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As, for, of… How to effectively assess collaborative learning

Vjera Miović, Teacher at Silverthorn CI, OAPT Newsletter Volunteer

Imagine a test (and yes, it’s for marks!) during which everyone gets to see everyone else’s work, students can change, correct and update their product for a better mark, they consult each other and talk freely, and they even google information they need to solve a problem. What would you think of this assessment method if it was a physics class, or a math class? Wouldn’t that be considered cheating? And yet, my grade 9 tech students get evaluated exclusively this way.

127-TIJ houses

This semester I taught a grade 9 Exploring Technologies course (TIJ1O). The course work is solely based on collaborative, project-based learning. The course provides an introduction to the engineering design process, with students completing progressively more complex projects. Key principles of collaborative learning are incorporated and heavily relied on in this course. Formative assessment happens daily, both by the teacher and the students themselves as they monitor their own progress and correct mistakes as needed. Every project is evaluated based on an individual, written component, as well as a group component. I wondered whether I could implement this kind of collaborative assessment into my academic courses.

The benefits of collaborative learning have been well documented (Bloom, 2009). They include deeper understanding of concepts, higher motivation in class, and better retention of course material. However, the assessment in collaborative learning environments in most classrooms is still based on traditional, individual tests.

I set off exploring research in collaborative assessment to learn how I can make assessment of learning be a part of students’ learning in core courses, such as math and science (transforming assessment of learning into assessment as learning). My starting point was the Master-level course in Collaborative Learning I took in 2016 at OISE, University of Toronto. More recently, I looked at available education research on the topic and explored my own and other teachers’ experience in the classroom. I was surprised to find that educational research papers on cooperative assessment were scarce. Most are anecdotal (“this is how I do it in my classroom”), scattered across subject fields and age groups. This article points to available research and adds my trial of collaborative assessment in a grade-10 math class to the anecdotal evidence.

What is collaborative learning?
Psychologists David and Roger Johnson have been investigating cooperative learning since the 1960s, following the ideas about cooperation and competition developed by American social psychologist (and their mentor) Morton Deutsch in the 1940s. According to them, collaborative learning (CL) is the instructional use of small groups where students work together to maximise their own and each other’s learning (Johnson and Johnson, 2005). Different researchers and educators use the terms “cooperative” and “collaborative” interchangeably, or separately with differing variations in meaning. For simplicity and consistency, I will use ‘collaborative’ learning throughout this article

The five principles of collaborative learning as outlined in Johnson & Johnson (2005) are:
  • Positive interdependence, indicating that one cannot succeed unless everyone in the group is successful. Each member’s efforts benefit all other group members.
  • Promotive interaction, where members of CL groups share resources, encourage and help each other, creating both an academic and a personal support system.
  • Individual and group accountability, where the group is accountable for achieving its goals, and each member is accountable for contributing their share.
  • Group processing, which gets group members to discuss and analyse how well they perform as a group. Continuous improvement happens when groups engage in meta-cognition and carefully self-analyse their progress.
  • Social skills, which are learnt as they perform required academic tasks, students improve their communication skills, conflict resolution, developing trust and respect. These interpersonal skills are important for the long-term success of group learning.
Collaborative Testing
Research points to the advantages of collaborative testing, such as reduced testing anxiety, reduced math anxiety, and improved performance on assessments (Billings, 2017; Lusk and Conklin, 2003). Some studies show individuals demonstrating more retention of knowledge after collaborative testing (Cortright et al., 2003; Stearns, 1996). One study (Leight et al, 2012) found no higher retention of knowledge after collaborative testing. However, even when learning happens in collaborative group environments, educators often fall back to traditional testing methods.

Some criticisms of collaborative testing include a perceived lack of individual accountability and a perceived benefit only for weaker students, where knowledge is simply propagated from stronger to weaker students during collaborative testing. Jang et al (2017) address these issues in large university physics courses at Harvard University. The individual accountability is present in having both individual and collaborative components to the tests. Their study shows that both weaker and stronger students improved their marks after collaborative tests, which is consistent with earlier findings from Giuliodori et al. (2008). More than half of the groups in the Harvard study who did not have the correct answer at the start of the collaborative part of the test arrived at the correct answer by iterative collaboration, and even the stronger students benefited and improved their grade.

Ways to use collaborative testing in the classroom
If you want to incorporate collaborative testing in your classroom, you can start with low-stakes quizzes, then progress to chapter and unit tests, and even exams if the school administration finds it acceptable.

Quizzes can be done in pairs, where students can talk to their partner and submit one quiz per pair. Larger tests can have a separate individual component, followed by the collaborative component, for a differently weighted group mark. Or there could be a collaborative effort first, on conceptual problems with no given/required data (and no marks), followed by the individual test on the same problems, this time for full solutions using quantities that need to be computed using the given data, where students keep the notes they had written during the collaborative non-graded part.

