Assessing large groups

Among the many upsides of working with relatively small groups of students for most of my career has been that I’ve not been driven primary by volume management concerns. I could look across at my colleagues in Law or Business and laugh at the thought of having to juggle several hundreds of exam scripts at once.

(One time, a Business lecturer proudly told us how he’d marked 400 exams in three days, only for it to become clear it was a multiple-choice paper, with answers scanned in, which raised questions about why it had taken so long.)

But in the spirit of cooperation, a recent tweet about the need to treat assessment as an integral part of our teaching activity prompted this response from a Legal colleague:

https://twitter.com/sylviademars/status/1511260373651005443?s=20&t=KtLU_lB6v9TJYpL4B4N1cA

This is an issue for many of us at some point: the big compulsory course where innovation feels like a luxury.

So what do to?

Sylvia’s dilemma is three-fold: assessment needs to a) serve learning objectives, b) minimise opportunities for cheating, and c) be practical to turn around with reasonable speed. We’ve not had the chance to speak about her specific situation, so what follows should be read more generically.

My personal view is that we always have to place learning objectives first in assessment: do we test for the things that we consider it essential that the students should have learnt?

In any course or module that covers a variety of elements: substantive knowledge; research skills; presentational and interpersonal skills; and more general aspects of critical thinking and building confidence. That breadth is important, because it underlines that ‘knowing facts’ isn’t the be-all and end-all here: even for us in academia, we probably make as much use of the skills and competences we gained from our study as we do the knowledge (and we’re at the high end of a spectrum of knowledge use).

Sylvia mentions vivas as a nominally ideal form of assessment, possibly because it’s interactive and personal and offers lots of opportunities to test how far a student can work with what they know. Having sat through vivas for a course of 100 students, I could point up some issues, but the analysis still holds: here’s something that better serves the learning objectives.

So are there other ways to get that same benefit without the big time implications of a viva system?

Two strategies suggest themselves, if we’re treating final written exams as an unsatisfactory option: different formats and collaborative working.

Asking students to produce posters, infographics or podcasts not only opens up different ways of presenting material, but also requires considerable distillation of substantive knowledge into key points, which in turn stimulates more critical engagement. Yes, students will be unfamiliar with the practicalities, but this can be covered with some preparatory sessions, and it develops presentational skills that might be otherwise neglected.

If you want to stick to text, then asking for shorter written pieces – policy briefs, submission to a court – can also keep the focus on distillation, plus give experience in formats they might encounter in their work (unlike a long-form essay).

And all of these options could be used with collaborative approaches too. Learning to work together is a valuable skill [he writes from his shed], so why not test for that? Group projects can be marked for the group as a whole, plus with individual marking for short reflective pieces on what each person contributed and got from it.

Of course, free-riding is an issue, and some disciplines might encounter accreditation barriers on collaborative assessment, but the problems need not be any greater than for final exams.

The right answer will vary from case to case: your capacities; the nature of your course; your institution’s attitude; the willingness of your students to buy into it. But these discussions are still worth having. Just because things have ‘always been like this’, doesn’t mean they should continue like this, especially if it’s not working for you or your students.

If you have more ideas on this, or what to chat about your assessment, drop me a line and we’ll talk.

3 Replies to “Assessing large groups”

  1. Vocabulary clarification question for provincial colleagues across the pond: “viva” is an in-person oral exam?

    1. It is indeed: a ‘viva voce’ is the standard for British PhD examinations, and you also find them in continental Europe for some taught programmes.

      For the former, it’s the student doing 1-2 hours of discussion with a couple of examiners, based on their thesis.

      For the latter, you’d typically be doing 15-30 minutes per student, answering questions from the course leader, maybe with someone else present to maintain some consistency.

  2. Interetsting discussion. I also work with large numbers in my classes and I assign atudents work to do as a group. i.e. a piece of writing that 3 students should work on together. Then they give a presentation to make sure that all of them contributed to the work (that addresses the free riding issue).

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