Individual vs. Collaborative Exams: The Effect of Collaboration on Learning

Ryan Chang and Dillon Murphy

Given the choice, students likely prefer to take collaborative rather than individual exams but have you ever wondered how collaborative tests affect your education? Although many people believe that working collaboratively is better than individually, especially on an important test, issuing collaborative exams may not always be the best way to support learning. Students may believe that collaboration can benefit test scores, and there is some supporting evidence (see Haberyan & Barnett, 2010), but recalling information in groups can also have detrimental effects like the encoding of incorrect information generated by a groupmate or impaired long-term memory of the material. As a result, instructors may be justified in the common decision to avoid administering collaborative exams.

To investigate the efficacy of collaboration on memory, Weldon and Bellinger (1997) asked participants to recall items from a previously studied list in collaborative or nominal groups (i.e., a group composed of the same number of participants as a collaborative group, but the group members are unable to interact with each other). Results revealed that nominal groups correctly recalled more items than collaborative groups, potentially as a result of social loafing (i.e., when an individual exerts less effort in a group setting compared to individually). Specifically, while participants in collaborative groups likely feel only partially responsible for completing the memory task, participants in nominal groups are solely responsible for completing the memory task, motivating them to give their full effort. Thus, with the full effort of each group member, nominal groups can recall more to-be-remembered information than collaborative groups.

In addition to social loafing, production blocking (i.e., the tendency for an individual to prevent other group members from sharing ideas) may also contribute to the relatively poorer recall in collaborative groups. For example, since only one group member can speak at a time, individuals may forget their own ideas while listening to others’. Thus, if group members can’t communicate, social loafing and production blocking can be reduced, potentially leading to enhanced group performance.

Along with social loafing and production blocking, social conformity (i.e., changes in behavior to conform with the rest of the group) can negatively affect memory performance. For example, Reysen (2005) presented participants with a list of words to remember for a recognition test, and participants that worked in pairs correctly recognized fewer words than participants who worked individually. Thus, in contrast to working alone when there is no pressure to conform to the answers of a partner, participants working in pairs may have observed and complied with some of their partner’s answers, even in situations when they knew their partner’s answer was wrong.

In a classroom setting, conforming to incorrect answers generated by other members of a collaborative group could have negative consequences for post-collaborative memory (i.e., memory for information following a collaborative memory test; see Barber & Rajaram, 2011). Specifically, social conformity can lead to social contagion whereby individuals incorporate inaccurate responses from others during a recall task into their own memory. To illustrate, Roediger et al. (2001) had participants complete memory tasks in groups and found that participants would often agree with incorrectly remembered items and subsequently encode this false information into their memory. Thus, social conformity and social contagion further exemplify the potential dangers of collaborative exams and subsequent learning outcomes.

Another possible issue with collaborative exams is socially induced forgetting which occurs when an individual cannot later recall information when it was not recalled during collaboration (Coman et al., 2009). For example, if to-be-remembered information is not recalled during a group recall session, each group member is subsequently less likely to remember it during a later individual recall test. Similar effects can also be observed via retrieval disruption which occurs when individuals in a group setting engage with retrieval strategies (i.e., methods that individuals use to recall information) that differ from their own (Basden et al., 1997). Specifically, group members’ differing retrieval strategies can interfere with each individual’s retrieval strategy, decreasing the likelihood of later remembering information on a post-collaborative recall task (Barber & Rajaram, 2011). Therefore, both socially induced forgetting and retrieval disruption can result in poorer memory for to-be-learned material after being initially tested.

Although there can be drawbacks to collaborating on a memory test, there are useful strategies to combat these effects. For example, repeated retrieval practice (i.e., recalling information on multiple, separate occasions) has been shown to weaken the effects of retrieval disruption and boost post-collaborative memory (Congleton & Rajaram, 2011). Additionally, collaborative two-stage exams (i.e., an exam format that requires students to complete an exam individually, then complete the same or a similar exam collaboratively) have been shown to enhance learning (Gilley & Clarkston, 2014). The beneficial effects of repeated retrieval practice and collaborative two-stage exams likely occur as a result of better encoding of the to-be-remembered information prior to collaboration, which can protect the information from being forgotten during post-collaborative tasks. As a result, repeated retrieval practice and two-stage exams may be advantageous in terms of reducing the aforementioned dangers of collaboration and are also helpful in terms of maximizing individual test scores (Agarwal, et al., 2012).

In sum, although repeated retrieval practice and two-stage exams can combat the negative effects of collaboration on recall and learning, prior research has revealed many drawbacks that encourage instructors to avoid collaborative exams. Both social loafing and production blocking can discourage group productivity and cause collaboration inhibition. Additionally, social conformity can hurt short-term recall, and social contagion and socially induced forgetting can hurt post-collaborative recall. Moreover, both social conformity and social contagion can result in retrieval disruption, which impairs an individual’s ability to recall material (for more on retrieval disruption, see Imundo, 2020). Though this reality may disappoint students who prefer to work collaboratively, collaborative exams do not need to be completely avoided. If utilized correctly, motivated students may be able to reap the educational benefits of collaboration and apply their knowledge in the future.



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