Student Voice

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.


[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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