More than 50 classes at UBC are turning midterms into a group learning experience
A roomful of young adults engaged in a loud and enthusiastic debate is not exactly what you’d expect to see during a high-stakes university midterm exam. But that’s precisely the scene taking place across UBC as more than 50 classes embrace a new model of assessment: the two-stage exam.
In this innovative format, students still write an individual exam, but immediately after handing it in they get into groups of four to tackle the same exam questions again. Each group submits one copy of the completed exam.
“Usually with an exam, feedback will come as a mark and then many students will throw the exam away,” says Brett Gilley, a former Science Teaching and Learning Fellow in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, and an instructor with UBC’s Vantage College and the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. “Here, we’re making them review the exam while they still care about the answers to the questions.”
Gilley has been administering two-stage exams since 2010, and says students have almost universally embraced them. The group portion of the exam accounts for just 15 per cent of the total mark, but it’s enough of an incentive to get everyone participating.
“With just the small application of the high-stakes environment and a few marks, suddenly people who wouldn’t speak at all are pounding on tables,” Gilley observes. “They really see the benefits of the two-stage exams, and they like them. ”
For second-year Arts student Xenia Wong, the two-stage exam has taken some of the stress out of the midterm experience. “Exams are less threatening now. It’s not so much about memorizing as it is about understanding,” she notes. “It’s almost like a second chance.”
It’s also a valuable teaching tool. In research published by the Journal of College Science Teaching in January 2014, Gilley found that student learning and retention significantly improved after the group-exam portion of a midterm.
“In the two-stage exams, students get very excited and you can see them learning,” he says. “Because they’ve all studied so hard, thought it through and done the exam once, they’re really primed for good discussions.”
It also helps to prepare students for the real world. “It’s more reflective of what people are going to do,” Gilley points out. “No one is going to have a job where they go sit by themselves in a room with no resources, no Internet, take out a No. 2 pencil and fill out a scannable form. What they’re going to have to do is explain their ideas to a small team of people they may or may not know.”
It’s also a lot more fun for everyone involved.
“We’ve have final exams that start on Friday at 7 p.m. on the 21st of December, and at 10 o’clock students are walking out with smiles on their faces,” says Gilley. “Everyone is just super inspired.”