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Two-stage exams: A strategy for reducing exam-related stress

Students talk about the course as OChem or Orgo, otherwise known as Organic Chemistry, one of the most dreaded courses for any student doing a university science degree. The course, taken mostly in the early stage of a student’s undergraduate degree, requires that material taught during the first week of class be understood and applied many weeks later when students do the final exam.  

I’ve been teaching Organic Chemistry for 20 years and it’s always been my favorite course to teach. I like it because for most students the material is brand new and their curiosity is still very much alive. In my role as professor, I’m not there to only deliver the material and expect students to perform. I try to capitalize on students’ curiosity and make it clear to them that we’re in this together—together, we’ll surmount the difficulty of the course and work towards our common goal: understanding.  

Given that from the student perspective Organic Chemistry is a notoriously hard course, I’ve always tried to motivate students and help them succeed by not only sharing my passion for organic molecules and their reactions, but also by implementing various active learning techniques that aid students in their learning. One strategy I learned through the SALTISE community is two-stage exams (Gilley & Clarkston, 2014; Kelly, 2016; Rieger & Heiner, 2014)—an assessment method that uses collaborative learning. In a two-stage exam, students first complete an individual exam. This is followed by a group part in which students complete identical or similar problems as in the individual exam but in a group setting where they can discuss their problem solving methodology. In this method, not only do students get a chance to explain material to each other, but they also seem to do it in a rather reduced stress environment. 

I tried implementing this strategy in OChem. The individual part of the exam counted for 85% and the group part of the exam counted for 15%. Students were assured that their midterm grade wouldn’t decrease due to the group component of the exam. 

In order to eliminate any potential apprehension regarding a new assessment method, students were distributed in groups—with group lists posted on myCourses. An exam room seating chart for both the individual and the group components was also posted on myCourses ahead of the exam date. Students requiring special accommodations were able to do the individual part of the exam under the care of the Office for Students with Disabilities and then join their group for the second part of the exam. 

After the exam, I asked students to provide me with anonymous feedback (one positive and one negative comment) regarding their experience with the two-stage exam. Here are some of the student comments: 

  • I like the group part because we can collaborate. 
  • Group really made me understand some concepts more, wish we could work as a group during the final exam 
  • Group exam is an excellent idea, really enjoyed it. The whole exam was like a puzzle, an absolute blast. Thank you! 
  • The group part is free tutoring if you are wrong 
  • Everyone participated in the group portion 
  • Group part is a good stress free way to end the exam 
  • Group exam is an awesome idea. It was not as scary as other exams. 

After reviewing the feedback, I was happy to note that students, indeed, felt that this new assessment method was a useful learning strategy, but more importantly, it diminished their exam-related anxiety. These results are in keeping with findings from a recent study that addressed students’ perceptions of the collaborative testing experience (Mahoney & Harris-Reeves, 2019). So, from my perspective: mission accomplished! I had succeeded in implementing a new assessment strategy to support student learning while relieving some of students’ exam-related stress. As a bonus, it turned out that some students even thought the exam was fun. I consider that to be a real achievement in a course that’s known to be one of the most dreaded. Maybe the two-stage exam will end up changing the reputation of this course. Something to aim for! 

Are you thinking about trying out this strategy but not sure how it plays out in class? Check out this video from University of British Columbia to see a two-stage exam in progress in a large class. Also check out a student’s perspective on this strategy. 


Gilley, B., & Clarkston, B. (2014). Collaborative testing: Evidence of learning in a controlled in-class study of undergraduate students. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(3), 83-91. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43632038 

Kelly, T. (2016). Two-stage tests: Turning testing into learning opportunities across course assessments. Ontario Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators, York University. Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.yorku.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Teaching-in-Focus-Two-stage-exams-TKelly.pdf 

Mahoney, J. W., & Harris-Reeves, B. (2019). The effects of collaborative testing on higher order thinking: Do the bright get brighter? Active Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 25–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417723243 

Rieger, G. W., & Heiner, C. E. (2014). Examinations that support collaborative learning: The students’ perspective. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(4), 41-47. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43632011 

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