Experimenting with Math Testing in Groups
A MiddleWeb Blog
A couple of months ago someone posted a comment on my Meaningful Math post, Do My Classroom Rules Help or Hurt Learning? and recommended group tests. He suggested putting students into groups of three and allowing the students to collaborate on a test.
Every student would work the test, but only one test from each group would be graded, therefore all the students in the group had to agree on every answer. (Shout out to Bill Hunt who suggested this; you can see the original comment here.)
I was interested in trying his suggestion as soon I read it. In January we experienced many class interruptions due to weather, assemblies, school trips and a bad flu season. This made my unit on exponential functions pretty choppy.
When it was time for the test, students were really apprehensive so I decided this would be a good opportunity to give a group test. I didn’t tell students until the day of the test. They found out when they came in and saw the desks grouped together in pods (in groups of four). Students came in and sat wherever they chose. I did not assign students to certain groups (as Bill Hunt did), although that is certainly an option.
I had never given a group test before and didn’t know what to expect. I gave the students the following instructions:
- students are only allowed to confer with the students in your group,
- every student must work every problem,
- and everyone in the group must agree on all answers.
- I will only grade one test from each group so when you staple your papers together, you should staple the one you want graded on top.
I was pretty adamant that if they didn’t follow all the instructions this experiment could be stopped and we could go back to individual testing. I emphasized that if I saw them dividing up problems to work – or if one person was doing all the problems – I would consider that cheating.
My Fears Going Into This
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was actually pretty nervous. I kept having this nightmare scenario run through my head where I would have to stop the test in the middle of the class and regroup (or de-group!). I think my biggest fear was that one student would do all the work, and the rest of the group members would just watch. I was also afraid the classroom would become loud and chaotic, and it would be hard for students to concentrate. Honestly, I had no idea how the students would respond.
What Actually Happened
From the beginning I was pleasantly surprised. As I walked around the room, I heard students talking in quiet tones. Most, if not all, of the students were working and involved in the process. The chaos that I had feared did not materialize. I have listed below what I consider to be the pros and cons of group testing after this first experiment.
Students were very careful to make sure their answers matched with everyone else in the group. When answers didn’t match, they had discussions about which answer was correct and why. How awesome is that! Some discussions actually got pretty intense, which from my standpoint is a good thing!
Students received practice defending their answer and explaining their thinking in a civil manner. I enjoyed listening to students patiently explaining to others in their group how they arrived at their conclusion. I also got to witness several a-ha moments when students were shown by classmates where their mistake was.
I think peer pressure was a positive influence in this case. Students wanted to be able to contribute. One student in fact said that he enjoyed the group testing but wished he could “have helped more.”
Several students who suffer from math anxiety and test taking anxiety specifically said that the group testing helped overcome much of their anxiety. In fact, several students thanked me afterward for allowing the group test, citing a reduction of test stress as a major benefit.
Some students in some groups did more work than others and knew the content better, but they received the same grade as others in their group. It was also possible that a few students copied the work of others. I tried to prevent that from happening by careful monitoring, but that’s not foolproof.
For more introverted students it’s conceivable this testing approach could be uncomfortable. (However, the anonymous written feedback from my students didn’t indicate that this was an issue.)
I was able to get a good picture of the groups’ understanding, but I didn’t get as clear a picture of individual understanding. I did learn a lot by listening to each group’s conversations, but you can only listen to one group at a time.
What did the students think about it?
The day after the group test I gave students a post-it note and asked them to discuss how they felt about group testing. The responses were anonymous and students gave some thoughtful answers. Students were overwhelmingly in favor of group testing. Some of the comments are listed below:
- “I liked it, it was nice having people to help you through it and we had a good system of everyone helping.”
- “I think we should take the test in groups again because it helps people understand what they messed up on and go back on those problems.”
I was worried that the stronger students would feel put upon, but that didn’t seem to happen. In fact, in instances where I could discern who wrote what, their feedback suggested that they were some of the strongest advocates for the group testing method.
I was skeptical about being able to get all thel students to buy in and participate fully. I thought I might do this one time and might not do it again.
But after witnessing it firsthand, I realized that as a teacher I prefer a scenario where a student is able to work every problem with the help of his group over a student failing the test individually. In fact, many students who usually struggle had much higher grades than they usually have. Full disclosure: the average grades for the group test were about 10 points higher than the average for the last test the students had taken.
On a personal note, I really enjoyed only grading a fraction of the tests. In a class of 28 I only had seven papers to grade. I was actually able to get all the tests graded before class the next day. The group format meant that the students didn’t make as many minor math errors, because they had three other people to check their work with.
I wouldn’t do this for every test. I need to see what concepts students have mastered, and that requires individual assessment. There are many circumstances where group testing is not appropriate.
However, under the right circumstances group testing can be a great tool. I think it’s critical that parameters and expectations are clearly explained and adhered to, and there is room for students to abuse the process. But that can be minimized. The engagement and cooperation I witnessed coupled with the positive effect on student morale made it worth it to me!