With the end of the semester looming, how often have you begun class wondering where the students have gone? Does it seem like the first day of class had every seat filled, but now there are a lot more seats open? That used to be my experience, but I have found that providing a group final at the end of the semester has been a game-changer for student motivation. Even at the end of the semester, students attend class, engage with the material, and help their groupmates master difficult concepts to earn the right to participate in the group final.
In addition to enhancing motivation across the semester, group final exams offer two key learning opportunities: (1) engaging in deeper learning about the course content and (2) practicing transferrable workplace skills. First, group final exams provide opportunities for students to test their knowledge of challenging course concepts as they justify their answer choices and evaluate peers’ suggested answers against their own understanding to reach an agreement. Second, working toward consensus allows students to practice workplace skills that are in high demand by employers, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication (Finley, 2021).
The group final in my course consists of two parts: an individual assessment and a group assessment. First, students take the final exam on their own within 60 to 75 minutes. They receive no feedback on their performance after the individual exam. Once all individual exams are submitted, students convene in their semester-long groups throughout the classroom to complete the group portion of the exam. During this portion, groups must reach a consensus answer for each question; in other words, each student must propose an answer and provide justification for it, then the group must agree on what their single answer should be. Because students have already taken the exam once individually, they usually complete the group portion in 25 to 30 minutes. The independent final exam score contributes to 70 percent of the student’s final exam score, while the group exam score contributes 30 percent.
In my class, having the opportunity to take the group final is a privilege that is available to all students who meet the requirements. For example, I value highly interactive, collaborative classroom environments in which groups of three to four students teach each other in groups and work to solve complex problems; thus, I assign students to permanent groups at the beginning of the semester so they develop supportive and collaborative relationships with their group members through preparation for group activities. Students reflect these values and meet the eligibility criteria by attending class, bringing the appropriate assignments for the day, and investing in group members’ success by asking questions, teaching each other, and working to develop consensus answers for their assignments. When developing your own eligibility criteria, ponder the type of class environment you want to develop during the semester, and choose criteria that will contribute to building that class atmosphere. I recommend explaining these criteria to the students early in the semester and frequently reminding students about them.
About two weeks before the semester ends, my students and I evaluate group performance on the criteria above. First, students individually evaluate each other. Next, groups confer and decide whether anyone in their group should be removed prior to the group final exam. If they decide to remove a group member, they must use the class criteria to justify the decision to me. If I approve the group’s decision, it is the group’s responsibility to inform the removed group member. During this stage, it is also possible for an individual to opt out of the group final exam. Finally, student eligibility for the group final exam must be determined before the last day of class so that students can prepare appropriately as an individual and with their groups. Ineligible students complete the individual exam only, which counts for 100 percent of their final exam score.
Among my students, feedback on group final exams has been overwhelmingly positive, and comments frequently address positive impacts on motivation, such as the following:
- Increased motivation to persist until the end of the semester to take the group final exam
- Decreased exam-related anxiety, which increases final exam performance
- Increased engagement in studying because they know others depend on them
- Increased optimism because students perceive they can improve a lower independent score
- Appreciation for the opportunity to correct misconceptions while they work on the group final
While students complete the group exam, the classroom brims with their synergistic and collaborative energy. They smile and sometimes laugh, which I find rewarding because I think learning should be enjoyable.
From my experience offering the group exam opportunity for eight years, here is some advice to ensure that the process goes well for you:
- Let students know about the group opportunity final and the criteria for participating in it early in the semester. Usually, students respond by quickly adopting the eligibility criteria behavior, which promotes a positive classroom environment and maintains momentum as the semester draws to a close.
- Provide regular reminders about the group final exam opportunity and the eligibility criteria.
- Communicate eligibility for the group final exam before the last day of class.
- Give groups the power to remove nonparticipating members. Some groups may have only one person truly striving to master the material. If they want to take the final by themselves, let them.
- Start the assessment process on time. Prior to the final, tell the students to not be late for the final. All students are given the same amount of time to complete the individual portion, independent of the time they arrive. You cannot hold the final for a person who shows up late. You will run short on time.
- Ask students to use the restroom prior to starting the final examination process. Indicate that they will not be able to use the restroom between the individual and group final. (Yes, I say this to students because I have had students ask to leave between the two exams.)
I will always offer the group final opportunity to students. It changes the assessment process from a high-stakes stressful nightmare to a positive learning experience. As an educator, I focus on weaving the theme of failure can be an effective teacher throughout the course. Offering students a second chance to demonstrate proficiency on the final shows them that they can learn from their mistakes and grow. Of all the lessons I want students to take away from my class, this is the most important one for life.
Finley, A. (2021). How college contributes to workforce success: Employer views on what matters most. Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://dgmg81phhvh63.cloudfront.net/content/user-photos/Research/PDFs/AACUEmployerReport2021.pdf
Heather Wilson-Ashworth, PhD, is a professor of biology at Utah Valley University. Her research interests include studying the issues influencing student success, retention, and motivation, emphasizing understanding the complexities that underrepresented students face in STEM. She is the recipient of multiple teaching awards.