Effective assessment methods for large enrolment classes

Tips on how to assess students in large classes effectively, including how to use specialist technology to increase efficiency

Stephanie Foster's avatar
Colorado State University
31 Oct 2023
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Large lecture room full of students and a lecturer

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Many of my conversations with faculty members focus on the challenges they face when trying to assess learning in large classes. The best learner-centred assessment methods are no match for 200-person enrolment. I mean, can you imagine reading 200 five-page essays? That’s 1,000 pages for just one assignment!

So what’s an instructor to do with a big class? Are multiple-choice exams the only way to go? Classes with graders, recitations and labs provide room to focus on individual students, but what if it’s just you and that large lecture hall filled with smiling faces? Here are some ideas to help you freshen up your assessment approach and use your time more effectively.

In-class formative assessments

Students benefit from frequent, low-stakes opportunities to practise what they are learning and to get immediate feedback. Use classroom assessment methods to do a quick check on student learning. Think-pair-share, for example, is a tried and true student engagement technique that gets students talking and can help to generate questions so you can address points of confusion or expand your instruction in key areas.

Multiple-choice exams

I admit that multiple-choice exams are not part of my go-to assessment strategy. They take a lot of effort to create and strike fear into the hearts of many. If this is your primary strategy, do not despair. Multiple-choice exams can be effective for assessing learning, especially when the questions are versatile, reliable and valid. Multiple-choice questions can measure much more than the recall of facts; they can also be written to engage students’ higher-order thinking such as analysis, evaluation and application. For instance, students might be asked to make predictions based on a complex set of variables or apply a theory or concept to a new scenario. You can use open-book exams to encourage students to go deeper with applied problems or case studies.

If you’re tired of hearing the question “will this be on the exam?”, why not get students to write some of the exam questions? Guiding students to generate their own exam questions can serve as an exercise in retrieval, application and meaning making. Students need to review their notes and course materials and might be prompted to use the information in new ways.

Short writing assignments

Short 200 to 300-word writing assignments in response to a prompt or a few open-ended questions on an exam require students to be concise when solving a problem or explaining their answers. Rubrics can speed up grading if you set up your expectations in advance and focus your attention on what matters most. You can train graduate assistants who help you with grading to use your rubrics to ensure feedback is consistent and helpful.

Useful technology

It seems obvious to talk about the use of technology in the classroom these days, with years of Zoom and hybrid classes on our CVs. But even if you are a tech minimalist, some simple and free tools can be your friends. Using student response devices such as iClickers, which help you guide and assess learning, you can get students to do quizzes or work through problems in class. If you’re using a learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas, you can upload any data gathered to Gradebook for quiz or participation grades and you can use the quizzes feature to automatically populate it. Many LMS products include a grading efficiency tool. Canvas’ SpeedGrader tool, which allows instructors to quickly view and grade students' submissions, supports tutors teaching large courses by loading all of the assignment information into a web browser, thus improving efficiency. SpeedGrader also separates submissions by course section and shares data from multiple graders.

Now for something completely different: student self-assessment methods

When students assess their own learning, they engage in a higher-order thinking activity called metacognition. Metacognitive activities help students identify their own strengths and areas they need to improve. One way to encourage this is to integrate self-reflective questions into course assignments or ask students to talk about how they came to an answer.

If you have some help or are very clever with your organisation strategies, consider using a form of collaborative grading for student projects in which students complete a self-assessment that is combined with peer and instructor assessment.

Finally, here’s a pro tip: you do not need to grade everything. Assessment activities can give you information about learning and performance, but they are also ways to engage students in practice and self-reflection. Activities should focus on improving learning, and students are still learning even when their efforts are not graded.

This article originally appeared on Colorado Boulder's Center for Teaching and Learning

Stephanie Foster is the director of assessment at Colorado State University.

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