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Group exam offers opportunity
for learning as well as assessment
March 9, 1998

There are 40 minutes to go in Tom Terry's 8 a.m. class. Heads are bowed. The only noise is the hushed rustle of papers. It's a familiar scene at exam time.

Terry counts down the last few minutes, then collects the answer sheets from the 140 students seated in rows in the lecture halls.

Just minutes later, he's handing out another answer sheet - this one a different color. His students stand and stretch, then rearrange themselves from the formal pattern of alternate seats into informal clusters of three or four - and Terry asks them to start the exam all over again.

The atmosphere is very different now. The room is abuzz with spirited dialogue, as the students go over the same multiple choice questions and try to reach consensus on answers from the group. Hands are gesturing, there's even laughter. "That's just blown my theory to hell," goes one snatch of conversations.

"It probably doesn't get any more animated than that in a college classroom," Terry says.

Terry, a professor of molecular and cell biology, has offered the group exam format in his Microbiology 229 class each semester for the past two years.

"Every teacher has a bag of tricks that they accumulate over time, some of them are technology, and some are just plain pedagogy. This is a real chance to see learning going on, even in an exam," he says.

"There's a tendency to think of an exam as an assessment tool. It should be not just an assessment tool but a learning tool as well. The group exam serves both functions, so students know where they stand but learn at the same time."

The students are already familiar with the other members of their group. They've been working in the same clusters during the semester. Each bears the name of a virus or bacteria - there's salmonella and staphylococcus aureus, for example - and the group can earn extra credit for writing "three intelligent facts" about the organism on the back of their answer sheet.

By the end of the session, most students appear satisfied with the experience.

"The group exam is good because I don't usually go over my exams," says Tina Stevens, a junior majoring in molecular and cell biology. "Now I know the questions I got wrong and I know what the answers are. I also have a good chance to get an increase in my points."

After class, Terry sits down with a student management team, a group of five volunteers who meet once a week to give him feedback on the course. Although the class will take exams in this format three times in the semester, today's was the first. The response is enthusiastic.

"The cool thing is the closure you get with this group thing," says Umar Haque, a molecular and cell biology major in his junior year. "If not I would walk out with questions in my mind: 'Was I right about this one?' We got a couple of answers in the group that I didn't get on my own."

Mike Morrison, a senior majoring in molecular and cell biology, adds that he found the experience useful even for the answers he got right. "When we went over the answers, it was not just what the answer is but why. If another person is not quite sure, you try to explain. Once you tell the person what the answer is and why, it's in your brain for ever and you know it."

The students are now on their way to the next class, but for Terry the exam is far from done. After grading both individual and group answer sheets, he will enter all the data on a spread sheet and sort the scores by group. He'll then compare each group score with the score of the highest ranked individual in the group, and add the difference - up to a maximum of five points - to the score of each member.

Terry says the group almost always scores higher than the individuals. Most groups score 90 or above. "I have had individuals with scores no higher than 70 get 95 on a group score," he says. "About 10 percent of the time, the group score is lower ... but I never subtract points."

Terry points out that the group exam is "not an original creation." It's part of a broad movement toward increased team work and education that's centered on learning. He picked up this particular approach to exams at a teaching conference. "Somebody mentioned the idea and I brought it to UConn."

Lauren Malewski, a sophomore majoring in science education who is a member of his student management team responds, "I'm glad you did."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu