Research on teaching and learning is being done in virtually every discipline as well as in various education subfields. Unfortunately, the research in each of these domains tends to advance knowledge independently. Faculty researching the effects of clickers in biology courses are usually unaware of what studies of clicker use in psychology have uncovered. Recently, some well-known and highly respected researchers in cognitive psychology have been calling for work that integrates findings more broadly, and three psychologists answered with an interesting analysis of laboratory and applied research on collaborative testing. Their energies were focused on answering the following question: “When is collaborative testing most likely to enhance learning above and beyond individual testing?”
They start with research done (mostly by cognitive psychologists) in labs and some documented harms that can come from collaboration. For example, there's what's called retrieval disruption. In lab settings, learners are given word lists and then asked to recall as many of the words as possible. Researchers listed all the different words identified by three individuals and then tested to see how many word groups the three learners working in a collaborative manner could list. The three individuals were not able to list as many words as each individual working separately did. The retrieval disruption occurs because individuals organize and remember information in unique ways. When someone in a group voices words, that can disrupt the retrieval processes of other individuals. However, in some instances, research collaboration improved learning. For example, when information is discussed in a group, it affords another opportunity for learning and remembering the material.
But research done on collaboration in laboratory settings is not the same as what happens in the classroom when teachers use collaborative testing. In these scenarios, students in classrooms typically complete multiple-choice test questions individually and then do the same questions in a small group, with each test score counting for a percentage of the recorded exam grade. Research done on collaborative testing in classrooms consistently reports that the approach decreases test anxiety for most students and they perceive that they have learned more. Also, groups do regularly score higher on the exams than individuals do, but that does not necessarily mean that each individual in the group is learning more and retaining that knowledge longer. When students who've taken an exam collaboratively are subsequently given an exam covering the same material, research results are mixed and lead to this more tentative conclusion: “So, although collaborative testing does not reliably enhance retention in practice, there is little evidence to believe it harms retention.” (p. 6)
Out of an effort to integrate findings across these two research domains, some “evidence-based” suggestions are offered. The authors say that it is “critical” that students answer the questions first individually. That process “ensures students retrieve any information they remember unassisted—thereby undergoing effortful retrieval—before group members reexpose them to the information or assist retrieval by generating cues.” (p. 7) Also essential to collaboration with positive benefits is adequate time for discussion within the groups. If the group is pressed for time, they will not “exhaust their knowledge of a topic.” (p. 7) Details that group members know will not be shared, and that diminishes the likelihood of selecting the correct answer and the amount of individual learning.
This work is interesting on two fronts—first, the review provides a very accessible and useful analysis of research on collaborative testing, a topic of growing interest among faculty; and second, its attempts to integrate research findings done in different fields and contexts show the value of what is being dubbed “reciprocal collaboration.” (p. 7) Perhaps not surprising, this research team discovered that “a wide gap separates laboratory and applied research on collaborative testing.” (p. 7) To narrow it, they recommend that lab researchers adopt “more complex educational materials and procedures within relatively controlled conditions, and applied researchers [adopt] the research designs of behavioral science to add control to highly complex classroom studies.” (p. 7)
Individual studies done in lab settings are easier to relate to because variables are controlled in more consistent ways. What's been done in classrooms is all but impossible to integrate; group sizes were not the same, testing procedures differed, groups were formed in different ways, times allotted for discussion were not the same, grading schemes varied, different types of test questions were used, and the follow-up retention tests also were not the same. “Such complexity makes it difficult to draw meaningful inferences about the specific variables that may have enhanced retention.” (p. 7) This is not to say that lab research is better than classroom research. They each have different strengths. “What one field lacks in control it makes up for in ecological validity and vice versa.” (p. 7) The two together have greater potential than each one has separately, and this analysis shows why.
Reference: LoGiudice, A.G., Pachai, A.A., and Kim, J.A. Testing together: When do students learn more through collaborative tests? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000041