Christian Glaser, PhD, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Traditionally, exams test students’ knowledge at a certain point in time. They are not intended for the students to learn anything but to show what they know. But what if exams can be turned into a valuable learning experience? New research show that this is possible with little additional work for the instructors [1].

The time before the exams is the busiest season for students. For the first time, many students review all the course material thoroughly to come to the exam well prepared. Why don’t we use this good precondition to increase the students’ performance instead of just assessing their knowledge?

Exams can be transformed into a substantial learning experience – without losing the summative assessment of individual performance – using two-stage exams [1]. Students first complete and turn in the exams individually, and then, working in small groups, answer the exam questions again. In this second stage, students get immediate targeted feedback from their peers, a form of formative assessment that is known to improve the students’ performance [2,3].


The authors of [1] name many benefits arising from collaborative exams:

  • In the real world, working in teams and asking for help is a crucial skill. Traditional exams do not represent what is required on the job market.
  • Two-stage exams provide an easy to implement and effective formative assessment.
  • Two-stage exams allow to make the exams itself a useful learning experience.
  • Students more intensely engage with the material during an exam than at any other time during the course. Two-stage exams make effective use this opportunity.

Implementation and Experiences

The use of two-stage exams is rapidly growing at the University of British Columbia. After the students hand in their individual exams, they work in groups of three to four on (mostly) the same problems. As the students are already carefully worked through the problems, the second stage takes less time. Typically, while the first stage takes 55 minutes, the second stage requires only 30 minutes. In addition, a large fraction of the completed group exams is entirely correct such that the grading time increases only slightly.

Experience shows that all students are engaged during the group work and students too shy to speak up during regular classes defend their answers vigorously. Another positive outcome is that students learn to recognize the value of immediate feedback and the learning that results from it. For more information and practical tips on how to implement two-stage exams, check out the references.


[1] Carl E. Wieman, Georg W. Rieger, and Cynthia E. Heiner, “Physics Exams that Promote Collaborative Learning” The Physics Teacher 52, 51 (2014)
[2] Dante D. Dixson & Frank C. Worrell “Formative and Summative Assessment in the Classroom, Theory Into Practice”, 55:2, 153-159 (2016)
[3] “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition” National Academy Press (2000)

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on May 30th, 2019.