Two-Stage Exams Picture: Students writing an exam

Dion Durnford’s first year biology classes use ‘two-stage exams’ to turn traditional exam spaces into places of active learning. Durnford says the two-stage exams give his students immediate and targeted feedback through peer discussion that would not otherwise be possible in classes with 500 student enrolment figures.

In the two-stage exam model, students still begin by writing an independent test. However, after everyone has finished the individual portion of the exam, students then gather in groups of about four to answer the same questions again. This time they must complete the test together, with all students needing to agree on one multiple-choice answer.

“The room erupts in focused discussion; it forces students to engage with the material on their own, as opposed to readings or assignments which not everyone will do. It’s really a learning experience for everyone involved. For students who were less prepared, the two-stage exams are like tutoring sessions where they can learn where they went wrong. For students who are more prepared, it gives them a chance to explain a concept to others and reinforce the concepts they know.”

 To combat the initial student anxiety he received over grades and group work, Durnford says the two-stage exams are now structured to never decrease a student’s mark. The independent exam portion is also worth the majority of a student’s exam mark (88%). For students who do struggle with the group portion, he meets with them to discuss why.

Durnford says he generally sees students’ marks increase by 1-2%. However, beyond the potential to improve marks, two-stage exams also recognize the changing nature of higher education. “Biology instructors are realizing we need to take this approach; people are more willing to take risks in the classroom as they become engaged with pedagogical practices and new ideas."

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