As I type this, my students are in the last stage of my grand experiment with a collaborative exam. I wrote about this desire of mine a year and half ago here. Despite some negative comments on that post, I wasn't dissuaded. I still think there's value in having students work collaboratively, in particular because in the real world, much of what we do is in consultation with others (in various forms and to various extents, of course).
In that last post about the topic, I threw around a couple of ideas on how to make this work but wasn't happy with them. I solved that problem this past winter, when I came up with the idea that I'm currently subjecting my students to.
This experiment is for my first year constitutional law course. Their exam is today, but yesterday, 24 hours before their exam, I released to them the two big fact-pattern/issue-spotter questions on the exam. They were told that they could work on those questions before the exam -- alone or with any other current student(s) in the course. However, when they get to the exam, they can bring in no written materials whatsoever. The same two questions will be on the exam, so they'll have to produce an answer on their own, albeit after having had the opportunity to work on the questions for the past day.
I did not release the entire exam to them, however. The two questions that they received yesterday are worth 198 of the exam's 264 points (out of 400 points overall for the course - I have other graded components). There are also three short answer questions on the exam, each worth 22 points. They entered the exam this morning without having seen those questions (though they were told in detail the general type of question I'm asking (the same for all three)).
So, in essence, for the bulk of the exam, they will have had the opportunity to work on it beforehand, in groups if they want to. However, they have to come into the exam and produce on their own. I'm pretty happy with this solution, as it captures collaboration but with the goal that the students have their own individual understanding of the material. Because that is what they have to write up, their own individual understanding of the material, that is what I will be assessing.
Of course, as with any exam format, I'm under no illusion that this is a perfect solution. In fact, I've told them from day one that this is an experiment. I've laid out my reasons for them so they understand what I'm doing, and I've also told them what I see as the downsides. As I usually find as a professor, with this level of transparency, I've had virtually no pushback.
What are the downsides I see? Many:
1) It may flatten the curve. With many people working together, the quality of the answers should (hopefully!) go up, which could flatten the curve. But, I'm ok with that for two reasons. First, it provides more opportunity for learning the material, which is a good thing. Second, I think there will still (always) be significant variation in understanding the material, parsing the facts and law, and writing it up.
2) Groupwork runs serious risks. I told them on day 1 about this plan so they knew throughout the semester that they had to think about whether they wanted to work in a group, and if so, with whom. But even so, there's the risk that someone will be pressured to be in a group with friends that might not be the best people to work with; that someone who knows the material but is less confident will be convinced of the wrong answer by people in the group; that someone might sabotage a group by knowingly giving wrong information; that a student who does little work will free-ride, etc. I acknowledge these are risks, but at the same time, I'm not convinced they're any riskier with this structure than with study groups. And, ultimately, someone can choose to work alone for the 24 hours beforehand.
3) Closed-book format. The only way I could think to do it this way was, after the 24 hour collaboration period, to give a closed-book in-class exam, something I've never done before (my exams are always open-everything). Otherwise, a student could bring in a pre-written answer. After all, even if I restricted what they could bring into the exam to just the casebook and supplement, what would stop them from writing their answer in the margins? So, the only way this works is by having a closed book exam, but I don't like what that does. It rewards those who are better memorizers, not necessarily those who understand the material better. To me, this is the biggest downside that if I could figure out how to cure in the future, I would be very happy. If there's a way I could provide them with an electronic copy of the casebook just for the exam that they could use on their computer with the exam software, that would be a step in the right direction.
There are others, but these are the most significant downsides I see. When I thought and talked it through (and I talked it through with everyone I could get within earshot of in December!), though, I figured it was worth a try.
Next week, I'll have a follow-up post about some ways I'm going to evaluate whether this "worked" or not, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this experiment.