Using Collaborative Exams to Reinforce and Deepen Learning

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Shifting the passive classroom environment of a faculty lecturing and students note-taking to an interactive engaging learning environment has exposed many students to using polling such as clicker technology or online polling software.  In addition, many faculty have engaged Dr. Eric Mazur’s technique of polling (Lambert, 2012) which poses questions for students to answer independently and then with consultation with 1 or 2 peers.  Faculty report that this experience of answering questions independently and then with collaboration increases student knowledge retention and critical thinking skills.  What if this technique was extended to summative exams?  It appears that using a two-stage exam is a valuable learning experience as well as helping students see the benefit of collaborative learning.  In addition, this exam implementation process can be easy to administer.   This activity can transform a quiz or exam from simply a grade assessment to a learning activity that allows students to go beyond their present knowledge and deepen their understanding of the content while also developing a more intangible skill of teamwork.  The research has also shown that students do not tend to be carried along and that these group exams allow students to discuss answers, provide immediate feedback, fill in knowledge gaps and improve learning overall.

Link to example artifact(s)

This unique assessment strategy is used in a general education Geosciences class with roughly 100 students.  During class meetings, the faculty integrates about 20 questions that students answer independently using a polling device (clickers in the face-to-face class and TopHat in the remote class) to engage students during the lecture. These questions are based on the course objectives and questions similar to what they might find on an exam. The faculty awards participation points for correct answers throughout the semester, but these are low stakes points that only attribute to a small percentage of their overall grade.  For exams, the faculty first has the students take the exam independently and during the same class period and before seeing their results, they get into groups of 4 to 5 and retake the same exam as a group but individually turn in a second exam.  Students have the option of just taking their independent exam score only, and they are guaranteed that their group score will not pull down their grade.  The independent exam is weighted to 70% of their total exam score, while the group portion is worth 30% of their score.  The faculty member has not only found that the scores on the group exams have improved student’s test scores, but this peer teaching method deepens student learning, and they spend less class time going over misunderstood concepts from the exams.

Implementation Tips:

  • Provide students an explanation about how the exams are structured.  Giving them the relevance of using the exams to test their understanding, and also as a learning opportunity could motivate them to put in more effort.  It could also reduce test anxiety and academic integrity issues.  Here is some sample wording to provide in a syllabus:
    • You will be taking three exams during this semester, with the third exam being given during finals week.  These exams are administered in a way to help further deepen your understanding of the material.  You will first complete each exam individually and this will account for 70% of your exam score.  After everyone is finished with the exam, you will be broken into groups to complete an identical exam as a group.  You will be free to discuss each question with your group, but you will not be allowed to use any external material (such as laptop, textbook, external media).  Each student will submit a second attempt of the exam which will account for 30% of your score. If your individual score is higher than the group grade, then only the individual grade will be counted.  Typically, the second version of the test helps your grade.  Prepare to do your best on your first attempt of the exam, as it not only counts toward a high percentage of your grade, but question discussions will be more beneficial to you and your classmates resulting in a higher second score.
  • Groups should not be larger than 5 students for best results.  Having students choose their groups or being randomly assigned has not resulted in significant scoring differences. 
  • Allow individuals to just take their individual exam and not participate in a group exam.  Scoring results usually end up lower for them, but this activity is not meant to cause further test anxiety. 
  • It is suggested that the first question of both exams ask students to acknowledge some sort of honor code for best behavior.  (Ex. “I pledge that the work completed on this exam is my own and I have not consulted with anyone or any resource to complete it” or “I pledge that the answers I communicate to my group members is what I believe to be the correct answer and we will not use any other source than our brains to answer the questions”). These statements deter many students from academic integrity violations.
  • Typically, the first exam attempt will take about twice as long as the group second attempt.
  • Aim to allow students to finish the exam within the class time period.  For a 90 minute class, create an exam that should take approximately 45 minutes to individually complete.  Students should have plenty of time to complete both submissions.
  • For students that might have a conflict, try to schedule the make-up exam with other students requiring a make-up as well.  Otherwise, these students will only be allowed one attempt.

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Chasteen, S. (2014, December 29). Learning, and assessing, collaboratively: Group exams. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from

Gilley, B., & 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. doi:

Lambert, C. (2012, March). Twilight of the lecture. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from

Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The Essential Elements of Team-Based Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 116(Winter), 7-27., doi: 10.1002/tl.330 7

Rao, S. P., Collins, H. L., & DiCarlo, S. E. (2002). Collaborative testing enhances student learning. Advances in physiology education26(1-4), 37–41.


Sutterlin, J. (2021). Using collaborative exams to reinforce and deepen learning. In A. deNoyelles, A. Albrecht, S. Bauer, & S. Wyatt (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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