Observation: Two-Stage Exam

A two-stage exam is when students individually complete a test and then immediately complete the same, or very similar, test in groups (usually with the individual test weighted more heavily, e.g., 80%+, for the final test score).

I have had personal experience with this testing format as an undergraduate – I distinctly remember the energetic debates and thoughtful arguments we had about various concepts as we tried to reach consensus for the group answer. I’d like to think that I learned better with this two-stage summative assessment (while I don’t have any personal evidence, Gilley and Clarkson’s SoTL research supports the effectiveness of two-stage exam in enhancing student performance), because I deeply appreciated the immediate feedback and enjoyed the peer-teaching aspect of the examination. It is an assessment method that I would love to integrate into my teaching practice – I needed the know-how in administering a two-stage exam.

I visited Psych 101 again. When I walked into the classroom 5 minutes to noon, it was already filled with students. The atmosphere felt tense and almost anxious. The four TA’s were running up and down the aisles to direct and accommodate the students still filing into the class. On their desks, alternating coloured exam booklets (a total of 4 versions) on top their scantrons. On the projector, written instructions on stowing their belongings, on filling the bubbles for their respective exam code on scantrons. The instructor repeated these written instructions and promptly gave permission to begin their individual test.  For the next 30 minutes, the teaching team took a head count, accounted for empty booklets, and invigilated the exam.

The transition seemed chaotic from the individual to the group exam. Silence vanished within seconds and was immediately replaced by movement and chatter as soon as the teaching team begin to collect the individual tests. Students were already shifting into their small groups (of four to six) before all of the individual tests were collected. The group exams were almost simultaneously handed out and the students dived right into their discussions.

The buzz and energy generated from these conversations were electrifying. I was amazed at the level of engagement and motivation each student demonstrated as I walked around the room – polling for group consensus, challenging their peers’ reasoning, explaining their own rationale. While ensuring the academic integrity of this examination, the instructor was mindful of time and of possible midterm in students’ next class. Students rushing to their next exam were asked to line up at the door once their group exams were collected, while others were instructed to remain seated.

It was surprising how structured and timely the two-stage exam was executed.  Clear instructions, both verbal and written, are key to its successful execution. Effective communication between members of the teaching team was also paramount to maximize resources, ensure academic integrity, and to minimize chaos. I think it is necessary for me to cultivate some comfort around organized chaos – it is a small cost for the potential benefit of enhanced learning, student engagement, and sense of camaraderie!