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mimi-thian-vdXMSiX-n6M-unsplashI once sat through a new faculty hire orientation where one of the speakers spoke at length about test integrity, emphasizing how we should prohibit students from working on exams with each other (the standard exam instructions at this school say that if the student is caught doing so, they will be reported to the proper disciplinary office). I sat on my hands during this because it was obvious that the school took this very seriously. I didn’t say a word, but I really, really wanted to. Because what kept popping up in my head was this: “Why would that be a bad thing?” Or, at least, would it be a bad thing in all cases? Could there be some nuance here?

Because I could picture it. A table of four students sitting down with their lattes and laptops at the library, each with their textbook out, arguing the relative merits of one answer vs. another until they ultimately arrive at an answer based on the output of their productive conversation. That sounds like what higher education should be like. That sounds like an amazing collaborative learning opportunity. Why do we have to call this “cheating?” Is that a fair descriptor – at least in all instances? Even online, if students were to get on a video call on their own time and do this same thing virtually, in some situations, it could be a great and engaging, collaborative learning moment, not one that should be overtly discouraged in the exam instructions. Again, at least in all instances.

I’m not alone in this. There have been some research studies conducted on the value of collaborative exams in higher education. For example, Eaton (2009) tested two different collaborative exam protocols in a geoscience course. One of the conditions provided an incentive for working together. This was known as the “jackpot effect” whereby if a student knew the right answer, but then changed it to concede to the group, then they still got their point for their “wrong” answer (that was originally “right”). This meant that there was nothing lost by working on the exam with others – it could only improve an individual student’s grade, not hurt it. In the other condition, there was no jackpot effect, but the exams themselves weren’t worth large of a chunk of the students’ overall course grades.

Both conditions showed a significant positive net effect on student learning. Obviously, students who weren’t as academically strong benefited from the collaboration, but the results of this study suggest that the performance of higher-achieving students also benefited from collaborative exam-taking. In addition to the obvious learning advantages of test collaboration, the author makes a terrific point when concluding, “Wider application of these methods could make a critical difference in reversing student apathy toward science in colleges and universities” (Eaton, 2009 pg. 113).

Whether collaborative exams would work in any particular instance depends on a variety of factors – your personal teaching philosophy, your schools rules and regulations, the purpose of the exam, and perhaps this is a concept that molds better to some disciplines than others. But there is an option here to broaden our reactions to students “working together” on an exam. One person’s “cheating” can be another person’s powerful, engaging, collaborative learning moment. And, to be fair, vice versa. But a consideration nonetheless!


Eaton, T. (2009). Engaging students and evaluating learning progress using collaborative exams in introductory courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(2), 113-120.

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