2-Stage Examinations

By Andrew Carlin

Student engagement is imperative in ensuring students maximise their learning while in education. While methods of active learning are often considered to improve engagement (flipped classrooms, quectures, in-lecture polling etc.), cooperative learning is also effective. Students on the same course share similar goals. Group work can often help students realise their aligned goals and their interdependence on each other to improve; collaborative work, peer-to-peer feedback and peer-to-peer assessment are all examples of students working and learning together. However, this can be negative, particularly in competitive learning environments or courses which by nature result in individualistic behaviours. Nevertheless, the positives are considered to outweigh the negatives. A means by which to maximise the potential of student collaboration and their positive interdependence, while improving student engagement, sense of community and knowledge retention, is 2-stage examinations. A 2-stage examination comprises of an individual exam followed by a group exam.

The fundamental idea is that by fostering debate and the exchange of ideas in the second part of the exam, students can learn from their peers and ultimately improve their learning. Collaboration should overcome any knowledge gaps and student anxieties, by utilising a pool of knowledge and distributing the pressure/cognitive load. This also provides instantaneous feedback, where students can learn from their mistakes via their peers, facilitating retention and showing the positive effects of their interdependence.

2-stage examinations have been assessed by multiple authors, however, one of the most effective methodologies reported implements the following strategy:

  • Conduct a closed-book individual examination
  • Immediately after handing in scripts, transition into predetermined groups
  • Issue a new script with a sub-set of questions from the individual examination

Imperative to the effectiveness of this methodology is the design of the exercise. The following guidelines should assist in designing the most productive strategy:

  • Group design: students are unaware of their groups ahead of the exam - this could be seen to be both positive and negative for student anxiety. However, this reduces the risk of students meeting before the exam and stressing together, or stressing over particular group mates ahead of time
  • Group design: each group had at least 1 student from the top 40% of the cohort, and there is additional potential to use common psychological tests to generate balanced groups
  • Exam length: the referenced study had a ratio of 2:1 for the length of time for the individual to group exams, however, some students have complained they did not have enough time

From the student’s perspective, this methodology has generally been reported to have a highly positive impact on their learning. Students stated that:

  • It was more useful for their learning
  • It was less stressful than a normal examination
  • Their groups worked together in a mostly equal and fairway
  • They came to a consensus smoothly
  • There was seldom any asymmetrical group dynamics or major disagreements

Of course, this is not consistent across the board and some students reported the situation to be more stressful, incidents of ‘free-riding’ and more generally a preference for the traditional method.

The most important caveat is the legality of this approach, in classes that contribute to the final award of a qualification. Considering this, this methodology is recommended for early year classes in which the grade may not contribute to the final degree award. Additionally, the learning in these stages is foundational for all subsequent studies and so the reported benefits of improved retention may be more effective in the long term, in addition to creating a sense of community amongst the students and showing the positive effects of collaboration at the early stages.


Q: How do educators ensure fairness in group exams, particularly in addressing the issue of 'free-riding' where some students may contribute less but benefit from the group's effort?

A: Educators can ensure fairness in group exams by implementing various strategies that encourage equal participation and accountability among all group members. One approach is to design the assessment so that each student's contribution is identifiable and can be individually assessed, even within a group context. This could involve assigning specific roles or sections of the project to each student and incorporating peer assessment where students evaluate each other's contributions. Incorporating student voice in this process is crucial, as it provides insights into group dynamics and individual efforts from the perspective of the students themselves. Feedback mechanisms can also be put in place where students can confidentially report instances of 'free-riding' to the educators, who can then address these issues directly. Regular reflection sessions can be held to discuss group work progress, challenges, and strategies for improvement, ensuring that all students are engaged and contributing to their group's efforts.

Q: What specific criteria or psychological tests are used to create balanced groups, and how is the effectiveness of these criteria measured?

A: When creating balanced groups for group exams or projects, educators may use a variety of criteria and psychological tests. These can include measures of cognitive abilities, personality traits (such as the Big Five personality traits), student needs, and even previous academic performance to ensure a diverse mix of skills and perspectives within each group. The effectiveness of these criteria is often measured through the analysis of group performance outcomes, student feedback, and the observation of group dynamics throughout the project or exam process. Student voice plays a significant role in evaluating the effectiveness of group compositions, as students can provide valuable feedback on their experiences within the group, including whether the group felt balanced and if they were able to work well together. This feedback helps educators to refine their group formation strategies over time, aiming to create more effective and harmonious groups in future iterations of the exercise.

Q: How is student feedback on the 2-stage examination process collected and used to improve the methodology?

A: Student feedback on the 2-stage examination process is typically collected through surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews, allowing students to share their experiences, perceptions, and suggestions for improvement. This feedback is crucial for understanding the impact of the examination format on student learning, engagement, and stress levels. Educators analyse the feedback to identify patterns, strengths, and areas for improvement in the examination process. Incorporating student voice in this way ensures that the methodology is continuously refined based on direct input from those who experience it firsthand. Changes may be made to group formation practices, the balance between individual and group exam components, or the support provided to students during the preparation and examination phases. By actively engaging with student feedback, educators can enhance the effectiveness and fairness of the 2-stage examination process, ensuring it meets the educational needs and preferences of their students.


[Source Paper] Levy, Dan, Svoronos, Theodore, and Klinger, Mae. "Two-stage Examinations: Can Examinations Be More Formative Experiences?" Active Learning in Higher Education (2018).
DOI: 10.1177/146978741880166

[1] Herrmann, Kim J. "The Impact of Cooperative Learning on Student Engagement: Results from an Intervention." Active Learning in Higher Education 14.3 (2013).
DOI: 10.1177/1469787413498035

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