Jaclyn Beck, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior

Wait a minute. You want to test how much your students learned! Why would you want to give them a group exam?

Perhaps a shift in perspective can answer that: Aside from scoring a student’s performance, exams themselves can be used as additional learning opportunities. Collaborative activities can increase student learning and performance in many different settings (Johnson and Johnson 2009, Efu 2019, Jang, et al. 2017). Group exams extend this to increasing student learning while they are taking the exam! Studies have shown that collaborative assessments can increase performance, retention of material, and student satisfaction, while decreasing test anxiety (Jang, et al. 2017).

With a well-designed group exam, you can both increase student learning and give them practice at essential skills they will use in the future. So how do you make a “well-designed” exam?

Two-Stage Assessments

To get the benefits of group work while still giving individual grades, you can create an exam with two stages: an individual portion and a group portion. There are two main methods that are commonly used to accomplish this (Efu 2019, Jang, et al. 2017):

  1. Separate individual and group portions

Students turn in their individual exam, and then take the same or similar exam with a group. Their final grade is then a weighted average of the two scores.

  1. Group revision of individual portions

Students take their individual exam but then are allotted a limited amount of time in a group to revise their answers before turning it in.

Both of these methods give each student a chance to show what they already know, and then allow the peer-to-peer interactions to help grow the whole group’s understanding. These interactions seem to benefit most students, as they have been shown to increase performance for both “weak” and “strong” students in the group (Jang, et al. 2017).

Ask Difficult Questions

To get the full benefit of the group thinktank, you want your students to have to work together to reach the right answer, rather than copy who they think is right. Word problems with a lot of real-world context are good for this. These problems should require students to figure out which concepts they need to apply to answer the question, rather than handing them the numbers or concepts to plug into a formula (Heller and Hollabaugh 1992). Open-ended questions that make your students think critically or analyze a concept are also conducive to group work.

Provide Immediate Feedback

For exams with separate individual and group portions, immediate feedback on group answers can also benefit the students. For example, the group could turn in an answer sheet and the proctor can mark which answers are correct or wrong. The group then has another attempt to answer the incorrect questions for reduced points, sparking more discussion and greater understanding of the material (Efu 2019, Jang, et al. 2017). This process can even be automated using online student response tools like “Learning Catalytics” (Jang, et al. 2017).

Teach Your Students How to Work in Groups

This is perhaps the most important point. In order for this type of exam to work well, your students need to understand how to work and depend on each other as a group (Johnson and Johnson 2009). Before giving your students a collaborative exam, give them practice with this skill! Let them collaborate on answers as a group in a lower-stakes environment before giving them a major exam.

There you have it! Think about what you want your students to retain from your class, and try giving them a group assessment that tests just that!


Efu, Sandra Ifeatu. 2019. “Exams as Learning Tools: A Comparison of Traditional and Collaborative Assessment in Higher Education.” College Teaching 67 (1): 73-83.

Heller, Patricia, and Mark Hollabaugh. 1992. “Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups.” American Journal of Physics 60 (7): 637-644.

Jang, Hyewon, Nathaniel Lasry, Kelly Miller, and Eric Mazur. 2017. “Collaborative exams: Cheating? or learning?” American Journal of Physics 85 (3): 223.

Johnson, David W, and Roger T Johnson. 2009. “An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning.” Educational Researcher 38 (5): 365-379.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 5th, 2020.