Why is assessing group work important?
Group learning techniques using approaches such as collaborative, enquiry-based and problem-based learning can be pedagogically effective. Working in groups also helps students develop a range of transferable skills that are useful in the world of work (see also the section on employability and assessment).
In assessment terms evaluating group assignments can save academic staff time depending on the approach taken. Establishing a fair and appropriate means of allocating marks for group assessment can however prove challenging. It's possible to allocate a single mark to a whole group which may often mirror working life where a whole team shares in the success or failure of a project.
Alternatively you may choose to allocate individual marks based on the contribution of each student. Other approaches include a combination of the two ie, an overall mark for the group with a certain percentage allocated for individual contributions.
Finally, although this may counter the concept of group work, you could set each student an individual piece of work based on the topic addressed by the group.
In choosing the best solution you need to think about what learning outcomes are being addressed. If the process of arriving at and/or presenting the final outcome is important then you are unlikely to adequately assess the learning outcomes by simply looking at the finished product.
If it's important to understand the dynamics of how the group worked and what each individual contributed, some form of self or peer review can be helpful.
What are the common problems?
"If students understand why group work is being used, understand the assessment system, are collaborative and ethical in their behaviour and possess sophisticated group work skills, then only minimal assessment mechanisms may be necessary as safeguards. In the end it is the creation of a healthy learning milieu that can contribute most to solving group work assessment problems."
Professor Graham Gibbs
Students may be unfamiliar with group work and therefore feel anxious about it. This problem can be exacerbated by the fact that group working is best suited to longer, more complex assignments which may account for a significant percentage of the overall marks.
You will need to consider the issue during assessment design and when thinking about assessment patterning and scheduling. This will ensure that students have sufficient practice at component tasks before they undertake a high-stakes assignment.
Students often resent approaches which allocate a single mark to the whole group. In particular stronger students can feel they have been let down by the weaknesses of others. Allocating individual marks is a way of getting round this but issues of fairness can still arise eg, timid students who do a lot of research may not get full recognition if the final outcome is an oral presentation.
Cultural issues can be a barrier to group working. In some cases, multicultural groups may be a real asset in achieving learning outcomes particularly when requiring students to confront situations they may face in a working environment.
However it is likely that multicultural groups will take longer to form effective communication channels and working relationships so you will need to factor this in. Research suggests that a period of about four months is the point at which distinctions between the performance of homogenous and culturally diverse groups disappear.1
How might we use technology in assessing group work and what are the benefits?
It can be used in the following ways:
- Facilitate collaboration between group members ie, upload and comment on wiki contributions or use social media channels to stay in contact and organise activities
- Enhance the fairness of evaluating individual contributions - providing facilities for students to keep a reflective log or e-portfolio reveals their individual contribution to a group project
- Support peer review to acknowledge the differential contribution of the individuals involved.
How does this theme relate to the assessment and feedback lifecycle?
At the specifying stage you will identify that group work is important to achieving learning outcomes. At the setting stage you will think about scheduling activities, particularly so that students can practice component elements before they undertake high-stakes summative assessment.
Throughout the supporting stage you will help students develop the skills they need to work effectively in groups.
Tips for assessing group work
Adapted from the work of Professor Graham Gibbs.
- Allocate differential marks to individual students to increase fairness and avoid freeloading
- Form an ideal group size of four to six - the maximum group size should be eight
- Mixed ability groups work best: streaming disadvantages weaker students
- Culturally homogenous groups do better on short assignments: multicultural groups need about four months working together to achieve their best results
- Group work generally produces higher marks because overall it has more resources and time to apply to the task
- It generally produces a narrower spread of marks than individual assignments
What resources can help?
- Read Professor Graham Gibbs' paper on assessing group work and find out more about getting the most from group work assessment in a guide, both on the Oxford Brookes University website
- Our case study from Edinburgh College shows how social media and project management tools support group assignments to reduce workload and integrate assessment across different units in the curriculum.
- 1 Watson, W. E., Kumar, K. & Michaelsen, L. K. (1993) Cultural diversity’s impact on group process and performance: comparing culturally homogeneous and culturally diverse task groups, The Academy of Management Journal, 36(3), pp. 590–602.