January 15th, 2014

Group Testing-taking Options to Consider


I’ve been doing some reading on group test-taking (often called cooperative or collaborative testing in the literature). I am stunned by the number of studies and the many ways the strategy has been used. I’m not going to summarize the research in this post, but rather offer a collection of options. Most of these ideas appear in more than one article so I’m not citing references.

When first confronted with the idea that students might do an exam collectively or be able to consult with others on their individual answers, our teacherly eyebrows raise. How can this be ethical? Don’t grades measure individual mastery of material? Valid concerns, yes, but check out how the design features described below respond to those concerns.

This leaves the question of whether there are any good reasons to consider the option. The research is consistent on one point: collaboration reduces test anxiety, especially for the very anxious. And there are important lessons to be learned when consulting with others, like figuring out who is correct and how to ascertain the merits of an argument. When I used the strategy, I couldn’t believe the intensity and passion with which students discussed the content as they collaborated. Then there’s the fact that in most professional contexts, if you need an answer, consulting with others is almost always an option.

Let’s start with the basics: students can collaborate on an exam or a quiz. For faculty worried about the viability of the approach, quizzes are a low-stakes place to experiment. The collaboration typically occurs in small groups, often with just a partner.

If the fear is that some students will “free ride” and not study for the quiz, you can have everybody prepare as if they were taking the quiz on their own. When students arrive in class, randomly pair half of them with a partner. Both partners still take the exam individually, but they are allowed to interact, during or after they’re both done— their choice. They still hand in individual exams, but they can change answers based on their collaboration. Next exam or quiz, follow the same procedure. This means a student may take all, some, or none the exams with a partner.

Maybe some students won’t take the group interaction part of the activity seriously, but most will if there’s a chance to improve their grade. How about this approach: Students take the quiz individually, hand it in, and then convene with a partner or a small group to complete the same quiz again. Their individual grade is the average of their individual quiz score and the group quiz score. Or, the group grade is transformed into bonus points added to the individual score. Group grades of 100 earn five bonus points, those above 90, three points, etc.

And still another approach to group test-taking finds teachers limiting the collaboration time. Students take the exam and 15 minutes before the end of the period, they consult with others in their group for 10 minutes and then use the final five minutes to reconsider and possibly change any of their answers. If Scantron forms are used, students turn in their individual form first, then consult with their group and turn in a second Scantron indicating any changes. These changes become the answers that count. This option provides feedback that makes it easy to see whether changing answers based on input from others helped or hurt their scores.

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Given the attitudes a lot of students have about group work, some may strongly object to group testing. Fine. Let students choose. They may take the test alone or with a partner. The partners do one test and both get the same grade. In one study, the percentage of students who chose to go solo didn’t change much for the next exam, even when students were told that partner scores were significantly higher than individual scores.

What if the quiz involves a skill, such as doing a set of tasks on the computer? Here the group is allowed to designate one member as their coach. The coach can help the group during the quiz but with one significant caveat. The coach’s hands are tied (yes physically, but loosely) so the coach can’t do the task but can still give directions, offer advice, and provide feedback. How about letting the group provide feedback, maybe even grade the coaching they were provided?

Interesting options abound! If you’ve tried group test-taking in any of your courses, please share your experiences in the comment box.

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