Many of my conversations with faculty focus on the challenges they have with doing good learning assessment in large classes. The best learner-centered assessment approaches are no match for 200-person enrollment. I mean, can you imagine reading 200 5-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 practice what they are learning and to get immediate feedback. Use Classroom Assessment Techniques to do a quick check on student learning. Think-pair-share is a tried and true student engagement technique that gets students talking and can help generate questions so you can address points of confusion or allow you to expand instruction in key areas. 

Multiple-Choice Exams

I will admit that multiple-choice exams are not my go-to assessment strategy. They take a lot of effort to create and they strike fear in the hearts of many. If this is your primary strategy, do not despair! Multiple-choice exams can be effective ways to assess learning, especially when the questions are written to be 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. You might even try open book exams to lead students to go deeper with applied problems or case studies. Tired of hearing, “Will this be on the exam?” Why not get students to write some of the exam questions!

Short Writing Assignments

Short writing assignments might be 200-300 words responding to a prompt, or a few open-ended questions on an exam. Short writing asks students to be concise and apply a concept to a given scenario, solve a problem, or explain their response on a previous item. Rubrics can speed up grading of writing by setting up your expectations in advance and focusing your attention on what matters most. Graders and graduate students can be trained to use your rubrics to provide consistent and helpful feedback. 

Use Technology

It almost seems silly to talk about the use of technology in the classroom these days, with a year or more of Zoom classes on our CVs. Even if you are a tech minimalist, some simple and free tools can be your friend. Clickers (also see these CU Clicker FCQs) are a great way to do quick quizzes or have students work problems in class. Clicker data can be easily uploaded to the Canvas Gradebook for quiz or participation grades. Use Canvas Quizzes to automatically populate the gradebook. Try SpeedGrader to improve time efficiency with grading text-based assignments. 

Now for Something Completely Different: Student Self-Assessment

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 where they need to improve. You can integrate self-reflective questions into course assignments, or ask students to talk about how they came to an answer. Perry Samson at the University of Michigan suggests ways that you can facilitate metacognition in large classes through exam preparation, peer instruction, and reflective writing activities. 

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