Assessing Large Classes

There are  many great take-aways in this article put forth by CSHE, The Centre for the Study of Higher Education, an Australian project focused on assessing learning in Australian Universities. Please read on for more information.

After a decade of rapid expansion in Australian higher education, student numbers have grown considerably in many courses and subjects, especially at the undergraduate level.

Larger class sizes pose significant teaching challenges, not least in the assessment of student learning. Perhaps most troubling, large classes may limit the amount of feedback provided to students.

In response to the pressures and challenges of assessing larger groups of students, academic staff are responding through:

  • greater attention to the communication of clear assessment criteria to students;
  • the development and use of marking guides to be used by teaching and assessing teams;
  • the increasing use of various forms of exemplars to guide student efforts — as well as to guide marking and grading — including the modelling of discipline-based thinking, writing and performance; and
  • the continuous refinement and dissemination of assessment policy and practice in relation to large student groups.

The issue of workload is central in any decisions about assessment of large classes for it is a serious one for students and staff alike. Staff teaching large student groups invariably undertake an informal, qualitative weighing-up of the efficiency of assessment tasks vis-à-vis their educational effectiveness.

There is little doubt that establishing an effective assessment program — developing criteria, guides, exemplars and models; discussing and refining them and communicating them to students and other staff — will have an initial negative impact on workload for staff with coordinating responsibilities.

However, this preparatory work is likely to lead to three gains. The first is a reduction in the time required for marking due to a higher quality of student submission. The second is a resolution of some of the potential issues likely when many staff are involved in marking and grading, through a streamlining of marking and grading practices. Finally, the availability of clear, transparent criteria and examples of work will contribute positively to the overall quality of teaching and learning.

Five assessment challenges created by large classes

The assessment of large student cohorts presents five distinct though interrelated challenges:

  1. Avoiding assessment that encourages shallow learning
  2. Providing high quality, individual feedback
  3. Fairly assessing a diverse mix of students
  4. Managing the volume of marking and coordinating the staff involved in marking
  5. Avoiding plagiarism

In an effort to manage these challenges, academic staff have increasingly turned to group and on-line assessment. Carefully planned and managed group work does appear to help address many of the assessment challenges listed above. (Detailed information about creating effective group work and group assessment is in the section Assessing group activities).

Similarly, the use of appropriate on-line assessment can also help address some of the challenges of assessing large classes (for example, multiple-choice and/or short answer questions which can be automatically marked can provide feedback to students that is otherwise not possible). On-line assessment is also likely to assist, to some extent, in managing a diverse mix of students and the time required for marking. However, on-line assessment may not necessarily avoid the problems of low-level learning or plagiarism. (A more extended discussion of these issues is in the section On-line assessment).

Ultimately, however, while group and on-line assessment have much to offer in dealing with the challenges of assessing large classes, neither is a panacea for all the issues inherent in assessing large classes.

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Please share your thoughts on large class sizes in the comments section below.

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