A number of other OAPT teachers are using collaborative assessments. At the 2019 OAPT Conference Andrea McPhee presented how multiple choice quizzes can be done collaboratively and iteratively. As students are presented with conceptual questions, they discuss answers in groups and decide collaboratively on the best one, with the option of multiple attempts at an answer if incorrect on the first try. Chris Meyer has detailed his efforts on group testing in a previous OAPT newsletter article.

How I used collaborative testing
After realising how vastly different and more stressful evaluations are for my grade 10 enriched math class compared to the grade 9 tech class, I decided to give a collaborative chapter test on a topic most grade 10 math students find quite challenging — factoring quadratic expressions. The basic knowledge and communication were tested individually, followed by application questions (‘word problem’ scenarios) in the collaborative part of the test. The collaborative test questions were designed to promote higher order critical and analytic thinking skills, rather than pure procedural recall of factoring polynomials. The following, is an example of one of the collaborative questions;

127-Diver problem

The collaborative testing was done in groups of 4 students, with the instructions that everyone in the group should at least attempt to solve each problem, before comparing and discussing answers within the group. The group was asked to decide whose test sheet they wanted to submit for marks, as that mark would be given to the whole group. All students were given the option to submit their work for individual marking if they wished.

During the collaborative test, as I walked around the classroom, there was an abundance of rich, quiet discussion of the problems among students. All students appeared more relaxed, and everyone was focused on the task at hand, eager to contribute to the group efforts. If a student got stuck and tried to ask me for help, I redirected them back to their group, encouraging group accountability and promotive interaction. It was an overall positive atmosphere, with students seemingly happy to accept more challenging questions while collaborating.

The day after the test, I conducted an anonymous post-test survey to get feedback on the collaborative testing process. Most comments were positive:
  • “It was hard, but interesting”, “Fun”, “I liked collaborating”
  • “Challenging but manageable because we collaborated” [emphasis in italics mine]
  • “I discovered new ways to solve problems”
  • “Everyone’s different approach to solving problems helps everyone see different views”
Only one student (who did not choose to submit their test individually) wrote that “tests should be done individually” and said that, even though they learned new things during the test, “collaborative test is a bad way to evaluate a student’s knowledge”. Another student, who had an overall positive collaborative testing experience, was worried about weaker students “latching on” the stronger students’ knowledge.

Most of the students’ marks on the collaborative test were about the same as their usual marks in the same categories on previous tests. A few students did poorly compared to their overall marks in the course, but told me personally that the test made their “brains work hard” and that the process was fun regardless. It is hard to make conclusions on the effectiveness of this one collaborative test based solely on marks.

Community of educators using collaborative testing
I would like to create a group of Ontario teachers in math, science and/or physics who use, or would like to use, collaborative testing in their courses. From the discussions before and during the 2019 OAPT conference, I know that there are a growing number of physics teachers using collaborative testing in a variety of ways. My goal is to form a group of teachers willing to get together and implement a combined, structured way of collaborative testing, in order to measure the effectiveness of the method. We could meet a few times during the school year, online or in person, share our tests, and post-test findings and together look for ways to improve. In essence, we would embody the principles of collaborative learning. Feel free to email me if interested in joining this group.

  • Billings, D. M. (2017). Collaborative testing. Journal of continuing nursing education, 48(7), 302-303. doi: 10.3928/00220124-20170616-06
  • Bloom, D. (2009). Collaborative test taking: benefits for learning and retention. College Teaching, 57(4), 216-220.
  • Cortright, R. N., Collis H. L., Rodenbaugh D. W. and DiCarlo S. E. (2003). Student retention of course content is improved by collaborative-group testing. Advances in Physiology Education, 27, 102-108. doi: 10.1152/advan.00041.2002.
  • Giuliodori, M. J, Lujan H. L, DiCarlo S. E. (2008). Collaborative group testing benefits high- and low-performing students. Advances in Physiology Education, 32, 274–278. doi:10.1152/advan.00101.2007
  • Jang, Lasry, Miller and Mazur (2017). Collaborative exams: cheating? Or learning? American Journal of Physics, 85(3), 223-227. http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.4974744
  • Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2005). New developments in social interdependence theory. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 131(4), 285-358.
  • Leight H., Saunders C., Calkins R. and Withers M. (2012). Collaborative testing improves performance but not content retention in large-enrollment introductory biology class. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 11, 392-401. doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-04-0048
  • Lusk, M. and Conklin, L. (2003). Collaborative testing to promote learning. Journal of Nursing Education, 42(3), 121-124. doi: 10.3928/0148-4834-20030301-07
  • Stearns, S. A. (1996). Collaborative exams as learning tools. College Teaching, 44(3), 142-147. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.1996.9925564

Editor’s Note: Vjera presented this topic at the 2019 OAPT Conference
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