Using group work to assess learning
The body of literature concerning group work and its assessment often highlights the benefits of the former (Burke, 2011) and the challenges of the latter. When adequately planned and managed, group work can be an effective way to engage students and can lead to rich learning experiences by encouraging: participation, peer learning, the development of team-working, analytical and cognitive skills, as well as collaborative and organisational skills. However, concerns around the variability of students’ commitment; the time required to set up group work and prepare students for it; social, cultural, personality differences, or organisational difficulties that can impact on group dynamics; and, most of all, issues around validity and reliability in the assessment of group work often make its implementation daunting. This guidance document briefly introduces some key principles for the design and implementation of assessed group work tasks and points to strategies to address the challenges outlined above.
Which aspects of group work can be assessed?
When deciding whether to assess using group work tasks, ask yourself the following questions:
- is there alignment between intended learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and group assessment? For example, is effective social interaction a key element of learning in the module and therefore a key outcome of learning which needs to be assessed?
- does group assessment facilitate better learning? Is the assessment task bigger or more complex than individual students can manage? What research is required? Are students able to apply higher order thinking and undertake complex problem solving?
- is the assessment task fit for purpose. Does it lend itself to collaboration? Is there potential for effective sharing of labour?
- are you able to support the group work effectively and support students to develop requisite skills.
If the answer to these four questions is yes then group work may be an appropriate method of assessment.
Good group tasks:
- require a high level of interdependence for group members. There are different ways in which this can be achieved:
- product goal interdependence leads to a group outcome that requires contributions from each member, e.g. asking a group of students to reach a consensus answer, turn in one problem-solving assignment at the end of a class, or produce a single graph
- resource interdependence exists when individuals each possess specific resources needed for the group as a whole to succeed. Teachers may promote resource interdependence by giving specific resources to different individuals in the group
- role interdependence exists when specific roles are assigned to team members (for example, recorder or time keeper). These roles need to be performed in order for the team to function; however, assigning the roles highlights their importance and assigns accountability to individuals. Roles can be rotated regularly to give all team members experience.
- motivate a great deal of discussion by:
- making a concrete decision based on analysis of a complex issue, .e.g. given a case study, groups decide on a course of action which takes into account the context and the needs of different stakeholders
- making discriminations, e.g. a group may be asked to select from a range of options and justify their choice, taking into account a set of prescribed criteria
- applying a rule or solving a problem, e.g. given a challenge that exists in their subject area, groups design a solution or innovation which addresses it.
Assessing who and what?
Process, product or both? This will primarily be determined by your intended learning outcomes. Assessing both process and product can support student effort and motivation, and offer more varied opportunities for peer assessment, and mitigate against student feelings of unfairness.
Individual or group - or combination of the two? Assigning an identical mark to all members of the group irrespective of their contribution seldom produces appropriate student learning behaviours, frequently leads to freeloading, and can quite reasonably occasion a sense of unfairness. There is a range of mechanisms that allocate differential marks to individual students within a group which are perceived as fair and which result in more appropriate student learning behaviour and so have the potential to reap the educational benefits of group work. These include:
- peer assessment in which members of the group assess the academic quality of each other’s work. Judgements tend to be more reliable if restricted to a single global judgement underpinned by a set of criteria rather than marked across several different dimensions (such as communication, argument, use of literature, etc.). Results of the peer assessment can be used to adjust each individual’s mark up or down depending on the assessments they receive from you.
- individual assessment task based on the outcomes of the group project. When this method is used, it is important to design the group project in such a way that it is the only way an individual student could prepare for the assessment.
- the group is divided into discrete units, and some or all of the marks allocated to individuals for the components that they have completed.
Developing assessment criteria
Intended learning outcomes should be the starting point when developing assessment criteria. Criteria should be transparent, logical, constructively aligned, and reward appropriate group behaviour. You may need to develop different criteria for the product and process of group work if you are assessing both, and consider criteria for peer assessment if this is a feature of your strategy.
Group work assessment criteria must make clear to students how marks are balanced between both:
- the individual student's effort and the group's effort
- process of group work and the product.
In addition, there are a number of other important assessor / criteria questions to answer:
- who is going to decide the criteria?
- tutor or students or both? Co-designing criteria with students can have a positive impact upon group working as well as promoting assessment literacy.
- who is assessing?
- will it be you, members of the module team, external assessors, industry professionals, or the students?
- if students are assessing group work, will you use self-assessment and / or peer-assessment? Will they be assessing academic quality of outputs or contributions to the group processes? Or a combination? If the quality of outputs is assessed, will students assess members of their own group or the work produced by other groups?
Whichever method you adopt it will be vital that all assessors have a shared understanding of assessment criteria and standards. Which means you will need to think how this can be achieved, and integrate this into your strategy.
Grade differentiation: Group work often produces a narrow range of marks for both groups and individual students but there are several mechanisms which can contribute to producing a reasonable spread of marks for individuals, including peer assessment undertaken anonymously.
