Paired Assessments – Creating a Better Exam

I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I hate tests. It's not just that traditional exams fail to simulate a real life, collaborative working environment in which one can consult outside resources, it's so much more than that. Traditional exams actually discourage students from developing necessary life skills.  With traditional exams, memorization is prioritized over resourcefulness and individual performance is prioritized over accountability and collaboration.

Despite my strong opinions, over the course of my teaching career and out of pressure to have my students perform well on the State or College Board standardized exams, I have implemented the whole gamut of test preparation strategies and intensities. That my students are accountable to an essentially arbitrary end-of-year examination is something I have just had to accept as a fact of life. My supervisors understand this and more importantly, my students and their parents understand this. Without a massive shift in education, in one academic year I cannot choose to ignore the exam track and change the thinking of my students. I am forced to work with it.

In 2014 I learned about a different type of assessment that dampened much of my revulsion about traditional exams. The exam protocol is called a group assessment and you can read about them here. To summarize, I learned that the whole testing process can be revised in such a way that I can achieve the goals of a traditional exam while also achieving the goals that I consider to be more important: collaboration and revision. Group assessments are the first and (so far) only successful collaborative exam protocol that I had encountered, but they were also an inspiration. I was convinced if I was thoughtful and a little creative I could perhaps design another useful testing protocol.

A colleague (@NissaniMath) and I have developed a new exam protocol, which I am calling "Paired Assessments". This week we co-designed our first one, so to be clear: it is still a work in progress. I am very excited about the details. At its core, it is designed to have students work independently at the beginning and then undergo a revision process with a peer. Here is how it works:

  1. In advance of the day of the exam, students are assigned a partner of similar performance level. The students are told what content will be on the exam, how the exam is different from other exams, and are encouraged to study together (in this way, students are motivated to study together and not just alone.)
  2. On the day of the exam, students are seated in rows and the room is divided into two sections: partner A students and partner B students.
  3. Partner A students are given a single question which may or may not be divided into parts. Partner B students are given a different question, divided similarly. The content on the two questions should be from the same unit, but distinct. Every student is issued a black, red and blue pen.
  4. The exam is completed in three steps. Here are the instructions at the top of the paper describing the first step:

INSTRUCTIONS: This assessment is to be completed in three steps. In all three steps, you may cross out any work that you believe is incorrect as long as the original work is still readable. The teacher should be able to read all work, even incorrect work:

STEP 1: PARTNER A

Complete the following instructions using a BLACK pen. Be as neat as you can. Double space. ONLY work in black pen is graded for this portion and counts as 60% of Partner A’s grade.


5. After 20 minutes, papers are exchanged between partners. Partner A now has partner B's work and vice-versa. For five to eight minutes, students are given time to read, review and mark their partner's work. These are the instructions at the top of partner A's paper describing the second step:


STEP 2: PARTNER B

Review all of partner A’s work. Write revisions/completions using RED pen. Write a check mark next to correct work, circle or write questions next to incorrect work. You may not communicate with your partner at this time, but you are encouraged to write questions in RED pen. ONLY work in red pen is graded for this portion and counts as 20% of Partner B’s grade.


6. After 5 to 8 minutes, all the desks in the room are moved so students may now sit with their partners. For the next 15 minutes, students make final revisions. These are the instructions at the top of partner A's paper describing the third step:


STEP 3: PARTNERS A & B (together)

Sit with your partner at this time. Using BLUE pen, establish your final answer. You may cross out, rewrite or circle whatever you want, as long as it is still readable. ONLY work in blue pen is graded for this portion and counts as 20% of BOTH Partner A and B’s grade.


7. This is the end of the exam. Grading is done accordingly:

Weight Point rewarded Point lost
60% correct answer written in black incorrect answer written in black
20%

red checkmark next to correct work

red circle around or question next to incorrect work

red circle around correct work

red checkmark next to incorrect work

20%

blue checkmark next to correct work

blue circle around incorrect work

blue correction made to incorrect work

blue checkmark next to incorrect work

blue circle around incorrect work

missing or incorrect answer next to incorrect work

 

Note that during step 2, the shortest step, a student need not figure out the answer, only circle or question parts he or she thinks is wrong.

There are some interesting implications from this grading. First, if a student does his or her own work entirely correct, but does not work collaboratively, the maximum grade he or she can receive is a 70%. (60% for step 1, 10% for step 3, assuming the partner's work is entirely incorrect and no effort is made to fix it.) If, on the other hand a student depends entirely on his or her partner and does nothing on his or her own, the maximum grade is a 40%. (20% for part 2 assuming the student puts a red check next to all of his or her partner's work and 20% for part 3 assuming the partner does all the work.) Furthermore, students are motivated to prepare each other because the timing of the test emphasizes the individual work. If the students depend on completing the work during the collaborative time in step 3, it is unlikely the pair can finish the assessment within 15 minutes to review both parts. Most of the work needs to be done before the students move to work together.

Ultimately, this is a work in progress and I will certainly update this post after I have implemented the first paired assessment. My intention in writing is to spread an idea and receive feedback. You can comment directly on this blog or tag/message me on Twitter, @neverbenbetter.