of student interaction is lost or compromised when we fuel students’ contributions by giving them points? An assignment option like this doesn’t totally change that dynamic—there’s still a grade involved—but it does offer students a different perspective.

Short writing assignments: something to consider

Many faculty shy away from short writing assignments, considering them to be the poorer cousin of the term paper or research paper.  There is a commonly held assumption that shorter assignments can never match the rigor or substance of longer papers and that faculty are letting students down if they don’t assign a full-length paper (whatever that is according to the conventions of each discipline). Yet, what are faculty to do in a context of increasing class sizes and decreasing TA support? How can we still assess important outcomes such as analysis, synthesis and critical thinking?  Moreover, how can we infuse these elements into courses that have tradtionally relied on quizzes and exams for assessment?  Many faculty at McGill have already discovered one answer to this dilemma: the short writing assignment. These assignments can take many forms – from a 500-word response to a question posed by Prof. Andre Costopoulos in a 200-level evolutionary theory class to a policy brief assigned by Prof. Madhav Badami in a class in Urban Planning.   On Oct. 30th the  workshop “Beyond the research paper – new ways to get students writing”  is being offered by TLS where we will share many more of these of examples and discuss how to design short writing assignments that engage students, provide meaningful tasks, and assess higher order thinking skills. To find out more and register, click here.

Hear this! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education

Prof. Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences, writes about a podcast assignment he and his TA designed for a large undergraduate ecology class.

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrollment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

New York Times Opinion piece: Who will hold colleges accountable?

As McGill considers developing massively online open courses (MOOCs), perhaps we should begin to reflect on how students are graded now and how this will change. With large classes we already have, there are concerns about how well we evaluate student learning and how those outcomes prepare them for their futures. Attached here is an interesting piece which covers the history of the credit hour and how our current methods of assessment are already failing students. Given the diminishing commitment of governments to higher education, perhaps it is not time to expand in this direction. Perhaps it is time to think about how to survive with our missions of teaching, research and service intact.

Click here to read the original NYT opinion piece