Two-stage Exams

What is it?

The two-stage exam is commonly associated with STEM subjects, particularly Physics, due to its origins in the physics department at the University of British Columbia. They have been publicised by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Professor Carl Weiman.

In a two-stage exam, students take an exam individually, and then work in small groups to answer the exam questions again. Both parts are graded, with the individual weighted much highly, and an algorithm applied to combine both grades.

The two-stage exam retains a key traditional summative assessment that most tutors and students are familiar with.  It also provides a formative element which allows students to explore the exam material in a deeper way through co-construction of knowledge. Gilley and Clarkston (2014) found that the benefits to the individual of doing the second group stage were high as scores invariably increased.

Why would I use it?

  • Two stage-exams develop group work skills that are authentic in the real world and the workplace. Few scientists or researchers work in isolation, yet exam-based courses usually empathise the element of individuality over cooperation.
  • Students have to explain any disagreements in answers, thereby developing oral analytical skills. It fosters a deeper learning and assesses understanding as research shows  (Ploeztner et al, 1999;  Williams et al, 2010) if students can explain to peers, they have acquired learning at a higher cognitive level.
  • Students can get nearly instant feedback on questions or material they didn’t understand, with the exception of material which no one in the group answered.
  • The group element reduces test anxiety, as students know they have an opportunity to make up the grade in weaker areas (Fournier, K., et. al, 2017) . However, weighting the group element much lower still incentivises students to prepare well.  You could add an extra question or two for bonus points on the group portion as an incentive

Known Issues …

  • The group work element needs some discussion and rules beforehand. You should negotiate that the loudest person is not right and that the ‘strong’ students are not telling the others answers. This helps alleviate fears by stronger students about ‘loafing’.
  • Leight et al (2012) found that the two-stage exam had no effect on performance compared with material that had been previously tested only with individual tests. However, there was no evidence that student learning decreased and students felt more motivated and less stressed. Moreover, other studies have found an increased retention in course material through using collaborative testing (Drouin, 2010;  Rao et al, 2002). 

How has it been used?

University of British Columbia extensive website contains resources and recommendations for implementing two-stage exams in science. Here is an overview in this video:

Dr Catherine Rawn ‘s blog outlines a simple procedure in Pyschology

Rieger and Heiner (2014)’s article outlines the positive responses of both teachers and students in an introductory physics course.


Jamie Barras and Furqaan Yusaf from Natural and Mathematical Sciences show how they use two-stage exams formatively in THIS CASE STUDY. 


How can I use two-stage exams?