empty wooden seats in a large lecture theatre

Assessing Large Cohorts

With class sizes on the rise with little give any where else to balance this, getting creative with the way you assess your large cohort is essential. We’ve researched the best ways to engage your class with assessment, reduce (or maintain) your workload and ensure ‘deep’ learning takes place when assessing in large groups.

We’ve grouped our suggestions into four areas:

  1. Online assessments (more suitable for STEM) with simple correct/ incorrect answers. Could be used for short written answers, too.  Live lecture polling.
  2. Group assignments – presentations; debates; posters; videos 
  3. Shorter assignments – information leaflets; paper abstracts; executive summaries; bids for research grants; press releases; curators notes; posters; newspaper articles 
  4. In-class assessments – debates; in-class tests; one-page essays; student-led seminars 

Online assessments

Its true that online assessments are only suitable for some types of learning – aside from giving online feedback, there isn’t a huge amount of benefit to submitting an essay online. However, there are some areas where online assessments can make a big difference.

Live polling – in-lecture polling gives you real time feedback on how your students are understanding the content. Voting can be anonymous so you can get an overview of the class without ‘naming and shaming’ any students. Contact the DEO to speak to someone about getting started with lecture polling.

Blackboard quizzes (and similar) – where questions have a simple correct/ incorrect answer, online quizzes can do the marking for you, meaning students can get their marks straight away, with preset feedback for each question. If your questions don’t have simple answers, online quizzes can still help with shorter answer questions.

Group assignments

The vast majority of students will encounter group work at some stage in their degree- it is a great way of preparing students for employment and helps develop a number of essential skills. It also can reduce the marking load for an academic, and help create connections within a large cohort that may not otherwise have chance to interact and work together.

Videos – an increasingly popular method of assessing, videos are a great way of assessing large cohorts in groups. See this case study and this BILT funded project (including a guide for students doing video assignments) for some inspiration. For a wider overview of the literature around the use of video, see the table on p3 of this article.

Debates – again, this activity isn’t suitable for all content that needs to be covered, but it does work for any ethical or moral conundrum you may be facing. Ask students to choose their preferred side to start, then ask them to argue for the opposite side, to see if they can convince themselves to the other argument. Get the whole class involved by using lecture polling tools. You can read this short piece about the benefits of debating here.

Presentations – the most ‘classic’ type of group work and probably one of the most dreaded activities by students. However, many professional roles require you to deliver presentations and so it is an important skill to develop. You can mix it up by asking students to present a news bulletin or short play about the content they’re researching, rather than a standard PowerPoint!

Posters – group creation of a poster, though it sounds simplistic, can develop lots of skills within a group, or individual, assessment scenario. Information has to be honed down and streamlined, designed and presented in a way for others unfamiliar with the content to understand.

Shorter assessments

One way to avoid having to mark large numbers of long essays to do change the assessment to something that doesn’t take as long to mark. Employing a range of shorter assessment methods, examples of which we have listed below, gives the the student a chance to develop new skills, as well as giving you more time to spend marking and giving feedback.

Information leaflets – students will be required to exercise their digital and design skills, as well as synthesising information and reducing it down. for many subjects, this is a true example of a ‘authentic’ assessment, and can be developed for any discipline – as long as you get creative with what the information leaflet may be for!

Paper abstractsexecutive summaries – asking students to summarise their research into a 250-word abstract or short summary is a great way to get them to consolidate an piece of research, highlighting the most important points and putting them across succinctly.

Bids for research grants – the section on writing your proposal on this site breaks down the task into four areas of consideration. Many professional roles require staff to write research proposals and grants so this can be an authentic task for many.

Press releases/ news articles – students are required to change their normal ‘academic’ style and develop writing which is accessible for all, which requires them to break down complex concepts and arguments into more simple language; a great way to show their understanding of a topic.

In-class assessments

Having students undertake assessments in class means that work can be graded on the spot (e.g. through presentations and debates). It also has the added benefit of students learning from each other, with you taking the role of facilitator.

Debates – whether you split the whole class in two or create a number of smaller groups to argue different sides to a topic, an in-class debate is both entertaining and a valuable learning activity. Ask students to vote before and after the debate to create more audience participation. This research formal and informal approaches to using debates in class.

In-class quizzes – quick knowledge tests are a great way to assess quickly and with large groups. Students can work individually or in groups to answer simple, knowledge-based questions and then peer-mark each others.

One page essays – allow 20 minutes for students to plan out an essay or write a one-page essay on a set topic. The tricky thing about writing a one-page essay is that the essay must still contain all the major structural components of a normal-length essay, but has to be written more more succinctly.

Student-led seminars – ask your students to take turns planning and delivering a seminar (or at least part of it), with students choosing their topic and week at the start of term. Students can take ownership of a topic and teach it to their classmates. This is regular practice at the University of Nottingham, who have written some guidance for students.

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