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What makes a great exam?

22 Feb Image is of a square cardboard box with the word "suggestion" written on the two visible sides.


This post – featured in January on Take5, a blog hosted by the Centre for the Enhancement of Learning & Teaching at London Metropolitan University – caught my attention for the ways it works to complement the two exam-related posts that I’d scheduled for updating and posting today.  That makes today a 3-posts-in-one-space day:

  1. Exams as Learning Experiences: This post features curated ideas to set out practices for designing effective exams, ideas for alternative exam structures, and strategies to guide students as learners preparing for exams. 
  2. Team-Based Final Exams, with Grad Students in Mind: As we increasingly involve students in the work of team-based learning projects linked novel, professional practice-oriented contexts, one way of providing closure for those group projects is to devise a final exam that engages all of the learning teams in working through a teacher-provided novel situation requiring each team to draw on course concepts, readings, and team-based skills. This post proposes one model for setting up such an exam.
  3. Creating Active Learning in Exams, which is the Taks5 post re-blogged below: Simon Bates describes a final exam model that students complete in two stages, incorporating both group and individual elements.  In setting out the model, Bates provides specifics about set up and marking, and acknowledges the advantages and disadvantages to weigh in making plans for similarly structured active learning exams.

Creating Active Learning in Exams

Simon Bates is Senior Advisor for Teaching and Learning and Academic Director for CTLT at UBC Vancouver. He has spent time re-thinking classroom practice – AND he has also designed a new two-stage exam that includes both individual and group elements – and that he argues better models real world issues with which graduates will have to engage – and that in the process offers students a more authentic and meaningful exam experience.

Simon’s model has been implemented in over 140 courses and across a range of faculties. In the two-stage exam, students take an individual conventional exam in the first two thirds of the exam time – and a final group exam in the last third. The group exam draws on the same set of questions as the individual exam, although there may be more challenging questions.  Typically the individual exam is worth 85% of the final mark, with the remaining 15% allocated to the group exam.

Although this may seem a strange process on first reading, Bates points out that the two stage exam is a logical extension of the kinds of active learning methods that are firmly embedded in our teaching practice: group discussions, peer-to-peer- and problem-based learning.  Moreover, they turn exams away from assessment of learning to assessment as learning – and they model the problem solving that we engage in in the real world far better than an individual exam ever could.

The group exam is a noisy, dynamic process, where practically every student contributes. The stakes are high and discussions can be intense.  Perhaps the most striking thing Simon reported about the group exam is that afterwards the students leave with smiles on their faces – they are happy!

The mark awarded for each group exam tends to be higher than the marks scored in the individual exam, so the two stage exam process represents a grade boost for most students.  For about 5% of students the individual exam marks are higher than the mark awarded to their group.  In these cases UBC awards the student the mark scored in the individual exam.  This ensures that the marks for the group exam can never be used to penalise students.

What are the advantages of this system?

In this model, the exam becomes a learning experience instead of a measurement activity. In the discussions, students have to explain reasons for their choices – they have to argue and make cases for their points of view. There is a celebration that peer-to-peer learning occurs in the exam. There’s the opportunity, too, for all students to contribute.  And there’s a prevailing sense that the students like this model – it’s a logical extension of the kind of group-based learning they’ve become used to in the classroom and they’re aware that it’s an opportunity to boost their grades.  And it’s a great learning opportunity providing immediate feedback at a moment when they actually care about it.

And the disadvantages

Importantly, it’s only something that can work where students are already used to working in groups.  If more traditional teaching methods have been employed in the course, with little or no learning through collaboration and discussion, then the group exam is unlikely to find favour.

The dynamics of the group may be an issue, as with all group work, the process can be disrupted by a domineering student or participants who are not pulling their weight. It could be easy for students to get side-tracked or not manage the time or tasks well. It could be challenged on accessibility and inclusivity: how can students with different needs, the requirements for extra time or for quiet spaces to work, be accommodated, for example?

Arguably the pros outweigh the cons.  And research with the students seems to add weight to this.  In open-ended questions about the process, the positive comments exceeded the negatives by four to one.  Students appreciated the discussions and the opportunity to learn why their original answers were wrong or right. They liked approaching the questions from new perspectives and, of course, the opportunity to enhance their grades.  On the negative side they struggled with coming to a consensus about the answer, and with managing the time. They also struggled if there were knowledge gaps in the groups.

And finally

The two stage exams seem like a logical extension to the kinds of active learning that have become so important during class time.  They shift us away from a situation where students take an exam in order to get a grade, towards a process where learning and engagement takes place as part of the exam itself. Simon argues that they are a very efficient method of assessment and very easy to implement…

About the ideas man: Simon Bates is Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia. Prior to that he worked at the University of Edinburgh where he was Professor of Physics Education, and Dean for Learning and Teaching in the College of Science and Engineering.  

Re-blogged from the original Take5 post at

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