Chris Rust … Contents Summary 3 Issues 4 Learning and teaching strategies 6 Disciplinary differences 8 Creative solutions and examples 9 Six Case Studies 23 Bibliography 28 … Summary

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Assessment Series No.12
A Briefing on Assessment of Large Groups

Chris Rust


Summary 3
Issues 4
Learning and teaching strategies 6
Disciplinary differences 8
Creative solutions and examples 9
Six Case Studies 23
Bibliography 28


This paper identifies the major assessment issues of larger classes - that it is likely to be done less well and/or less often - and the resulting negative effects on student learning and achievement. It argues that assessment strategies should be a major part of learning and teaching strategies at both institutional and departmental level, and offers a number of specific strategic responses which might be used to overcome the above issues.

It further argues that disciplines need to be prepared to look for solutions beyond their traditional cultures and practices, and then offers detailed examples of possible solutions grouped under the following six headings:
1. Front-ending
2. Do it in class
3. Self- and peer-assessment
4. Group assessment
5. Mechanise the assessment
6. Strategic reduction

Finally the paper describes five individual case studies from a range of disciplines which exemplify the implementation of some of the above strategies.


According to Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) in their report “New Directions for Higher Education Funding, reported in the Guardian newspaper, “Since 1989 resources per student have fallen by 38%, following a decrease of 20% between 1976 and 1989. Staff-student ratios declined to an average of 1:17 (1:23 if funding for research which is included in the average unit of funding is excluded) (Macleod, 2001).

As class sizes go up, assuming the staffing remains the same and if the same assessment methods continue to be used, one of two things is likely to happen with regard to assessment, and in both cases the effect on students is detrimental. It is either likely to be done less well - less rigorously and with less and more superficial feedback to the student - and to take longer to be returned. Or, the amount of assessment on the course will be reduced - and it is likely to be the formative assessment that is reduced (or even done away with completely) first. In both cases, tutors are less likely to be available and subsequently there is less opportunity for contact with the tutor to discuss their comments after the work has been assessed.

In both cases, a major casualty is the amount and quality of feedback given to the student, with predictable negative effects:

• With less detailed feedback, it is much harder for students to see what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they can improve in the future. We can therefore expect a decline in future performance, and if this is repeated this can lead to a continuing spiral of poorer performance.
• With longer gaps between the submission of work and the receipt of feedback, students are less likely to pay attention to or be interested in the feedback, even if it is of a reasonable quality, with effects on future performance similar to that described above.
• With less opportunity to discuss and clarify tutor comments, students are unlikely to improve their performance.
• And with fewer formative assessment opportunities, the summative piece of work receiving the feedback is likely to have been done less well in the first place.

Possibly even more important than the issue of feedback, however, is the potentially detrimental effect of less assessment. It has long been recognised that probably the biggest influence on a student’s approach to their studies is the assessment regime of the course (Rowntree, 1977; Ramsden, 1992; Gibbs, 1992; Brown, 1997; et al):

• If less of a course is sampled through assessment, students may very easily become selectively negligent, only studying in depth those parts they think/know will be assessed.
• If with increased class size there is a reduction in personal tutor/student contact, assessment is even more likely to become the prime motivator for many students. If there is also less assessment, motivation may drop and only pick up sporadically when the next assignment is set.

Everything said so far has been on the assumption that staffing has not increased to match the increased number of students but it should be noted that even if staffing has increased this can also bring its own set of problems. If the number of assessors for a given piece of work increases this will inevitably increase the problems of maintaining marker reliability and consistency.

The creative solutions and case studies that follow (see 5 and 6 below) all suggest possible ways of addressing one or more of these problems.

Learning and Teaching Strategies

Given the acknowledged importance of assessment in shaping the students’ approaches to learning (as already mentioned above), and the increased importance put on assessment by the QAA’s new quality framework, assessment should be a major consideration in any learning and teaching strategy.

With regard to assessing larger groups, the important thing to recognise is that there may well be strategic solutions which can only be implemented at departmental or even institutional level, and which are beyond the control of individual tutors. One example of this is the university that has made it a strategic policy to have as much first year assessment as possible transferred to computer-marked objective tests in order to release staff time for a greater focus on research activity. They have consequently put in the necessary expenditure on hardware, software, and supporting infrastructure to make this possible.

A key area at institutional level which may well benefit from review is the university’s examination and assessment regulations, and strategic amendments to these regulations might well be possible which can reduce the assessment burden on tutors. For example, you can:

• Revise regulations devised for an earlier time (e.g. there should be two three-hour unseen exams; all work should be double-marked; essays should be 5,000 words) to ensure they do not lead to inappropriate and unworkable assessment arrangements.
• Streamline arrangements for re-sits which often do not need to be as elaborate as the first assessment because they only need to demonstrate threshold competence and are usually not graded
• Allow for the use of ‘course requirements’. If you want students to undertake work but do not have the time to mark it yourself, there is every chance they will not do it. Make sure the regulations allow you to make such work a ‘course requirement’ and a pre-requisite for sitting the exam.

It may be possible to introduce some strategies at a department level without changes to the university’s regulations:

• Set clear deadlines for work to be submitted and do not accept late submissions which would extend the period you have set aside for marking
• Set strict word limits and refuse to read material beyond these limits. It is good practice anyway for students to learn to work to word limits and to time.
• Require all work to be handed in to administrative staff or technicians and insist that it is checked off when submitted. Keep as far away from the administration of handling assessed work as possible.
• Require all work to be word-processed (providing students have sufficient access to computers and to training, and students with genuine disabilities are not unfairly penalised).

The easy and obvious solution to the problem of assessing larger classes is to reduce the amount of assessment but if this is done in an ad hoc and piecemeal way it may have very damaging consequences on student learning as has already been explained. But if the assessment for the complete student programme is reviewed it may well be possible to identify aspects of the course which are over-assessed, and assessments which can be changed, reduced or even done away with, with no harmful effect at all.

A more limited example of a specific departmental strategy is the Biology department who were concerned that on modules with large student numbers it was not possible for the module tutor to find sufficient time for individual student tutorials to discuss the feedback given after the assessed work had been returned. Their strategic solution to this was to introduce a department-wide policy that all first year assessed work (the year where most large classes are found) is to be collected from the student’s personal tutor rather than the module tutor. This has not only had the effect of sharing the load across the department but has also helped to strengthen the personal tutor system and personal tutor/student relationship.

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