Implementing group assessment tasks - forming groups
- Size - Gibbs (2009:2) suggests that 4-6 is the ideal number for a group; any fewer and the group will suffer if some members drop out; more than this and there is a chance that not all members will have the opportunity to participate, individual motivation and effort could be impaired, and peer assessment is less reliable.
- Who should decides group membership - Students may prefer to choose their own groups (Mellor 2012: 18). However, if students self-select their group members this may lead to some feeling excluded and to imbalances in terms of skill, gender or nationality, which can jeopardise the potential of group work to meet some intended learning outcomes. If you are forming groups (social engineering) take care not to create minorities (for example, one woman in a group of men), or double minorities (for example, one Chinese woman in a group of European men). If you determine group composition communicate the reasons for your decisions to students.
- Streamed groups - raises grades for strong students and reduces grade for weaker students, including on subsequent individual assessments. Therefore we suggest mixed ability groups as long as assessment works in such a way that the better students can benefit from their greater contribution. Group marks in heterogeneous groups are best predicted by the ability of the best student in the group, rather than by the weakest student or by the average ability of students in the group.
Scaffolding group tasks
Students do not learn team-working skills solely through the process of working in a team. Not all students have prior experience with group work in an educational setting so it is important to scaffold for them the skills and capabilities required for this form of learning. Class time should be used to:
- develop skills such as ideas generation, listening to others, dealing with conflict
- decide issues such as assigning roles
- address aspects of team assessment such as determining roles, project management
- reflect upon and the experience of working within the group
- review and assess the effectiveness of the group.
Submission of work and formative assessment which creates opportunities for feedback at key milestones can also help to keep students on track and group processes under review.
Supporting groups and individuals
Groups: Students may need support during the group work process, especially if group relationships begin to break down. Consider ways of providing this support, for example by holding a mediation session or referring groups to a tutor allocated to provide group support. You may wish to tell students that serious problems with groups should be reported by a specific date during the term/module presentation in order to allow time for repair and remedial action should this be required.
Individuals: Some students with disabilities or particular needs may require support in order to help them to interact with groups. Reasonable adjustments may need to be made for individual students to enable them to meet the intended learning outcomes. Students are encouraged to register with Disability Services and meet with a Disability Adviser in order to discuss which reasonable adjustments may be helpful to enable a student to engage with group assessment activities. Adjustments are considered on an individual basis and considered in the context of the impact of a disability or learning difference, University policies and the Equality Act (2010).
The rationale for using assessed group work should be explained clearly to students, and the benefits clearly articulated. It is recommended that students be given information that answers the following questions:
- why are we doing this work in groups and not individually?
- what is the advantage of group work here?
- how does doing this group activity help me achieve the learning outcomes for this subject or module?
Students should have clear and transparent information on, and to engage in dialogue with you and with each other about:
- the intended learning outcomes of the group assessment task/s
- the requirements of the task/s
- the criteria, standards and weighting of assessment (i.e. processes and product, individual contributions and group achievements)
- formative work which supports summatively assessed activity and the processes and purposes of feedback
- group management and conflict resolution.
Lastly it is worth planning for the following before you start.
- Failed groups - have a plan for groups that disband.
- Non-participation - consider a policy that will apply when a student completely fails to participate in a group task. This may justify their removal from the group and incur a zero grade. However, such non-participation will need to be properly evidenced. For this reason it is a good idea to encourage groups to minute their meetings.
- Remedying failure - you will need to consider how students will remedy failure in group assessed tasks. If you have intended learning outcomes which are predicated upon social interaction how will students meet those outcomes should they be unsuccessful in the group assessment.
Vogel in Havemann and Sherman (eds., 2017) provide a useful case study in chapter 7: Running a Group Assessment in Mahara.
Diversity & inclusion
Diverse groups need longer to become effective so creating fewer groups and setting tasks for a longer duration can support student achievement. In a diverse cohort it is essential that criteria for a ‘good performance’ address the relative importance of English language competence. In general, the impact of English on a student’s ability to contribute is overestimated, although students with low English competence are likely to struggle with all aspects of group work, especially in the early months, for this reason longer tasks are to be preferred.
It is good practice to distinguish co-operation and collaboration from collusion and plagiarism and make these distinctions clear to all students. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)
Student and staff experience
Well designed and managed group assessment can promote:
- student ownership in assessment, which can lead to greater student investment, motivation, responsibility and autonomy. This is further supported by elements of peer and self-assessment elements which is often integral to assessed group work.
- skills development:
- analytical and cognitive (analysing tasks, questioning, critically evaluating material, reviewing the work of others)
- teamwork (negotiating group dynamics, leadership, collaboration, conflict management and resolution, offering and receiving constructive criticism)
- organisational and time management (allocating tasks within the group, prioritising, meeting deadlines).
Group assessment should enable students to achieve more complex and cognitively sophisticated tasks than they would be able to achieve in individual tasks. It is important to note that these are only realised when assessment design and mechanisms leverage appropriate student behaviours. Benefits include:
- authenticity - assessment tasks more closely related to the ‘real world’ help students to contextualise their learning, and can increase student motivation.
