Assessment Case Study — Two-Stage Testing in Biology

Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

June 26, 2017


“It’s a really powerful assessment tool because they’re doing a lot of learning from the assessment. Students really seem like they’ve won the lottery, even though they’ve just got a biostats question right.” – Dr. Kyla Flanagan



How do you get second-year university students excited about Biostatistics? This is the challenge that Dr. Kyla Flanagan faces when she teaches BIOL 315: Quantitative Biology I. The class is always fairly large, ranging from 120-170 students and focuses on how data is collected, used and analyzed in the field of biology. Dr. Flanagan introduced two-stage testing as a way of promoting student engagement in the course and has been incredibly impressed with the results.



Student teams are formed at the beginning of the semester. An online survey that asks questions about how each student learns is used to build these teams. Students with different strengths, learning styles, and backgrounds with the course content are grouped together. By keeping these teams permanent for the entire semester, trust and teamwork can develop through collaborations on the various group activities.

At the start of each module, students are assigned a set of readings to complete on their own time. The students come to class and do a traditional-style multiple choice quiz on the content of the readings. The questions are knowledge-level, to ensure that all the students understand the basic ideas of the module and will be able to follow the more complex ideas in future classes. Once they finish the individual quiz, students spend the remainder of the class doing the same quiz in their teams. The description of the second stage of the test is dramatically different: instead of the usual quiet test-taking environment, the lecture hall would reverberate with all the discussions. Students work together, debating each question and then checking if their answer was correct on a scratch card. When teams correctly answer a difficult question, students respond with cheers and excitement. It is a classroom filled with discussion, encouragement, and collaboration.

“Students really seem like they’ve won the lottery, even though they’ve just got a biostats question right” – Dr. Kyla Flanagan

This strategy required a redesign of the entire course, since full class periods had to be dedicated to the quizzes and other team activities, leaving less time for lecturing. In the grading scheme, individual and team quizzes are equally weighted. Students see the advantages of the team test as their team test grades are always higher than their individual ones. Even the strongest students learn more from the collaboration.



Two-stage testing is a very different approach to assessment than most students are used to. However, as trust within teams grows throughout the semester, they really start to understand the value of working and discussing with one another. Not only does student engagement improve, but so does student performance. The first semester that Dr. Flanagan tried this method, she saw a 10% grade increase on both the midterm and final exams. She largely attributes this to the team tests and the newfound excitement in the course. Students get a lot more value from doing each quiz twice and working together on them.

Team testing can be applied in various types of courses, at various levels. Being able to communicate, collaborate and learn from mistakes is important for students going into any field. Dr. Flanagan advises that this practice be used consistently throughout the semester. She believes if it were only used once or twice, it isn't as effective as it could be. By having an ongoing process of two-stage testing, students are able to learn and build from their experiences.

This is a shift in the assessment culture, because quizzes become learning experiences instead of just summative assessments. Students are more accountable for their learning, but they are also more engaged and excited about the course and the content. Assessment is at the forefront of the course design. Increased thought and effort into assessment by the instructors leads to more valuable learning for the students.

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