"A quick reminder that today's exam is an individual assignment. That is, there is no collaborating with your group members during the exam."This announcement halted the conversations in the room, and I was met with more than a few puzzled faces as I passed out the exam. Not overly surprising given that this focus on working individually on the exam is in direct contrast to what the students have been asked to do every other time they walked into the classroom up until that point. Plus, the tables cannot be reconfigured in this particular room, so the students were doing their best to ignore each other at tables designed to foster collaboration.
Time to rethink the exam format.
Two weeks prior to the second exam, the students submitted their vote in response to an exit ticket question:
Yes or No: Should we approach Exam #2 as a take-home exam (individual attempt) and use class time on 11/5 to collaborate on the same questions with your group (group bonus attempt)?The vote was a unanimous "Yes." The definitive response from the students surprised me initially; they raised concerns and asked a number of questions prior to deciding that we should vote. Stepping back and reflecting on the structure of our class, the decision to incorporate a collaborative attempt at the exam questions makes complete sense. It aligns with how we approach each class meeting: give it a try on your own and then collaborate with your group to see if you, collectively, can come up with something better.
Even then, I wasn't sure anyone would actually show up to class for the group attempt!
Not only did the students show up for the group attempt, they got right to work, and the whole room was filled with conversation. I overheard quite a few comments that fit in the categories of "Oh I didn't even think of that!" and "That is a possibility too, but now we have to figure out which one is the best approach." I wandered around the room for a few minutes just observing before groups took me up on my role as an available resource. It was one of the most productive class periods all semester. Not only were students looking back at the exam they already took, they were analyzing and discussing its contents with each other! Most students walked away with a better understanding of the answers than I could ever convey in an exam score or feedback (which, by the way, took the pressure off of me in terms of grading the individual exams as quickly as possible - added bonus!).
I use an approach that is similar to the one outlined by Maryellen Weimer in her Faculty Focus post on the benefits of group exams and quizzes; the group attempt at the exam is offered as a debriefing activity after the individual attempts are submitted. The group attempt for our second exam was framed as a "bonus" opportunity. For groups who collaborated successfully (scored 80% and above), the contributing members received bonus points, awarded on a sliding scale, that added to the score earned on their individual attempt. This approach is very much in line with the items that topped the students' "wish list" for group work compiled at the beginning of the semester: class time will be allocated for group work, there will be accountability for individual preparation, and group activities will provide opportunities for group members to pool their various strengths. All eight groups scored at least 80% on the group attempt, so everyone earned some bonus points for their efforts.
Barkley, Cross, and Major refer to this approach as "Test-Taking Teams," and their book, Collaborative Learning Techniques, offers examples from Psychology, English, Statistics, and Music Composition and Theory. The examples illustrate that a number of variations are likely to work; shorter tests or quizzes, for example, allow for both the individual and group attempts to take place in one class period while another example highlights this activity being used with practice exams as students prepared for a comprehensive placement exam. For those who have access to the journal New Directions for Teaching and Learning, the Winter 2004 issue contains a few articles on group exams as well, including examples from the sciences and engineering.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to group exams - the necessary planning and the pros and cons, generally speaking, are similar to any other group work situation. If collaboration and group work are already a part of your class, then a group exam or quiz might be a reasonable addition. When I inquired about their group exam experience, one group left me with this brief summary:
"Three brains are better than one!"
Achacoso, M., and Svinicki, M. (eds.). (2004, Winter). Alternative strategies for evaluating student learning [Special issue]. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 100, 1-119.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.