Group Exams – Improving a Student Favorite

So how about those group exams?

I’ve toyed with, thought about, and read-up on group exams. I’ve had positive and negative experiences with them.

There’s a lot to consider if you are going to do them right. This is a very important point because I think you can do group exams very, very wrong.

Why do students like group exams so much?

Have you ever announced to a class that they will be taking a group exam? Have you ever announced a group project? Complete 180º. Coincidence? I think not. Also, in the event you haven’t done either of those things, students celebrate a group exam and belly-ache about a project.

Side-bar: I think group projects can teach students a lot of great skills despite the fact that students hate them.

So, by deductive reasoning, if students HATE an activity that usually involves a lot of work and frustration; then they must LOVE an activity because they see it as easy, and easy = blowing it off, which = not LEARNING.

Am I suggesting that students don’t learn very much from a group exam? Maybe. We’ll talk about it.

Contrasting this view of  “easy” group exams is this: groups exams relieve many students of crippling test anxiety, promotes development of collaborative skills or “group process skills”, and students report that they increase more for group exams and retention of knowledge (Morgan et al., 2007).

From a faculty (or maybe just me) point-of-view:

Pros: A group exam, depending on how you grade it, saves a load of time. In a class of 30, distribute 6-8 exams instead. Those babies are graded THE SAME DAY. *sound of mind being blown*

With 4 or so students working on an exam, you can ask really high level questions and watch you students form arguments and deduce the correct response. It’s actually phenomenal to watch – a circle of chairs, everyone leaning in, clearly very invested in writing down the most thorough answer. It’s every teacher’s dream.

My students exercise their social skills which they are going to need when they leave my classroom and get jobs. Further, collaboration supports learning, so this should enhance retention of the information!

These are all great reasons/outcomes, until that’s not what happens.

Cons: Only a couple students in the group actually study and take the exam while the more anxious, quiet, or lazy students sit back and say “yeah, that sounds good”. In this case, we have three issues: 1) some students learn the material, but I want all of them to learn it and 2) the test-takers end up angry and 3) the non-test-takers get a better grade than they deserved.  I will add here, there are ways to get around this specific problem depending on the rules you employ during a group exam, so this is not a guaranteed problem.

Starting with point 1 above, the group exam doesn’t tell me what each student actually knows. I’m not alone in valuing individual assessment: in Denmark universities actually did away with group examinations for just this reason.

“We do this because we want to know what skills the individual has. And that is best measured by examining individually”, says Minister of Education Bertel Haarder. “If the students do group work it is not our business; but the individual as well as a future employer can reasonably expect to know what skills the individual really possesses. For this reason we now make sure that the individual student always gets assessed individually when he/she takes exams”, says Minister of Science Helge Sander.  – Krogh & Rasmussen, 2007


While I absolutely want my students to develop strong collaborative skills, the time to do it is NOT during an exam. The publications on group exams really emphasized this as a strength, but to me, the exam is an assessment. This is the time for me to see if my students have learned these skills during the semester. I don’t think that the author’s of these papers only have students solve problems in a group for an exam, but they definitely didn’t say otherwise, and I think it’s an extremely important point to make. As I mentioned earlier, collaborative learning is an excellent way to increase student comprehension and critical thinking skills, but the exam, happening 3-4 times a semester at best, isn’t the time to practice it.

My tips for a great group exam:


  1. Give you students opportunities to practice collaboration prior to the group exam.

    This is easily THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP. Again, I advocate collaborative learning, but just like anything else, students need to practice it. Have a stash of questions to work on at the end of each week or unit, or reserve case studies for a lab period. These opportunities to practice will not only prepare them for the group exam, but for the individual questions as well!

  2. Include a group portion within an individual exam.

    I would not recommend a 100% group exam. Again, I want to see what each student has learned, so give everyone the opportunity to answer questions regarding the course learning objectives and dedicate another portion of the exam to group collaboration.

  3. Make the group exam questions actually require collaboration.

    I really consider this the fun part of the exam. Since you have a handful of minds working together, ask some really high level questions! Sometimes I provide a short reading and then a series of questions that pull from course readings and lectures, or I give them some data I made-up and ask for a synopsis of the data, relevance to a topic we discussed, and social implications. Push them to dig deep!

  4. Explain your grading scheme to the class before you give them the exam.

    This is helpful (to me, anyway) for two reasons: first, students can gauge effort and realize they need to prepare for this portion. Second, sometimes I imagine rules that sound totally fair and well-thought, but when I say it out loud my students ask questions that I really should have considered.

  5. Review exam after grading.

    This tip applies to every exam ever. I remember as a student that it wasn’t until I saw the correct answer on my graded exam that I realized what misconceptions I had and actually learned something (I have a very specific memory of this from Cellular & Molecular Biology, when I realized I had drawn a transmembrane protein wrong). Following every exam I give, I reserve time for my students to individually go through the exam and correct their mistakes and open the floor to discussion. Depending on the class, I offer partial credit back as an incentive. Fun bonus: students who corrected their exams outscored group exam-takers 2 weeks later on a retention quiz.

At the end of the day, I think group exams can be a fun way to push your students to consider the material you’ve been teaching, but they aren’t great as a stand-alone activity,

Have you used group exams in your classroom? How did you execute them? What suggestions do you have?

I’m not done exploring this topic by any means, I will keep trying to figure out the most beneficial way to incorporate them into my courses!


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