February 23rd, 2011

Group Exams and Quizzes: The Benefits of Student Collaboration


Have you ever used any sort of group testing activity? The approach is not without benefits. Most students find exams enormously stressful and abundant research documents that high levels of test anxiety can compromise performance. Said more bluntly, students can know the information, but be so anxious they can’t summon it for the exam. Letting students work together on test questions reduces that anxiety considerably. It could be a case of “misery loves company” or the “two heads are better than one” scenario.

Group exams can be structured so that they force students to collaborate. Maybe force is too strong but in competitive learning environments—like those where students are graded on a curve—students can be hurt by helping each other. Because a lot of education emphasizes competition, students are slow to adjust in environments that value cooperation. They won’t offer help unless there are benefits from doing so or risks if they don’t. For example, if everyone in a study group gets a C on the exam, everyone gets a set number of bonus points. If everyone gets a B, they’re awarded even more points, and so on. Or, you can use quiz groups (I’d assemble them with a range of abilities). Every group member is assigned a color and on quiz dates, a color is selected. That student takes the quiz and everyone in the group (present that day in class) gets that grade.

When they work together on exam questions, students talk content, with an intensity and passion that makes teachers (at least this one) quiver with excitement. I was never very successful getting students to engage in debate—to really disagree and argue with each other. But when it’s an exam question, the gloves come off. This is the reason why groups make better decisions than individuals—they deliberate, consider alternatives, state and restate positions, use persuasion, ask questions.

Designing your group exam
Faculty are justifiably wary of group exams because they don’t want students who haven’t learned the material to benefit from others in the group who have. That problem can be avoided by how the group exam activity is designed. In my class, students took the exam individually, turned that exam in and then in their study group were given one clean copy of the exam which they completed together. I first graded all the individual exams. If a student got less than 50%, they failed and got no bonus points. Then I calculated an average score based on the individual exam results of the group members who had passed the exam. Next I graded the group exam. If it was higher than the individual average, I added the difference to each individual score.

The collaboration doesn’t have to occur over the actual exam. It can be a debrief activity. In this case students are convened in groups the day after the exam. They get a copy of the exam and half the time to complete it. If they get a perfect score, everybody in the group gets a specified number of bonus points added to their score.

Group exam experiences can be configured in many different ways. If you don’t want to experiment with an exam, start with a quiz. If you don’t want students sharing a score, give them 15 minutes to work on the quiz individually, then put them in groups of four and give them 5 minutes to discuss questions with each other. Then give them 5 minutes to revisit their own quiz. Strategies like this are also effective at getting students to come to class prepared. Do they want to sit with a group of their peers and admit they don’t know any of the answers? You can make it clear to students that group members don’t have any obligation to help members who are unprepared.

If you’ve used any collaborative exam or quiz strategies, please share your experiences in the comment box below. Questions and comments are also welcome.

Credit for some of the ideas just described belongs to this author: Burrowes, P. A. (2003). A student-centered approach to teaching general biology that really works: Lord’s constructivist model put to a test. The American Biology Teacher, 65 (7), 491-502.

  • Jennan

    We implemented collaborative testing last semester in the undergraduate community and public health nursing course for our traditional BSN students. Our rationale for collaborative testing was that nurses generally work within teams, either interdisciplinary or inter-professional, to find solutions to difficult clinical dilemmas. We felt working within the small group to review exam items will help nursing students learn to work as part of a team, to value others’ point of view, and to accept the critique of their work by a group of their peers. Students complete a 50 item computerized exam individually and then break into their small groups (assigned at beginning of semester) of 5-6 students. Each group is given one copy of the exam and answer sheet with 50 minutes to complete. If the student scores a minimum of 70% on the individual exam, the group collaborative score is averaged with the individual exam score to obtain the exam grade. A course requirement is that the student must average 70% on the three individual exams; this requirement prohibits students from not preparing for the exams. Faculty and students have all been very pleased with the implementation of collaborative testing.

  • Anita

    I’ve used group exams in my FYE course. I started this practice to observe how students were approaching the questions. Many of the students in my class are at developmental level and I find that many have difficulty with reading and comprehension. By listening and providing additional “verbal clues” with the students I find that they are slowing down to read and comprehend the question before diving in to choose an answer in case of multiple choice. In the case of T/F I find more debate with the students justifying their response when the group is split. Open ended or short essay questions also result in debate. Many times one student will begin to answer and anothers will add on or approach from another angle.
    I find that group exams help the students find their confidence and “can do” attitude where in many of their courses they have failed to meet academic expectations.

  • David

    Teaching calculus to students with weak background (in both content and study skills) has proven to be an interesting challenge. When faced with any form of collaborative work (we had some group activities in the classroom and a group exam at the end of the term) students will make considerable efforts to implement a "divide and conquer" method: split the assigned work somehow and do it individually with almost no collaboration at all. Trying to find ways to "force" the cooperation seems to be more tricky in the context of mathematics where students hold a strong belief that math is something that one does alone.

    For my next group exam, I'm considering using shorter conceptual questions on a multiple choice format. Handing the students only one question sheet and only one answer sheet should help (hopefully) to force them into collaboration. This collaborative work would constitute additional points to an individual test as described in the above comments and article. The challenge now is to find good databases of short conceptual questions relevant to calculus as mathematicians are not very used to that format.

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  • bhagya

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  • Donna

    I love group exams. I fell upon them with no real educational philosophy when I first started teaching except to get students to communicate with one another. I wanted students to feel as though they were not in "this" alone. This being math class. If I use groups all semester it is great. I find that if I use it only now and then, the students do no seem to grow as much as I would like.

    I agree that students discuss a lot more in a group, defend their position, and learn from their peers. The groups help my education students see different ways their classmates learn and this is invaluable as they prepare to become classroom teachers.

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