Tag Archives: large classes

Peer Assessment: goals, technology and student perspectives in a large, first-year course

A number of instructors at McGill have been integrating peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the experience.

Lawrence Chen teaches Introduction to the Engineering Profession (FACC 100), a required course for all first-year students in the Faculty of Engineering. During a conversation about his experience with PA, he shared how he implemented PA in this course of approximately 400 students (across two course sections), and shared feedback from his students about their experience.  Continue reading Peer Assessment: goals, technology and student perspectives in a large, first-year course

Daring to try new teaching strategies in your course

This post featuring Prof. Rhonda Amsel is the latest installment in our ongoing series about assessment tools for large classes. On June 12, 2015, Rhonda was the guest speaker at a session entitled Daring to Try New Teaching Strategies in your Large Class.

Rhonda Amsel teaches stats … stats classes of 300-400 undergrads from across the disciplines. She’s been teaching stats for over 40 years, and as suggested by the title of her presentation, not only is she not complacent about her teaching, but it’s obvious she still enjoys it. With her wry sense of humour, she quipped that teaching in an auditorium provides many of the challenges of a live performance, like Math-donna in front of an audience (but with more conservative costumes.) Continue reading Daring to try new teaching strategies in your course

Peer review with 500 students

lawrence-chenThis post featuring Prof. Lawrence Chen is the latest installment in our ongoing series about assessment tools for large classes. On March 17, 2015, Lawrence was the guest speaker at a brown bag lunch session on Evaluation and Feedback for Large Classes. In his presentation, Peer Review as an Active Learning Strategy in a Large First Year Course, Lawrence shared his thoughts on the pedagogy and logistics related to his experience implementing a peer review writing assignment with nearly 500 undergraduate Engineering students, as well as his students’ thoughts on engaging in this peer review task. Continue reading Peer review with 500 students

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

What busy profs would like to read in a blog post about active learning

During a great workshop today on active learning in engineering at McGill I asked two questions (using Socrative) , of the audience. Here is a summary of 24 answers I received:

1) I would like to read blog posts about:

  • activities for large classes (18% of people)
  • activities for small classes (30% of people)
  • technology in active learning (22% of people)
  • wacky or creative ideas for active learning(30% of people)

2) I might read a blog post about teaching and supervision if…

  • It takes into account the sheer lack of time and resources for preparation; ie quick and easy ideas to engage a bored class!
  • it was linked through twitter
  • It was regularly updated and interesting!
  • It does not take too long
  • it helps me achieve better my teaching objectives compared to my current teaching practice
  • It related to economics / social science a bit
  • Its short and introduce tips and examples
  • It gives concrete practical examples of activities for teaching and making students more active
  • I was interested
  • I knew where to find it
  • It dealt with distance education
  • they talked about encouraging creativity and critical thinking
  • it was about new and creative strategies that I can use in my class
  • it included the occasional evidence-based pieces that demonstrate real impact
  • Give ideas about how to get the students more active
  • It’s concrete, thoughtful and provides ideas
  • it was relevant and to the topic. I also would like to see it promoted within the departments to encourage conversation about teaching and learning
  • It is useful

My summary is that people want to hear about all types of different aspects of active learning and they would be motivated to read posts if it interesting and provided something useful.

Originally posted on waterunderground.

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!