by – Kathy Frost

While at the Lilly Conference 2018, I had the opportunity to learn enough details about offering group exams that I was able to pilot this learning method during the spring semester. The group exam experience aims to foster deep and durable learning using collaboration – students discussing, questioning, critiquing each other – as well as memory retrieval practice at work when testing oneself (e.g., the “testing effect”).

I built three group exams into the semester schedule, each exam taking place in class during the period immediately prior to students’ individual exam for a particular block of material. The group exam course requirement counted 15% of students’ total grade, making each group exam grade worth 5% of the total.

I crafted each group exam by including 30 multiple-choice items, enough to cover a good cross-section of the material being covered, but not so many items that students felt rushed when taking the test. I wanted student groups to have enough time to converse, question, discriminate, and problem-solve as they tackled each item, especially since nearly all of the items required application and analysis. I assigned student groups (primarily three students per group) ahead of time and announced group assignments at the beginning of class on group exam day. New group assignments were made for group exams #2 and #3 based on prior individual exam grades with the goal of minimizing between group inequality. Students were given about 45 minutes to work on the group exam together, but were then given another 20 minutes to mark their final exam answers individually. Marking answers individually allowed students the opportunity to benefit from group discussion about an item / concept, but not be forced to accept the group’s conclusions.

Based on an informal survey at the end of the semester, students’ feedback on the group exam experience was quite positive. Students felt that they learned from their peers and that the requirement created some “peer pressure” to prepare more than they might have otherwise. Students felt the group exam acted as a preview ahead of the individual exam alerting them to material that needed further study. One drawback was mentioned by a minority of students: lack of preparation on the part of a group member affects one’s ability to benefit from the group testing experience.

Based on my pilot experience and student enthusiasm for the group exam method, I will likely continue to use it in future courses. Without a controlled study, it is difficult to know if the group exam experience had a direct effect on students’ learning of course material. That said, general research for group exams exists. I cite a couple of studies below.

Drouin, M. A. (2010). Group–based formative summative assessment relates to improved student performance and satisfaction. Teaching of Psychology, 37(2), 114–118.

Gilley, B.H., & Clarkston, B. (2014). Collaborative testing: Evidence of learning in a controlled in-class study of undergraduate students. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(3), 83–91.