- employability - although it cannot be assumed that the experience of simply working on a team is sufficient to enable participants to develop improved team-working skills, group tasks have the potential to develop graduate capabilities which are highly valued by employers.
- inclusivity - framing group work tasks to draw from the students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives when exploring a topic can give all students a chance to contribute and learn from each other, which is at the heart of inclusive practice.
- internationalisation of the curriculum - group work offers opportunities to construct diversity as an asset rather a problem, facilitating student generated cases and content.
- cross-cultural capabilities - culturally diverse groups can enhance students’ cross-cultural capability and increase a sense of belonging. (It is important to note that these outcomes are neither inevitable nor easily achieved, and will depend upon your pedagogic interventions. Without careful planning less positive outcomes may prevail, with no impact upon international students’ attitudes and skills, and increased reluctance of home students to work with others perceived to be different.)
- interdisciplinary learning - the academic nature of interdisciplinarity mean that its pedagogies frequently draw upon group-based learning techniques. Interdisciplinary outcomes and group assessment tasks tend to be well-aligned.
- Burke (2011) emphasises that “[g]roup work can be especially beneficial for large classes. Wright and Lawson (2005) found that group work helped students feel that the class was smaller and encouraged them to come to class more often; in addition they, like Elgort, 2008) considered the use of technology to support group work. Students, they found, felt more invested in the course and in the class material, which promoted active learning in a large class environment” (Burke 90).
Dealing with conflict is an important skill for students to learn. It can be helpful to discuss the role of different types of conflict in decision making, and how they can be managed. For example, task conflict is different from role or process conflict and will need to be handled differently. Students in teams should be reminded of the Dignity at Warwick Policy , which requires them to treat each other equitably.
All students in a group will have contributed differently, in terms of effort, academic value, standards, and autonomy. One challenge is to ensure that marks accurately reflect the level of contribution and standard achieved by individuals within the group. Another challenge is to ensure that differential contributions do not cause the group to fail; staff need to monitor groups and, if necessary, intervene before this issue causes a group to splinter or fail. Anxieties amongst students around differential contribution most frequently cluster around freeloading/freeriding. However, students who over-contribute can also present problems for the group, and issues of equity when grading group work.
Free-riders/free-loaders Free-riding is probably the feature of group work that leads to the greatest number of complaints from students. This can be designed out of group work, Gibbs (2009: 5-6) identifies several strategies found to be effective:
- Avoid directly assessing group work: group work becomes the essential formative element which leads into an individually assessed task, which can only be done well if the student has pulled their weight in the group work.
- Divide group task into components which are allocated to individuals, individuals are awarded marks for their own component plus marks for the entire group product.
- Moderate the mark awarded for the group product by assessing individual performance, e.g. assessing via reflective journal, undertaking a viva.
- Allow students to moderate each other’s group mark on the basis of their inside knowledge about that individual. Students peer review the quality / quantity of contribution rather than the academic quality of the product. Rating scales should refer to behaviours which can be seen to be evident, e.g. attending meetings, rather than scales which are ambiguous, e.g. helpfulness to group.
- Prompt intervention when a member of the team is suspected of failing to participate.
- Groups agree a team charter, which sets out their expectations for behaviour, attendance and contribution.
Group work has the potential to make assessment more manageable both for teachers (few assignments to assess, increase of peer and self-assessment, authentic assessment evaluated by industry panels and experts) and for students (greater scope for bigger, more complex and cognitively challenging tasks than students could tackle individually).
It is important to note that reductions in academic workload gains in time will be to some extent balanced by the increased time invested in supporting groups. Bloxham and Boyd (2007) emphasise the importance of taking time to explain to students the reasons for using self- and peer- assessment, as well as to provide guidance and training to help students to engage meaningfully with the process. Falchikov (2007) suggests three strategies which teachers can use to promote the quality of both self- and peer-assessment whereby students’ competence is gradually built through a progression of modelling, scaffolding, and fading. Before engaging students in self and peer-assessment teachers can help them to develop key competences by providing examples of how to use assessment tools and strategies; this will then enable students to progress from guided engagement with structured grading schemes towards greater independence where the amount of direction and level of support offered by the teacher can be progressively withdrawn. This on-going formative process can be time consuming for both staff and students, therefore accounting for this when planning and embedding it into wider learning design can be helpful.
General discussion of supporting small groups from the [then} Higher Education Academy. David Mills, D. and Patrick Alexander, P. (2013). Small group teaching: a toolkit for learning https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/small_group_teaching_1.pdf
Hartley, P and Dawson, M. (2010). Success in Groupwork (Pocket Study Skills). Palgrave, Macmillan. This guide provides students with practical advice and ideas to help them work effectively with other people and get the most out of their group project.
Michaelsen, L.K. and Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of team-based learning. New directions for teaching and learning, 116, 7-27.
Riebe, L., Girardi, A. and Whitsed, C. (2016). A Systematic Literature Review of Teamwork Pedagogy in Higher Education. Small Group Research 47 (1), 619-664.