COLLABORATIVE TESTING – A different type of learning experience!

The test – the time honored form of assessment that is used (and sometimes overused) in classes across the globe. There’s no surprise that we use tests to get a gauge for students’ understanding of content and ability to analyze information, images, maps, and more skill based abilities.  Is there a way that we can also use tests to increase discussion and engagement with content, offer a challenging method of teamwork, and even make a test “fun”?  Absolutely – by having your students work together on a collaborative test.

Collaborative tests aren’t necessarily a new innovation in assessment, as research has been conducted regarding the benefits of such assessment formats.  Much of the literature pertains to the college level, and the results differ slightly as to the benefits of the practice.  However. classroom experience over the last four years demonstrates that a collaborative test can offer an experience that increases student engagement, collaboration, and understanding. The experience can also offer less anxiety concerning testing and learning, even when the experience itself is “stressful.”

One more note for our rationale on this approach – for the past four years, the Civil War Challenge takes place on the last day of school before Winter Break.  It is already an anxious time for students (especially secondary students) as teachers in all classes are trying to get that final test or score into the grade book.  We have found that students still take the collaborative test seriously, but appreciate the environment that they don’t need to know and memorize everything –  and we appreciate this perspective as well, because we agree!

In our American Studies course, we (the awesome Laurie Walczak and very basic me) have used a Civil War Challenge to close our interdisciplinary unit.  I utilized an individual Civil War test prior to teaching a combined curriculum, and I personally feel this format is a better learning experience for my young historians. The challenge consists of a combination of traditional test items (multiple choice, short answer questions, map identification and analysis) with more interactive and collaborative thinking exercises (vocabulary tangrams, making connections with dominos). The experience moves progressively, as groups receive the test items one at a time in a 70 minute period, giving the test a feeling of a game or breakout.  Plus, offering feedback is much more manageable, and students can actually find out their success as the challenge progresses.  We make instant marks and comments and offer them to the groups.  It’s a great motivator for students to hear that they aced a section while they are still working on other parts … and an even great motivator when they hear they need to pick up the pace!

We created the groups, based on students schedules and abilities. Similar to any test in our class, students are given a review guide ahead of time and encouraged to collaborate through google docs or other formats.  Our students report that they use group chats as well.

As the challenge progresses, students enter into deeper discussion about the content.  It’s refreshing to see a small cadre of students dig into a multiple choice question and discuss the options of each.  When the test item requires evaluation (in this case, the most important turning points of the war), student discussion goes beyond what an individual will do alone.  The dialogue that we saw and heard demonstrated deep thinking about many of the topics, as students were stretched to go beyond lower level thinking. As for test scores, all but one team (out of 24) hit the overall targets for the challenge.  Fortunately, members of that team can either individually or collaboratively reassess, per our class policy.

We ask students to provide a self assessment of their own preparation as well as the collaboration and contribution of their group mates (before and during the challenge). In addition, we ask for their opinions of the experience.  In our four years, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  This year, students remarked:

  • I like collaborating because we can build on each other’s ideas.
  • It was good to learn while taking the test.
  • It was fun and kept you on your toes.
  • It was harder than a normal test, but more fun to collaborate.=
  • I actually enjoyed the test.
  • I love doing it together – it was more of an activity than a test.
  • The pressure was scary yet fun too.
  • It’s good to have multiple minds helping everyone with their work.
  • I love it – as long as you study and your group studies.
  • We all hd different strengths and contributed to success.
  • There was less pressure to cram and more about general understanding.

Many students commented how the test was less stressful, while a few felt the pace added to the stress of the test taking – but made it fun at the same time. Only 2 out of 90 students remarked that they would rather take an individual test.

Obviously, some students will not contribute as much as others and ride along.  To be honest, this doesn’t bother me very much, for a few reasons.  First, our goal is discussion and learning, not pushing for a grade.  The test environment gives the kids more of an impetus to have a serious academic discussion, and anyone involved will learn.  We also monitor the groups and encourage/prod/cajole the few that are not as engaged.  In addition, we use other formative and summative assessments to gauge their learning, including original poetry, a vocabulary assessment, a Civil War sensory figure and larger Civil War Turning Points project. Also, in our strong desire to eliminate the concern over letter grades, the challenge doesn’t have a huge bearing on a semester grade (but we don’t let the students know that!)

So, if the topic, timing, and class are right, I encourage you to give a collaborative assessment a whirl.  If our students’ performance and feedback is any indication, you will be offering an exciting learning experience!


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