How to Assess student groupwork

March 26, 1999


Mike Heathfield describes a method of measuring individual effort without losing the benefit of teamwork.


Lecturers need to find a fairer way to allocate grades that reflects the different levels of effort from group members.


Grades awarded for groupwork need to reflect both the whole team effort and the variety of contributions from each student.

I and my colleague Sue Bloxham have been assessing groupwork for some years and it probably makes up some 30 per cent of our assessment profiles.

So struggling with the issue of fairness is one that we have some experience with and one that does not dampen our belief in the importance of assessed groupwork.

Groupwork is difficult and complex, but offers great gains for student learning and development. It is an important item on graduate capability lists that already exist or are being developed in many institutions.

It would be wrong to see the push to offer more groupwork as merely pandering to the latest government agenda or allowing vocationalism to further control the academic curriculum.

Working in teams features strongly in employer surveys on their key requirements of new graduates. Groupwork should be a key element in any learning strategy because it reflects the true nature of learning.

The dominant culture in higher education sees knowledge and learning in terms of the individual. This is the traditional privatised notion of knowledge and the individual learning journey of acquisition.

Assessed groupwork tasks concentrate on rewarding the manner in which students engage with ideas, frameworks, their previous learning, other students and their tutor's expertise.

Assessment that focuses on these areas seeks to value learning as a social process of "knowing". Traditional assessment is more likely to measure knowledge bases that can often be transient and have a limited shelf-life. This is not very useful for such a big individual and state investment in the light of changing work and career development patterns.

My belief and investment in assessed student groupwork strives to shift feedback from such comments as: "Group members were pulling our hair out by the end of it. It was dreadful. It was the most stressful thing I have ever been through on the whole course. Especially when one person at the end starts crying, you know, and starts saying it's this problem they have" to "I mean on the sharing experience, it's like ... I couldn't have done it on my own. I didn't have enough information to do it on my own. I think other than sharing experiences, I think it's bouncing ideas around. You know everyone's coming up with ideas and discussing things. It's leading you down different avenues and you're sort of exploring different ways of thinking, your views on things ... And you tend to sort of take that on board."

There are two ways of maximising the learning benefits of groupwork: adequate student preparation and fair allocation of grades at the end of it.

Student preparation In our programmes we introduced a student support module that included considerable detail on the nature of working in teams, the problems, the benefits and skills practice in handling group dynamics and feedback.

This module was not a "stand alone" study skills course (evidence suggests these have limited effect), but an integrated and assessed programme as part of their first-year course profile.

All the support module activities linked into assessments for other modules in the programme, so students were studying their own learning processes because it had a direct relationship to their success on other modules.

Allocating fair grades Our research indicated two concerns about assessing this groupwork. First, that weaker students were being carried by their group and receiving grades far beyond their individual capabilities.

Second, more capable students were responsible for "working" the group and producing the assessment item, and this extra burden was not reflected in their final grade.

The unfairness of every group member receiving the same final grade for the piece of work was self-evident to all concerned.

Tutors spent considerable time dealing with deputations of students who were unhappy about their grades and wanted to discuss what went on in their group after the grade had been awarded.

We decided that an assessment tool should be used to drive the need for groups to engage in frank discussions about their group processes during the process rather than after.

As tutors, we were not the most appropriate people to undertake this. Group members themselves were the only people who could arrive at a fair grade distribution.

We devised a group assessment sheet to serve this purpose. This tool was to become an integral part of every piece of groupwork and each item had to be handed in with a signed group assessment sheet before marking.

In long-term groupwork items, the sheet was used for monitoring half way through the process, so that students could build up a picture and discuss how their patterns of working had the potential to influence their final grade. The tool measures contributions on six indicators:

* Regular attendance at group meetings

* Contribution of ideas for the task

* Researching, analysing and preparing material for the task

* Contribution to co-operative group process

* Supporting and encouraging group members

* Practical contribution to end-product.

This list was the result of a number of pilots and student involvement in the design stages. The sheets are well established as standard practice in the department for all groupwork assessment and final grade allocation has become much less the focus of problems in groupwork.

Indeed, a small group of students recently formed to formulate new descriptors to assist in the difficult grade negotiation section of the process.

This most recent refinement of the tool and process has come solely from students themselves, and they are articulate in their defence of this to students new to the process.

These are clearly student voices speaking from experience of groupwork and of their group peers. For example, the regular attendance indicator is now described on a continuum from: "Attended all meetings, stayed to agreed end, worked within timescale, active and attentive, prepared to be flexible about meetings" to "Missed several/most meetings, always or often late, left early, digressed, giggled, day-dreamed or gossiped most of the time" Students, of course, are the best people to know what are the important criteria and benchmarks for grading groupwork processes.

I would strongly recommend involving students in designing such tools. There are a range of these available, but those that stem organically from within student experience seem most likely to be valid, effective and owned by students.

Our tool produces differentiated grades from groupwork and goes some way to addressing the fairness question.

While not wishing to dismiss this issue, it is important to point out that the accusation of unfairness or lack of validity comes from the assumption that traditional assessment methods are inherently more fair.

This is, of course, a nonsense as much research suggests. We are all probably familiar with the conversation between two academics who have marked an individual piece of student text and arrived at significantly different grades.

The resulting mid-point compromise says very little about the worth of the piece and much more about the human dynamics of negotiation. In what sense can this resultant assessment grade be deemed to be academically valid or fair?

If students want to understand that we tutors value their processes of knowing, this has to register in assessment profiles.

Assessed groupwork is one important way in which quality learning can be registered beyond the simplistic and erroneous view of learning as an individual and privatised dynamic between tutor and student.

Learning is so much more communally complicated than that. We need to continue to develop ways of assessing what we truly value rather than only valuing what we can more easily assess.

Mike Heathfield is tutor in youth and community work at Saint Martin's College, Lancaster.

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