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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Assessment Suggestions for Large Lecture Classes

Posted by on Friday, February 22, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

by Adam Wilsman, Graduate Teaching Fellow

(Professor P. is on vacation this week)

Dear Professor P.,

This semester, I am leading a 200-student lecture class for the history department.  The class is going pretty well, but grading has been a real challenge.  Due to the size of the course, there are only three graded assignments on the syllabus, two essays and an exam.  I designed the course this way because I am afraid of the amount of work that additional assignments would create in such a large class.  However, some of the students are arguing that having so few graded assignments is unfair because one bad grade can have a devastating impact on their overall grade in the course.  I am scheduled to teach this course again in the spring.  How can I re-approach my grading plan to avoid another uprising?

-One Grumpy Grader

Dear Grumpy,

Yours is a familiar problem for many of the instructors tasked with teaching these large college courses each year.  On the one hand, you don’t want to have so many graded assignments that you bog yourself down with incessant grading.  On the other, you do want to have enough assessments that you have a fair grading system for your students and yourself.  Is there a way to strike a balance between these two things without simply resorting to more superficial grading assignments like multiple choice exercises?  Absolutely.

There are several ways to incorporate more formative assessments into your class that do not add significantly to your workload, but give students and instructors the critical feedback that they need.  Discussion-oriented activities in the classroom enable students to practice course-related skills and demonstrate comprehension of the material, while not requiring formal grading.  For these kinds of activities, students can receive valuable verbal (and sometimes written) feedback from professors, TAs, and other students.  The incorporation of technologies like “clickers” or websites like can also serve to engage students while giving students a sense of how they’re doing in the course, and giving instructors an opportunity to assess student-learning.  These types of feedback-providing activities are especially valuable in classes in which the first graded assignments are not returned to students for several weeks.

What of your summative assessments?  You will need to grade some homework, papers, and exams, so how does one best grade 200 students?  One option is to split students into groups.  In a class of 200, organizing your class into 50 groups of four students to work on weekly homework assignments, papers, or exams reduces your grading load by 75% while still giving students a chance to practice their skills and receive feedback.  This substantial difference in workload may make collecting homework assignments or additional paper assignments feasible in these large classes.  Such group work also has value in promoting the kinds of communicative skills that represent critical learning goals in so many of our classrooms.  However, group projects also raise different challenges in cultivating fair and equitable groups that you will need to address.  Many of us can think of examples of being in a group where certain members did all the work while others slacked.  To avoid this, there are a number of tactics that you can try.  You can assign each member of the group a role in the group.  You can build a peer review element into the group work so students feel accountable to one another.  You can also offer small bonuses on exams for those groups whose members all maintained a certain average, in order to promote positive interdependence.

You might also be interested in our upcoming events on Teaching Large Classes:

  • Teaching to Thousands: A Conversation about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
    Thursday, February 21, 3:10-4:30pm
  • Teaching Large Classes
    Tuesday, February 26, 4:10-5:30pm

Find out more about these events and register now.

Another way to build a steadier stream of graded feedback into your course without making grading a full-time job is to maintain a simple grading system for short assignments.  For example, you can grade papers on a three-to-five point scale, with specific pieces of information required for each point.  A check/check-minus/check-plus system also makes your job as a grader quicker and easier while providing feedback to instructor and student alike.  It’s important to realize that you need not grade everything on a 100-point scale with copious comments.

Finally, by utilizing a detailed grading rubric for papers and other assignments, you can streamline the grading process and reduce the need for extensive written comments.  Rubrics can also obviate problems of inconsistency when you’re dealing with more than one TA grader.  Effective rubrics can thus facilitate a faster grading system that is also fairer for students.

Ultimately, you do not need to choose between superficial or minimal grading and a grading system that leaves you and your TAs overwhelmed.  With the right strategies and techniques, you can both give your students frequent feedback, graded and ungraded, while still maintaining some semblance of a social life.  Good luck!

-Professor P.

Some Recommended Readings

Carbone, Elisa Lynn. Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, c1998.

Cooper, James L. and Pamela Robinson.  “The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 81 (2000): 5-16.

Heppner, Frank. Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes.  San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.

Stanley, Christine A. and M. Erin Porter. Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty.  Boston: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.

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