‘Teachable moments’: creating active learning in exams

For Simon Bates one of the conundrums of scholarship on student learning and engagement is the limited attention paid to exams.  Why is it that we spend so much time thinking about how to promote active learning in the classroom, but very little on how we might similarly engage students during exams?  This was the question he posed at the University of Edinburgh’s Course Organisers Network this week.

At the University of British Columbia, where Simon currently works, there is a ‘new normal’ for exams for large classes in the form of a two-stage examination process.  What exactly is this, and how does it promote the kind of active learning which many of us want to develop?

It’s quite a simple thing.  Students take a conventional exam first, with only two thirds of the total time available devoted to it.  Once this is completed the scripts are collected from the students.  In the remaining third of the time the students form groups of four and together work on another exam script. The group exam usually draws on the same set of questions as the individual exam, although the course organiser has the option to add a few more challenging questions.  Standard practice at UBC is for the individual exam to be worth 85% of the final mark, with the remaining 15% allocated to the group exam.

This practice is widespread at UBC and is used for summative assessment in well over 140 courses and across a range of faculties.  Simon was at pains to stress that two stage exams are not something new.  Rather, they are a logical extension of the kinds of active learning methods that are now firmly embedded in our teaching practices, such as group discussions, peer instruction and problem-based learning.  And although not new they are significant for two reasons.  First, because they turn exams away from assessments of learning to assessments for learning.  In other words they shift us away from a situation where students take an exam in order to get a grade and towards a process where feedback, and hence learning, take place in and through discussions about the exam questions.  And, secondly, they are significant because they are easy to put into practice.  They are a very efficient method of assessment, and anything which reduces the burden of marking is surely to be welcomed.

For Simon there is no substitute for seeing a group exam first hand.  In his experience it 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 the students leave with smiles on their faces – they are happy!

In practice the mark awarded for each group exam tends to be higher than the marks scored in the individual exam, so in the majority of cases doing the two stage exam process represents a grade boost.  However there are a small number of students each year, typically about 5%, whose 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 the more able students.

So what are the advantages of this system?  The group exam creates what Simon called ‘teachable moments’.  These can work in a variety of ways.  More able students teach the less able ones by articulating the reasons why a particular answer is correct.  Less able students learn from their peers, and often accept extra explanations from them that they would be less willing to receive from an instructor.  There’s the opportunity, too, for quieter 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.

But, of course, there are disadvantages too.  The dynamics of the group may be an issue – what if there is one domineering student, or a situation where there are participants who are not pulling their weight?  And it’s easy for students to get side-tracked by the process or by poor time management, spending all their time on one or two questions at the expense of the rest.  Then there are questions about the accessibility and inclusivity of this model.  How can we accommodate the students who have different needs, such as requirements for extra time, or for quiet spaces to work in?  But, perhaps most importantly, it’s only something that can work in a culture where students are 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 doomed to failure.

For Simon the pros definitely outweigh the cons.  And research with the students seems to add weight to this.  In open-ended questions the positive comments exceeded the negatives by a factor of four to one.  Students appreciated the discussions, the opportunity to learn why their original answers were wrong (or right), approaching the questions from new perspectives and enhancing their grades.  On the negative side they struggled with coming to a consensus about the answer, with time management, and in situations where there were knowledge gaps in their groups.

All in all, two stage exams seem like a logical extension to the kinds of active learning that have become so important during class time.  As Simon pointed out, it seems strange that we have not really thought about how to make exams into more active learning processes particularly when they form a cornerstone of the assessment process.  I was left with a clear sense that the model of the two stage exam, with its ability to offer ‘teachable moments’ has much to offer in this respect.


About the speaker

SimonBates_2_220pixSimon Bates is Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia. P rior 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. 
About the author

Hazel-ChristieHazel Christie works in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She convenes the UG Course Organisers Network, of which this event was a part.


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