On the second last test of the year (just before the Christmas holidays) a student asked if they could write their test as a group. I jokingly said "Sure" and a student immediately replied "Really?". When I told my students I was just kidding they provided a lot of reasons why such a test would be a good idea, in the hopes of getting me to change my mind. I let them know that I would think about it for a bit and get back to them; possibly a strategy for delivering a delayed "No".
As I thought about it I had a lot of questions about logistics for this possible test. They included:
1. What would such a test look like? Surely it couldn't be a regular test that students worked on in a group.
2. How will the groups be determined? Self-assigned? Teacher assigned?
3. How many students should be in a group?
4. What happens if some group members aren't pulling their weight?
5. Do students hand in one test each or one test as a group? Do they get the same mark or different marks?
6. Is this a bad way to prepare students for University?
Some of these questions and their possible solutions occupied my thoughts for several days before I had the courage to go ahead with it. I figured that if things didn't work out I could always call it a test review and give a traditional test afterwards.
Here are the answers that I came up with to the above questions.
1. The test should be less knowledge based (although there were still some knowledge questions) and should be more heavily focused on thinking and problem solving. The knowledge would show up as part of the problem solving.
2. I decided to let students choose their own groups and as it turns out students tended to group themselves by ability level, which is probably how I would have grouped them.
3. I went with three students in a group. I felt that this would allow for some good discussions while not allowing anyone to sit back and do nothing.
4. This is not that different from any other type of group work (assignment, presentation, etc.). The difference is that here I was able to watch to see who contributed what. It would have been possible for me to assign different marks based on the participation, which I didn't do.
5. Students handed in one test and received the same mark.
6. Perhaps, but it was only one test. Besides, is my goal to prepare students for university or for life beyond university? I would guess that once out of school most of these students will do far more collaborative work than they will test writing. Shouldn't I be preparing them for that as well?
Here are some things that I observed:
- There was no anxiety as students entered the class.
- There were some great discussions happening the entire time
- There was some learning going on during the test. Students who didn't understand didn't just let their group do the work, they were trying to understand it.
- There were no questions that were left blank.
- Students seemed to be enjoying the test.
- Students reported that the time just flew by.
- We had a modified schedule the day of the test. Our class was shorter than normal but I told the class that they were welcome to stay into lunch if they wanted to. Most stayed for the period and most of lunch. I was amazed that nobody just wanted to leave.
Here are a few comments that I heard during the test:
- After some discussion with the group..."I think I understand this now"
- S1:"That works!" S2: "Yeah it does." S3: "We've got it!"
- "YES! That's it."
- "I love this test. It's great to communicate."
- A student to me: "Can you tell me...?" Me:
S:"Maybe I'll ask my group."
The test was a big hit among students. They said afterwards that they felt less stressed, they really enjoyed bouncing ideas off one another and wished that all tests could be done in the same way. From my point of view it was a great experience as well. Students were totally immersed in the work, there were lots of great discussions and the atmosphere in the class was very pleasant. It almost felt like a coffee shop, a productive coffee shop.
How did the students do? I would say that they performed at about the same level they normally would despite the test being more challenging than a typical test I would give. My hope is that by the end of the test they came away knowing more than had they written a regular test. I didn't measure this but I suppose a regular test after the fact might have provided some insight.
This is certainly something that I will try again.