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The Case for Two-Stage Exams

Updated article originally published September 22, 2015.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) introduced a two-stage exam format in its Faculty of Science in 2011. Today, the science department uses this format in-person and online for higher stakes examinations. Both instructors and students laud the two-stage exam format, with studies finding that collaborative exams increase overall student engagement and comprehension of the course materials.

While two-stage evaluation formats have been used for lower stakes exercises and quizzes in classes across several academic disciplines, UBC was one of the first schools to formally incorporate the format into high-stakes assessments, such as midterms and final examinations.

How Two-Stage Exams Work

The two-stage exam is administered as follows:

  • Stage 1: This is a standard examination process where students complete the test alone.
  • Stage 2: Immediately following Stage 1, this is a collaborative process where students (groups of 3-4) complete the test again. Students must come to a consensus on the answers and hand in a single copy of the test.

Grades from both stages of the exam, independent (75% to 90%) and collaborative (25% to 10%), are combined for the total examination mark.

There are certain factors that need to be taken into consideration when performing a two-stage exam. Class size is important to think about because this process can get complicated if the class is relatively large. Timing is another factor to consider given there needs to be time to do the assessment individually then do the group collaboration afterwards. The logistics of forming groups and getting everyone together also adds to the overall timing of the assessment. If two-stage exams are to be considered an option, a lot of planning and organizing is involved, but it can be worth it.

Enhancing the Learning Experience with Two-Stage Exams

The two-stage exam format has yielded positive results for UBC. One of the most promising findings is that average exam marks have increased with the collaborative exams. Students are provided instant feedback on their performance instead of having to wait days or weeks for results on traditional exams, which often do not include formative feedback. This instant feedback contributes to higher student engagement in all aspects of the course as well as overall learning and comprehension.

Another possible reason for UBC’s success is that the collaborative aspect to the exam mimics a classroom setting. The pseudo-classroom setting allows the student to feel more familiar with the material, and it helps with recall. Research finds other benefits of two-stage assessments, including increased positivity in the classroom and an increase in performance. Allowing for more interactions with peers creates a more positive environment and better classroom cohesion. The group aspect of the assessment may help reduce a student’s anxiety surrounding examinations. Moreover, students were shown to improve their critical thinking skills and were able to retain more information.

This method also impacts how students respond and interpret feedback. Instead of relying on the teacher’s feedback alone, these group discussions allow for the student to have more internalized feedback. Students are able to make better comparisons to what they did wrong and where they need to improve. Hearing feedback from peers was seen as being more detailed and gave students a better understanding of their own answers.

Future of Two-Stage Exams

Several critics have pointed out potential limitations in the two-stage exam format, including students who may dominate the group discussion and students who let their peers do all the work. Despite these criticisms, UBC has found nearly 100% student engagement, likely because students have to study for the independent portion which contributes to the bulk of their marks.

UBC, which ranks 37th in the 2022 World University Rankings, has found the two-stage exam format to be beneficial for both its faculty and students. With the success it has had at UBC, two-stage exams may become a more prevalent standard used in post-secondary institutions across the world. This adoption may grow even more due to the ease of implementing two-stage exams in remote learning–through the use of breakout rooms. Two universities in the US, at the beginning of the pandemic, designed some of their online exams as two-stage assessments and hope to continue using them in the future.

Currently, there are several universities and colleges in Canada that have started implementing the two-stage testing format in some of their classes. With the shifting landscape in education, it is important to adapt to new methods of assessing students in order to enhance the learning experience.

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Crowdmark is the world’s premiere online grading and analytics platform, allowing educators to evaluate student assessments more effectively and securely than ever before. On average, educators experience up to a 75% productivity gain, providing students with prompt and formative feedback. This significantly enriches the learning and teaching experience for students and educators by transforming assessment into a dialogue for improvement.