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How grading at scale makes large classrooms feel small

Gradescope Course Section management helps instructors save time

The best way to mitigate the negative impact of large higher education classroom enrollments is to change the process of instructional delivery. What are the negative impacts of large enrollment courses and what can educators do to make classrooms feel small? And how can Gradescope help?

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager
The situation: Large course enrollment in higher education

Large class sizes are an increasing global trend (Yelkpiere, et al. 2012, p. 321)—the motivations behind which include increased student enrollment, budget restraints, resource management, and/or, in the case of higher education, high student demand for a required course.

While increased classroom size is a concern that spans primary, secondary, and higher education, enrollment sizes particularly balloon when it comes to higher education introductory courses worldwide (Smith & Warburton, 1997). Large enrollment courses often number in the hundreds of students (At UC Berkeley, the largest course in 2013 reportedly had 1,098 students).

A great number of students are being taught in such large enrollment introductory courses, which also serve as a critical gatekeeping moment in the student learning journey. A poor experience in an introductory course, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, makes students less likely to take the next course in the sequence; it comes to stand that a good experience in an introductory course leads students to more likely take the next course (Supiano, 2018).

The challenge: Large course enrollments’ negative impact on student learning outcomes

No one denies the importance of ensuring that students have a positive learning experience. On the other hand, very few professors believe that teaching hundreds of students in a single course is ideal. One such professor, Joe Cuseo, researched eight “deleterious outcomes” when it comes to large-sized classes:

  • Increased faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction within large classrooms may result in “attention drift” (p.3);
  • Less active student involvement in the learning process; students are less likely to engage within a lecture hall, not even to ask questions;
  • Reduced frequency of instruction interaction with and feedback to students; students were reported to be most dissatisfied with decreased frequency of assessments (p. 6);
  • Reduced depth of student thinking inside the classroom; in small classes of 15 or fewer students, the average level of thinking displayed analysis, per Bloom’ s Taxonomy. In large classes, the discourse of students displayed the lowest level, factual recall;
  • Reduced breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning strategies used by students outside the classroom;
  • Lower levels of academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades);
  • Reduced overall course satisfaction with the learning experience; anecdotal reports also suggest that higher levels of student dissatisfaction with large-sized classes contribute to lower rates of class attendance. As Cooper and Robinson (2000) report, “We often hear that large-lecture attendance dwindles throughout the term”;
  • Lower student ratings (evaluations) of course instruction (Cuseo, 2007).
A solution: Changing the delivery system to make large classrooms feel “small”

Cuseo advises that the best way to mitigate the negative impact of large higher education classroom enrollments is to “change the process of instructional delivery” (Cuseo, 2007, p. 15).

To that end, according to researchers Whisenhunt, Cathey, Visio, Hudson, Shoptaugh, and Rost, there are three components to teaching that can help “avoid prioritizing the perceived economic advantage of large classes at the expense of student learning”:

  • Encouraging active student engagement,
  • Reducing students’ feelings of anonymity,
  • And providing individualized feedback (Whisenhunt, et al., 2019).

To their point, Science reported that “undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods” (Bajak, 2014).

According to Cuseo, “Test scores in large classes were most often based on multiple-choice tests, whereas test scores in the smallest classes were most often based on tests that required students to write” (Cuseo p. 7). Writing, and the feedback that writing requires, makes students feel seen and engages personalized feedback and learning. That this assessment format is absent from large courses is detrimental to students.

Whisenhunt’s study “empirically compared student perceptions regarding student engagement, feelings of anonymity, and individualized feedback in small versus large classes.” They changed their instructional methodology, including clicker exercises and increasing feedback loops. Their conclusion was that, “Whereas it might not be possible to make large classes feel as intimate to students as small classes do, we have shown that it is possible to deliver a high-enrollment course in a way that approximates the desirable characteristics of a small class” (p. 126).

Bottom line, according to Martha Oakley, associate vice provost for undergraduate chemistry at Indiana University at Bloomington, increasing class sizes is “an institutional choice. A university that makes that choice has an obligation to provide instructors sufficient support to do so equitably” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2022).

Such support can come from administrators in the form of assessment software that upholds feedback loops, a variety of assessment formats, while saving instructors’ time.

Supporting large enrollment courses with multiple sections

Gradescope by Turnitin knows that the learning journey involves feedback loops and a constant cycle of improvement. To that end, we’ve always been receptive to customer feedback and in turn, we provide transparency into our roadmap. Users, for instance, can always review and upvote features on our Gradescope roadmap at Trello.

Our customers’ number one feature request has been to improve the management of course sections on Gradescope. Gradescope is helpful to all courses and classroom sizes. But we also know that Gradescope is often used for courses with big student enrollment, and in turn, multiple course sections.

Our new feature allows instructors to manage course sections more easily in addition to setting different submission time windows and restrict or enable access to a single assignment at the section level.

Of course, reusable feedback, grader coordination, dynamic rubrics, regrade coordination—and more Gradescope features remain accessible, increasing feedback loops and student learning outcomes, all while grading at scale.

Gradescope helps grade faster and grade fairly

Our goal has always been to help teachers grade faster and grade fairly. Course Section management features help uphold our promise to our customers. Most importantly, we change the process of instructional delivery; Gradescope upholds fair and consistent grading, provides gaining insights into student learning, making students feel seen and supported in their learning journey, whatever your course, whatever your class size.