The case for two-stage exams

By Dustin Manley

The University of British Columbia introduced a two-stage exam format in its Faculty of Science in 2011. Today the format is used in high-stakes examinations in over 20 science courses. Both instructors and students laud the two-stage exam format, with studies finding the collaborative exams increase overall student engagement and comprehension of the course materials.

While two-stage evaluation formats have been used for lower-stake exercises and quizzes in classes across a number of academic disciplines, the University of British Columbia is one of the first schools to formally incorporate the format into high-stakes tests such as midterms and final examinations.

The two-stage is exam is administered as follows:

  • Stage 1: 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. The two-stage exam format is yielding universally positive results. 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 feedback. This attributes to higher student engagement in all aspects of the course as well as overall learning and comprehension.

A number of 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, the University of British Columbia has found nearly 100% student engagement, likely due to the fact that students have to study for the independent portion which contributes to the bulk of their evaluation.

The University of British Columbia, ranked 36th in the 2016-17 World University Rankings, has found the two-stage exam format to be beneficial for both its faculty and students. While the format is still a new concept for high-stakes evaluations, with the success it has had at the University of British Columbia it may become a more prevalent standard used in post-secondary institutions across the world.

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Originally published