In online classes as well as in-person classes, I sometimes find it pertinent to allow students to collaborate during an exam. Depending on courses and their modalities, the formula that I put in place for collaborative exams is not the same but, in either case, I find that the approach has a positive impact on the students’ learning.
Online collaborative exams
About 3 years ago, I took part in a conference in Manitoba about collaborative assessment. I did not know the concept of a collaborative exam; I fell in love! When the pandemic arrived and we had to transpose exams online, in my Customer oriented approach course, I decided to give my students access to their peers as well as their course notes. They complete their open-book exam online, and in teams.
It is difficult to monitor an exam online. It is not worth trying to prevent students from consulting their notes. I thus re-thought my exams so that the questions required analysis rather than the knowledge to be found in their course notes.
Similarly, students can easily communicate with one another online. By offering them to do the exam in teams, the collaboration is controlled and formalized.
How an online exam unfolds
For the online exams of the Customer oriented approach course, I suggest that my students work in teams of 3. I find that a team of 3 is optimal for communicating in videoconferences. Some may ask to work in a team of 2 or 4 for a particular reason (sometimes, simply because the number of students to divide into teams is not a multiple of 3!) and I accept, obviously.
However, students can do their exam alone if they prefer. There are always some students who prefer to do the exam on their own. They may be students with ADHD, or simply students who fully believe in their abilities.
Nevertheless, the students who choose to do the exam in teams love it! It makes the exam less stressful for them.
All the students connect to the videoconference. Those who will complete the exam in teams go into the various breakout rooms. This way, I can move from one room to the other easily.
The teammates can discuss the questions together and formulate answers. Nevertheless, I ask them to provide an individual answer to each question. Thus, they can exchange ideas, but are not required to accept all their peers’ suggestions. In any case, they must come up with their own answer in their own words.
My evaluation grid is adapted to the formula of the exam. The answers’ justification (clarity, relevance, accuracy of the vocabulary used) is worth many points.
During the exam, each team must manage their time. The students have, depending on the exam, 2 or 3 hours to complete it. Some choose to discuss a question with their partners and to answer individually before moving on to the next. Others discuss all the questions at the beginning of the exam and then set some time aside to write their answers.
Impact on learning
The discussions transform the evaluation into a real opportunity to learn. The exchanges between teammates allow the students to have a better understanding of the questions and to validate their answer ideas with their peers.
The students understand very quickly that they must be ready if they want to succeed on the exam. Some students failed their exam even if they were paired with some very strong students. Being able to consult their notes and their colleagues does not give the student the time to assimilate the content if they have not studied beforehand. Besides, a student who is not ready will not contribute to their teams’ discussions, and their teammates are not likely to ask them to be their partner for a subsequent exam. Thus, team exams allow well-prepared students to enrich their answers, but do not allow students who did not study or were absent to succeed.
An open-book exam is, in my opinion, more authentic, more representative of the reality the students will face after school. At work, they will be allowed to use a toolbox. To use those tools well, they need competencies, and those competencies are what we want to evaluate during exams. An open-book exam requires as much preparation as a traditional exam. Some students do not understand that and have a bad grade on their 1st exam, around midterm. However, on their final test, they know how to proceed. As the final exam is worth more points, they are not discouraged.
How an in-person collaborative exam unfolds
In my Human resources course, in person, I put in place a team-based learning approach. I find that it works well for this course. The approach forces students to develop their teamworking abilities (which is a plus in human resource management), because they collaborate throughout the semester.
In my class, the teams are the same throughout the semester. At the beginning of the semester, I draw the 1st names randomly. Each person whose name was drawn chooses a person to join them. This 2nd person draws the name of the 3rd member of the team randomly. This 3rd person chooses the 4th, who draws, and so on, until they have teams of 5 or 6 people.
Each team writes a contract where they indicate what they value. From the beginning of the semester, it allows the student to break the ice by discussing what is acceptable or not for them. By writing the contract as a team, the teammates establish a way to work. Once they have signed the contract, the teams cannot be dissolved. The students cannot expel a student from their team for any reason. Obviously, I am available to help should a problem arise! I have used team contracts since I started teaching in 2008, and I have never had to dissolve a team: there are always solutions.
During the semester, I use the flipped-classroom approach, which frees time in class for practicum. The students do a variety of case studies in teams. I also make use of peer learning, by asking each team to present some notions of theory to the others.
In the Human resources course, the exams are divided in 2 steps, within the same class.
I make exams that include fewer questions than my regular exams and take less time to complete. (The questions are case studies similar to those done in class previously.)
During the 1st half of the class, each student must complete the exam in its entirety on their own. I then pick up their copy. The grades that I will give for this individual portion will be worth 80% of the total grade of the exam.
During the 2nd half of the class, the students join their usual teammates and re-do the exam in full. They must answer the same questions but produce only one answer per team. They must negotiate and get along with one another to find the answer they want to provide. It is obviously a great opportunity for them to learn. They receive feedback on their individual answers but, contrarily to a simple validation by the teacher, this feedback requires reflection and analysis so that they judge its value themselves.
Watching them work during the team portion of the exam is fantastic! They are so focused…
The portion of the exam completed in teams is worth 20% of the total grade of the exam. Usually, the team grades are higher than the individual grades. I have had cases, however, where the team grade was catastrophic. When this happens, it can be very unsettling for students. When a team’s grade is low, I meet the students to discuss the situation with them. They prepare differently for their next exam.
A formula that adapts to your needs
For the in-person as well as the online variants, I am extremely satisfied with my experiences with collaborative exams. The collaborative exam is a concept that can be used in 1001 different manners. Personally, I do not do it in all my classes, because I like variety. I like to use other types of evaluation as well but, for some specific courses, and for online evaluations, I find it perfect!