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Large Class Assessment. Stuff I said yesterday.

November 26, 2015

I’ve been asked by Una to speak briefly and specifically about large class assessment.  I have no special credentials for speaking to this topic other than the naively empirical qualification of having taught and assessed large classes for twenty years now.

When discussing the assessment of large classes I think it’s necessary first (albeit briefly), to consider whether a large class is to be considered an evil to be alleviated or a valid pedagogic experience to be defended.

I for one am firmly in the latter camp –believing that a large class in a large lecture venue – can be ONE of a number of cherishable teaching formats.  Anecdotally, I can confirm that former students often retain the strongest positive memories of successful large lectures.  Lectures offer a sense of occasion – they can be “theatrical” in the best sense of the term – and can help reinforce a sense of collegial identity.  If done properly.

Small is not always beautiful – or rather smallER is not always beautiful.  Small group teaching is desperately needed while large class lecturing  can be both efficient and inspirational – but cutting a large class in half doesn’t seem especially useful – I’d much rather teach in a packed JH1 than in a half empty JH1(God knows I taught both of those.)  We need good big and good small – in other words.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift towards more and more continuous assessment though – and this has impacted on all aspects of teaching.  We should be unsurprised by the fact that if more and more of our assessment is continuous – then assessment is what students turn out to be continuously obsessed with.

Particularly, but not uniquely, in the humanities – too close a focus on accreditation is actually at variance with learning outcomes.  Furthermore, the kind of transferrable inter-disciplinary graduate attributes outlined in the new curriculum are antipathetic to narrow target oriented thinking.  The challenge, therefore is to consider forms of assessment that are both true to the specific demands of any given course while offering a sense of transparency and equivalence in the context of increasingly diverse and customised modular degrees.  There’s a real need for “low risk” forms of assessment that stimulate interest more than they terrorise and suffocate.

The logistics of large classes teaching still lend themselves to assessment by examination.  Again, I’m not opposed to examinations in principle – though I think they can be drastically revised in practice – a point to which I’ll return.  It is by no means the case that students always perform better in essays than in exams.  Many of our students react better to the immediacy of the examination challenge – presenting more original and opinionated work in an exam hall than in an essay  format – which can tend to promote a more conservative approach.  A real time challenge tests students in special ways.

I’m temperamentally suspicious of claims that any technology can provide a magic bullet for a pedagogic challenge.  There are however two technologies which could be, I think, genuinely transformative – if adopted in the right spirit.  Written examinations are a relic from an age when it was anticipated that everyone wearing a white collar would spend a significant portion of their day dragging a pen across paper.  Writing was ubiquitous – keyboard skills were a specialised skill.  The twenty first century does not privilege penmanship as an essential professional qualification, however.  Our students are happier hammering at a keyboard than they are writing.  How far away are we from examinations that involve rows of un-networked computers and essays that are saved and printed after the two hours are up?

The second invention is already employed at a number of universities in the UK and the US.  This is the lecture room card reader – which directly registers attendance at large classes.  Students wave their student cards in front of the reader and they are instantly given credit for attending class.  The degree of accreditation involved can be tweaked of course and there’s a lot to be said for making large class attendance accreditation far more carrot than stick – a way of letting students know that there’s at least one very clear and unambiguous way in which at least some accreditation can be acquired.

In the past we tried to reward simple lecture attendance by means of moodle quizzes – whereby factual information released in lectures was tested by simple questions.  Our experience was that we became overwhelmed with queries about these quizzes and they achieved an artificial significance far out of proportion to the accreditation being offered.  A simple swipe of a card, however, would be another matter.  We would be able to make earlier pastoral interventions should lecture attendance fall below a certain percentage and this might have a positive effect on our drop out and failure rate.  Furthermore, by making a large lecture class not something optional and passive that is experienced cinematically but something mandatory and active that is experienced theatrically, a large class will get a better sense of themselves.

When discussing assessment, one should note the peculiar challenges of course assessment by students of large classes, based on what often turns out to be an unrepresentatively small sample of respondents.  The truth is, of course, that many of our students – like the population as a whole – suffer from questionnaire fatigue.  Nowadays you can’t buy a packet of sugar without being asked to “rate the transaction” – and this breeds a general cynicism and boredom regarding the whole exercise of surveying.  We can’t re-imagine assessment unless we can recover a sense of how students feel about what they think they’re doing.  Feedback mechanisms need to be strategically, but not cynically incentivised.


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