After a decade of rapid expansion in Australian higher education,
student numbers have grown considerably in many courses and subjects,
especially at the undergraduate level.
Larger class sizes pose significant teaching challenges, not
least in the assessment of student learning. Perhaps most troubling,
large classes may limit the amount of feedback provided to students.
In response to the pressures and challenges of assessing larger
groups of students, academic staff are responding through:
The issue of workload is central in any decisions about assessment
of large classes for it is a serious one for students and staff
alike. Staff teaching large student groups invariably undertake
an informal, qualitative weighing-up of the efficiency of assessment
tasks vis-à-vis their educational effectiveness.
There is little doubt that establishing an effective assessment
program — developing criteria, guides, exemplars and models;
discussing and refining them and communicating them to students
and other staff — will have an initial negative impact on
workload for staff with coordinating responsibilities.
However, this preparatory work is likely to lead to three gains.
The first is a reduction in the time required for marking due
to a higher quality of student submission. The second is a resolution
of some of the potential issues likely when many staff are involved
in marking and grading, through a streamlining of marking and
grading practices. Finally, the availability of clear, transparent
criteria and examples of work will contribute positively to the
overall quality of teaching and learning.
Five assessment challenges created by large classes
The assessment of large student cohorts presents five distinct
though interrelated challenges:
In an effort to manage these challenges, academic staff have
increasingly turned to group and on-line assessment. Carefully
planned and managed group work does appear to help address many
of the assessment challenges listed above. (Detailed information
about creating effective group work and group assessment is in
the section Assessing group activities).
Similarly, the use of appropriate on-line assessment can also
help address some of the challenges of assessing large classes
(for example, multiple-choice and/or short answer questions which
can be automatically marked can provide feedback to students that
is otherwise not possible). On-line assessment is also likely
to assist, to some extent, in managing a diverse mix of students
and the time required for marking. However, on-line assessment
may not necessarily avoid the problems of low-level learning or
plagiarism. (A more extended discussion of these issues is in
the section On-line assessment).
Ultimately, however, while group and on-line assessment have
much to offer in dealing with the challenges of assessing large
classes, neither is a panacea for all the issues inherent in assessing
1. Avoiding assessment that encourages shallow learning
There is little doubt that growing class sizes encourage academic
staff to focus on time-efficient assessment techniques. One unwelcome
consequence of a focus on efficiency would be any tendency toward
assessing learning at the lower levels of intellectual complexity;
that is, assessment tasks that merely reward superficial, shallow
or reproductive approaches to learning and that fail to direct
students into the type of study that leads to the higher-order
learning objectives of university education. Assessment methods
demanding less complex analysis and synthesis than in the past,
or demanding less rich forms of student response, may significantly
diminish the quality of learning in higher education.
Attempts to assess large numbers of students in time-efficient
ways may have resulted in approaches to assessment that might
not be educationally desirable. For example, in some disciplines
there appears to be a growing reliance on exam-based assessment
with large classes, with an increased use of multiple-choice and
short-answer or “tick-a-box” questions.
Of course, well-developed written examinations can provide a
high level of validity and reliability in measurement of some
types of learning. However, academic staff need to judge the appropriate
proportion of assessment that should be conducted through this
method alone. The efficiencies of assessing learning through exams,
particularly if the marking is routine or automated, are counterbalanced
by the limitations of a single method of assessment, particularly
one that might not encourage the development of the full range
of higher-order cognitive skills. Even at their best, many students
find examinations as a sole assessment method impersonal, particularly
in first year.
Another response to the pressures of larger classes, often in
disciplines where examinations are less commonly used, is to lower
the word-length requirements on written assignments. One staff
member has commented about this tendency that it is “a distinct
disadvantage to students, especially those going on to write 100
000 word postgraduate theses”.
As with many complex issues, there are no simple answers to these
and other challenges in assessing large classes. Awareness of
the limitations — and possible negative consequences for
the quality of student learning — of particular approaches
to assessment tasks is crucial, as this is likely to guide assessment-related
decisions toward compromises that reflect both efficiency and
educational effectiveness. The employment of less frequent and
where possible, cumulative summative tasks with more formative
feedback that guides student efforts on the next task might be
useful in some circumstances.
2. Providing high quality, individual feedback that guides student
Timely, individual feedback is central to guiding learning. But
to provide such feedback to hundreds of students simultaneously
within a timeframe that ensures such feedback can be incorporated
into student learning is a daunting prospect.
Students appreciate detail in the feedback they receive to identify
weaknesses and to understand how they might improve future efforts.
The structure of the overall assessment regime is therefore critical.
If feedback is given on an early assessment task but later assessment
tasks within the same subject offer little or no opportunity to
incorporate learning from this feedback, students are likely to
feel disadvantaged. Timing of feedback is also critical. There
is little point, from a student point of view, in receiving feedback
at the end of a subject when there may be no opportunity to apply
the improved understanding.
One approach to providing feedback for large students groups
is to use on-line assessment item banks with marking provided
either automatically or by a graduate assistant or tutor. While
this might be a time and resource efficient method and appropriate
in some circumstances, there is one significant limitation in
terms of feedback: under such an arrangement teaching staff will
receive little if any direct feedback themselves about
students’ levels of understanding. In addition, students
often find automated or anonymous marking impersonal and prefer
more personal interaction with their teachers, even if this interaction
is limited to written communication in the form of comments and/or
Notwithstanding these issues, the following suggestions might
provide assistance for staff teaching large groups of students
and who are looking for ways to provide formative feedback to
A common response to larger class sizes is the employment of
sessional staff to assist with teaching and assessment. While
at one level this trend might appear to resolve the issue of marking
for academic staff with the overall responsibility for subjects,
it also brings a new set of issues associated with the coordination,
training and support of a subject team.
There are well-known problems associated with the use of teams
of sessional staff, especially if they are inexperienced teachers,
including disparate understandings of assessment requirements,
differences in the level of experience of marking, and a lack
of consistency in methods of marking and grading practices. Some
of these problems can be reduced or eliminated through the following