In Brief

Taking a college exam with a partner instead of going it alone significantly improves students' test performance, according to research by Stanford University psychologists.

In a series of classroom studies, students who took exams with a partner of their choice said the experience resulted in reduced test anxiety, more confidence and increased enjoyment of the course and subject matter, report researchers Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, Lisa D. Butler, PhD, and Valerie A. Wolfe, PhD, in the Journal of Experimental Education (Vol. 71, No. 2).

"The results of this research, conducted over many years within multiple class settings, challenges a fundamental assumption of education, namely that student achievement must be assessed by testing individual performance," says Zimbardo, APA past-president. "We have found that when students work in pairs and take examinations cooperatively, they perform much better than when solo, learn more and enjoy the course and the exam more."

In the research, students in three large introductory psychology courses took the first of three exams individually. For the remaining two, they had the option to take the test with a partner of their choice. Those who chose to take an exam cooperatively were required to submit a single set of answers and received the same grade for their joint performance.

On average, about 40 percent of students chose the cooperative test each time. The researchers found that students' scores on the first individual test predicted their performance on the next two tests, regardless of whether they worked in teams or alone. However, their analysis also found that taking the test with a partner boosted students' performance well beyond their initial scores.

Team students averaged nearly nine points higher than their solo peers on the second exam and six points higher on the third exam. As a result, the range of scores for teams was more compact than for solo test-takers. For example, on the second test, teams' scores ranged from 54 to 86 points, while individuals' scores ranged from 39 to 84.

Moreover, more of the team-testing students scored in the highest quartile of grades, while those who tested solo dominated the lowest quartile.

The team-testing students also told researchers they enjoyed the experience. In fact, more than 80 percent said the cooperative testing encouraged them to share knowledge and reduced their test anxiety. About the same number of students said they would endorse the team-testing system for more extensive use in other classes.

Of those who didn't try the team-testing, a major concern was that their partners would do less work. However, most of those who did try the team approach reported doing similar amounts of preparation as their teammates--only 20 percent reported dividing up readings so that neither teammate read all the material. Zimbardo says he has observed that the latter group tends to do no better than solo testers in his courses.

The idea behind cooperative testing, Zimbardo explains, is not that students do less work, but that they support and enhance each others' work--behaviors useful in the "real world" of work and team sports.

"I am willing to argue that this change in student assessment should be incorporated throughout the entire educational system, from K-12 through PhD dissertations," says Zimbardo. "After graduation, most work in business, research and government is done in teams, and preparing students to appreciate the value of the social interaction and negotiations that make teams work effectively is vital for their future and that of our nation."