How to tackle assessment of large numbers of students

There are a number of ways to make the assessment of large numbers of students more effective whilst still supporting effective student learning. These include:

Making use of in-class assignments

In-class assignments are usually quick and therefore relatively easy to mark and provide feedback on, but help you to identify gaps in understanding. Students could be asked to complete a task within the timeframe of a scheduled lecture, field exercise or practical class. This might be a very quick task, for example, completing a graph, doing some calculations, answering some quick questions using a personal response systems, making brief notes on a piece of text etc. In some cases it might be possible to dovetail the in-class assignment with peer assessment.

Introducing self-assessment

Engaging students in peer and self-assessment activities, where appropriate, can not only enhance student learning but can also save you time. In the context of large class sizes this could involve students running through a checklist which they are required to append to a piece of coursework. A checklist is useful to encourage students to reflect on their work and to make sure that things like having a name and a title on the piece of work are present when it's submitted. When you have large numbers of students this can save you time in terms of correcting basic errors. Other forms of checklist could require students to respond to a set number of 'trigger' questions, such as "I'd particularly value feedback on X", "I think the strongest/weakest aspect of this piece of work is...." etc. These not only encourage students to reflect on their performance but can enable you to readily tailor your feedback responses to students, which might save you some time.

For an example of a checklist that can be adapted for use in self-assessment, see page 12 of A Briefing on Assessment of Large Groups (PDF 205KB) by Chris Rust, published by the LTSN Generic Centre (now the Higher Education Academy).
Using peer-assessment

Peer assessment and feedback can have significant impacts on student learning. In the context of large class sizes the use of peer-assessment and feedback can be an effective way of ensuring students get individual feedback that staff may be hard pressed to provide in a timely manner given the class numbers involved. This could involve providing students with answer sheets or model answers to a piece of coursework that you had set them previously and then requiring students to undertake the marking of those assignments in class, for example, by asking students to swap scripts with one another or by collecting in all of the named scripts and randomly assigning student markers to them.

See page 21 of A Briefing on Assessment of Large Groups (PDF 205KB) by Chris Rust, published by the LTSN Generic Centre (now the Higher Education Academy), for a case study in which peer marking was used to significantly reduce marking overheads in a large class.

As with any form of peer-assessment it needs to be carefully designed, students need to know what to do and there needs to be a transparent system by which students can appeal their marks (especially if used in a summative rather than formative context). The benefits of this approach are that students can get to see how their peers have tackled a particular piece of work, they can see how you would assess the work (e.g. from the model answers/answer sheets you've provided) and they are put in the position of being an assessor, thereby giving them an opportunity to internalise the assessment criteria.
See the section on peer assessment for more

Assessing groups rather than individuals

It's not difficult to work out that assessing groups rather than individuals has the potential to reduce your assessment burden quite considerably. However, groups do not always work in the ways you may wish and there are a number of factors to consider if you decide to opt for this route.

Making use of pro-forma and 'statement banks'

Anything that can speed up the assessment process whilst maintaining high standards of student learning and support has got to be something worth investigating when you're faced with a large cohort of students. One way is making use of assessment marking pro-forma ('feedback sheets'), which clearly identify students' strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement, and which may speed up the assessment process for you; they can also be useful to ensure some element of consistency in marking when there are a number of assessors on a particular module.

Download some examples of feedback pro-forma sheets (DOC 163KB) from the University of Reading that can be used for self-assessment in different types of assignments.

Another option is to make use of 'statement banks' in which you collate lists of common comments that you might apply to a student's work and then add these to the piece of work as appropriate. This can be done in many ways, for example, each comment could be assigned a letter or a number and then when you have the need to apply that particular comment on the student's work you simply add the relevant letter/number at the appropriate point in the work. The student is then handed back their work along with a copy of the entire statement bank so that they can find out which comments applied to their work (and perhaps as importantly, which did not). The advantage of a statement bank is that you don't have to write/type the same comments over and over again, thus saving you time.

Some people like statement banks, others may find them impersonal, and so if you are going to use them you might want to consider combining the statement bank with a brief summary of individual feedback. If you're going to use a statement bank it's a good idea to ensure it doesn't only contain comments that relate to negative aspects of the work.

Changing the assessment method, or at least shortening it!

Being faced with large numbers of students will present challenges but may also provide opportunities to either modify existing assessments or to explore new methods of assessment. You might, for example, be able to reduce the length of the assessment task you are currently using without detracting from your module's learning outcomes by considering short-answer questions, abstracts, concept maps, Venn diagrams or in-class 'three-minute essays'. Alternatively a large class may provide a new opportunity to make use of peer and self-assessment or technology enhanced assessment, perhaps with automated marking and feedback.

A large class may provide you with an opportunity to think about a strategic reduction in the assessment load for your module, for example, by identifying and reducing instances of repetitive assessment. You may wish to consider whether or not all student work needs to be assessed; could, for example, a selection of coursework be summatively assessed rather than every piece of work (i.e. select pieces of student work to mark from a broad portfolio of work). If you are assessing large first year cohorts you may wish to use it as an opportunity to review the need for lots of summative assessments, particularly in cases where the first year is pass/fail anyway and where your efforts might be better spent focussing on formative assessment and feedback.

Using postgraduate support

If you have large cohorts an option might be to make use of willing postgraduates to aid the assessment process, for example, to help with marking assignments or to run formative/summative in-class exercises. Of course this all depends on departmental budgets, a supply of postgraduates who are willing to undertake this type of activity and resource to provide some basic assessment/feedback training for the postgraduates.

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