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Collaborative Testing Improves Higher-Order Thinking

Studies with Practical Implications

Collaborative Testing Improves Higher-Order Thinking

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Three students working on a group exam on a laptop
Most faculty don’t respond enthusiastically to the idea of students doing exam or quiz work together in groups. Nonetheless, the approach is widely used, and the research continues to show significant benefits. Innovative design features like those in the study below answer many faculty objections. The grades can still be measures of individual mastery of the material, and individual scores can count significantly more than the group score.

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Most faculty don’t respond enthusiastically to the idea of students doing exam or quiz work together in groups. Nonetheless, the approach is widely used, and the research continues to show significant benefits. Innovative design features like those in the study below answer many faculty objections. The grades can still be measures of individual mastery of the material, and individual scores can count significantly more than the group score.

The study

Mahoney, J. W., & Harris-Reeves, B. (2019). The effects of collaborative testing on higher order thinking: Do the bright get brighter? Active Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 25–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417723243

The research questions

Interesting background information

Analyses of group exams, where students take tests or quizzes individually and then in a small group, have been undertaken in a variety of different disciplines (e.g., physiology, nursing, biology, geoscience, and English) and using a range of different exam formats. In virtually every study, exam scores improved, particularly for students in middle- and low-achievement cohorts. Student response to the experience is generally positive, with a sizeable majority reporting that it decreases exam anxiety and promotes deep understanding of the course content.

The study cohort

The cohort included 168 health science students taking a sport and exercise psychology course at an Australian university. The students were at various levels of their undergraduate coursework.

Methodology (a succinct summary)

The collaborative exam experience occurred on the second of three course exams. Students had 45 minutes to complete a 30-question multiple-choice exam. Five of those questions involved advanced knowledge and required higher-order application and analysis of the content. The researchers collected the exams, and students then convened in preconstituted groups that had 30 minutes to do the same exam. The group did not have to agree on an answer. Each student in the group answered the exam questions for themselves. The first exam counted for 80 percent of their grade; the exam completed during group collaboration counted for 20 percent of their grade. Following the exam, students completed an online survey asking about their experiences.

Key findings

Cautions and caveats

Research to date, including this study, has not examined the interactions that occur within a group during group collaboration. The assumption is that students are sharing, debating, disagreeing, questioning, and explaining and that these interactions deepen student understanding. It sounds like a solid assumption, but it merits testing. Furthermore, the study is an isolated example: it involves one course at one institution and assesses one collaborative testing model.

Practical implications (what you might want to do about the findings)

First, there’s enough evidence supporting the benefits of collaborative testing to warrant trying it—if not on an exam then on a quiz. Second, a structure like this still means the grade earned is an individual grade and not a group grade. A student who thinks the group is wrong is free to select the answer they believe is correct. Finally, consistent positive response from students demonstrates the effectiveness of collaboration at changing the exam context. In groups, students feel less anxious and report that their understanding of the content deepens. In other words, collaboration increases the learning potential of exam experiences, which makes them an option worth considering.