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This month, Lisa Falk, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, talks about how switching to two-stage collaborative exams benefits both faculty and students.
Two-stage Collaborative Exams: One Simple Change, a Multitude of Benefits
Midterm exam season is upon us. You can practically smell the test anxiety wafting from the study rooms of the libraries. It’s not much better for faculty. Grading a single exam consumes hours upon hours, at the end of which we may be left feeling that students have fallen short of demonstrating their true skill level, or worse, that we have fallen short in facilitating the acquisition of those skills. Exams aren’t fun for anyone. At least they weren’t for me, until I made one simple change that improved student performance, reduced test anxiety, increased engagement and slashed my grading time: replacing my standard exams with two-stage collaborative exams.
How Two-stage Collaborative Exams Work
In a two-stage collaborative exam, students first take the exam individually, turn in their answers, then form small groups and immediately re-take the same exam (possibly with the addition of a few more challenging questions) to submit a single team response. By engaging in lively discussion to come to a consensus for their team’s answer, students receive immediate feedback about their reasoning. The grade each student receives is a combination of their individual score and the group score.
Last semester, I converted the exams for my large, introductory Earth Systems Science class (MEA100) to this format. I reduced the number of questions on the exam to allow time for discussion, and moved all the open-ended, free-response questions to the group portion of the exam. I was motivated to make the change largely to provide more timely feedback to students, but the benefits of group exams extend well beyond that.
Outcomes and Benefits
- Reduced test anxiety during exam
Students are inherently anxious about exams, which can seriously hinder performance. Two-stage group exams can help. Seventy percent of my students reported that the group exam format reduced the anxiety they felt about that particular exam.
- Improved performance
Students also overwhelmingly reported (90 percent) that they felt the two-stage group exam format improved their ability to demonstrate and apply the knowledge and skills they had attained in the course. Those perceptions were backed up by the exam results as well:
- Seventy percent of the group grades on the multiple-choice exceeded the highest grade of any individual team member. Teams were not riding the coattails of a single individual.
- When the majority of individuals in a group got a multiple-choice question wrong, the group was still able to arrive at the correct answer 71 percent of the time. Group discussion allowed students to think critically and re-evaluate their initial conclusions.
- The answers on the free response questions were much higher quality than previous semesters. Students were able to integrate fundamental concepts from across different modules and transfer their learning to new contexts at a level I had rarely seen in individual free response answers before. Group discussion allowed students to refine their reasoning, make new connections, and think more creatively.
- Intellectual and emotional engagement with course content
When their grades depend on arriving at a consensus answer, students are invested in both defending their ideas and re-examining their assumptions though spirited and often noisy discussion. Of course, not all of the noise in the room is strictly on-topic. During the group exam in my Earth Systems Science class, I occasionally overheard conversations veering off on tangents ranging from personal lifestyle choices to career aspirations to national politics. That’s not a bad thing: I want my students making connections between Earth science and the choices they make as consumers, professionals and citizens!
- Shorter grading time
By having student work on the free response questions in groups, I reduced the number of exams I needed to grade by hand from 92 to 31. The answers were more clearly reasoned, so assessment was simpler. And groups could delegate the actual writing to a person with legible handwriting!
Collaboration Throughout the Learning Process
Before you make the switch to two-stage collaborative exams, make sure that you’ve laid a foundation by integrating collaboration throughout the learning process. Luckily, this doesn’t necessarily require radically restructuring your classroom activities. For a start, try incorporating Think-Pair-Share questions into your lectures. In this active learning strategy, the instructor poses an open-ended question, allows students time to formulate their ideas individually, then has students pair up to discuss their reasoning, before opening discussion to the whole class to share the ideas they’ve gathered.
This low-barrier modification to lectures will allow students gain confidence sharing their ideas in small groups and set the stage for two-stage collaborative exams. By the time your next exam rolls around, you’ll be one small change away from reduced test anxiety, improved student performance, and sweet relief from the exam-grading crush.
Lisa Falk is a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the College of Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.