See how we create better teams through better feedback
Explore why, how, and when we use group assignments in higher education
Teachers assign group assignments to their students for several reasons, some noble, others less so! One less noble reason is to reduce the grading workload. Let’s admit that possibility, but now consider the more noble reasons. As teachers, we might assign group assignments to
- Enable students to perform at higher intellectual levels (Vygotsky, 1978)
- Provide exposure to new and different perceptions
- Achieve higher satisfaction arising from feelings of connectedness, engagement, or shared purpose (Davis, 1993)
- Prepare students for professional life through developing teamwork skills including time management, coordination, communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, problem solving, delegation and leadership (Turner, Krenus, Ireland & Pointon, 2011).
Preparing students for professional life in the 21st century has become a key concern for teachers in applied and professional disciplines such as engineering, health and business. For example, in Movie 1.1, Patrick Dodd discusses the survey results presented in Table 1.1 that highlight the top attributes employers seek in the students they recruit (NACE, 2018).
Table 1.1 Employers’ requirements for career readiness competencies
|Weighted average rating
|Critical thinking and problem solving
|Teamwork and collaboration
|Professionalism and work ethic
|Oral and written communications
|Global and multi-cultural fluency
|5 = Absolutely essential 4 = Essential 3 = Somewhat essential 2 = Not very essential 1 = Not essential
Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers, NACE (2018, Figure 42, p. 33)
Movie 1.1 Employers’ requirements
Furthermore, in engineering studies, the Washington Accord commits educators to providing assurance to their profession’s registration boards that their graduates demonstrate achievement of teamwork competencies similar to those mentioned by NACE and Turner et al (IEA Graduate Attributes and Professional Competencies, 2013).
Figure 1.1 What employers want to see on students’ resumes
Drawbacks of group assignments
While there are many positive reasons for using group assignments as part of a student’s programme of learning, there are drawbacks from the perspective of both teacher and student. From the teacher’s perspective, these drawbacks include
- Verifying that each teammate has achieved the academic learning outcome specified for the assignment, course or programme
- Allocating a fair mark to each team member related in some way to the contribution each teammate has made
- Coaching the teammates how to work together effectively
- Resolving issues that emerge from dysfunctional behaviors such as freeloaders, dominators, blockers and self-seekers
- Designing the assignment so that students develop successfully the desired career readiness competencies. A group must be unable to apply a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to delivering the assignment result. Drawbacks from a student’s perspective relate to some of the challenges that face a teacher
- How to coordinate when and how to meet, whether physically or virtually, and how to work effectively together
- How to identify and resolve dysfunctional team behaviors such as freeloaders, dominators, blockers and self-seekers
- How to incentivize above average contributions to both team results and teamwork processes whilst penalizing substandard contribution through a grade penalty.
Patrick Dodd discusses drawbacks of group assignments in Video 1.2
Video 1.2 Drawbacks of group assignments
Group assignments do present challenges to teachers and students. However, we believe the rewards for both student and teacher will outweigh the drawbacks provided some basic steps are taken by the teacher in areas including
- The design of the assignment
- The management of students during the conduct of the assignment
The adoption of peer feedback and peer assessment as a basis for advancing team effectiveness and awarding fair grades.
This page draws on our teaching experience supported with best practice literature to detail our 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessment. Before we present our formula, we’ll define precisely the terms we use throughout this book including those mentioned so far. We present five research-based pillars that underlie the approach we advocate. Next, we summarise the goals, aims and benefits from applying the 7 step formula.
Definition of terms
In higher education, a group assignment (group project, team assignment) is an academic task specified by the teacher in which several students work together to deliver or perform one or more outputs. One or several assessment approaches are used to determine the academic result (credit grade) awarded to the team as a whole and/or individual group members (teammates) based on their relative contribution. We use the term academic programme to include “One or more individual units of study towards a qualification, identified by a code and title”. Institutions use alternative terms for ‘unit of study’ including course, paper, module or class. Figure 1.1 illustrates how these terms and those we define subsequently are interrelated.
Figure 1.2 A naming of parts: Assessment schema for group assignments and their assessment
We define a team as the arrangement of students allocated or approved by the teacher that undertakes together the group assignment. The members of the team are each other’s teammates (group members). There may be one or more teams of students that undertake the group assignment.
In general, a group assignment challenges each team to produce delivered outputs that are beyond the practicable reach of any one member of the team due to the availability of time, knowledge, skill, perspective, personality or other factors. Equally, a group assignment occurs when students assemble regularly – physically or virtually – to undertake several smaller challenges within a strict period, such as a class meeting or tutorial. The aggregated assessment results arising from each challenge event may be characterized as one single ‘group assignment’ component of an academic programme.
Examples of group assignments include challenges to
- Produce a dramatic, artistic or architectural work
- Demonstrate a software application or engineering prototype
- Document and present orally a business problem-solving investigation
- Document, exhibit, and present the results of a scientific, medical or technological investigation
- Debate the pros or cons of a moot point or proposition
We make the distinction between delivered outputs that are
- Documented outputs that can be a permanent record, such as an essay, business plan, or a visual model
- Performed outputs that exist for a few moments of time, such as a business presentation, a dramatic production
- Working prototypes, such as software or a product prototype, where there is a mix of documented outputs (such as the software code) and the performance of the prototype (does the software function as required and promised? Does the software avoid doing those things it ought not to do!?)
Assessment of outputs delivered from group work
Typically, the teacher assumes academic authority and responsibility for assessing the delivered outputs of a team’s work: team assessment. However, a group assignment may produce several delivered output components the quality of each being evaluated by a teacher or other assessor. For example, one student team’s scientific investigation could result in these delivered outputs arising from their collaborative inquiry
- A written document in the genre of a scientific journal article and/or
- A scientific conference poster or infographic summarising the key issue, method, findings, and conclusion and/or
- An oral presentation in which each of the other tangible artifacts (scientific article, infographic) are used as supporting props and/or
- A personal reflective essay that compares and contrasts the ‘lived experience’ undertaking the group assignment, and connects that experience with a critical appreciation of relevant scientific and/or teamwork literature
Each component of the delivered outputs will require a different assessment rubric appropriate to the genre: scientific article, presentation poster, oral presentation, software application, design prototype, business report, dramatic production, medical diagnosis, and so on. However, the combined results of the assessment of each delivered output will generally form a single team result awarded by the teacher to each team for their group assignment.
More precisely, we define team assessment to embrace the processes for, and results from evaluating at one or all elements of
- The quality of the observed, delivered outputs of the group assignment assessed against rubrics appropriate to the genre of the delivered outputs
- The quality of the social processes undertaken by the teammates who produce the delivered outputs
- The quantity and quality of the contribution to the delivered outputs from each teammate.
Team assessment may be conducted in several ways each of which may contribute to the final personal result awarded to a student for their contribution to a group assignment
- Classic assessment – the conventional approach where a teacher assesses the team’s delivered outputs
- Self-assessment by a student, evaluating their own contribution to the component(s) of the delivered outputs
- Peer assessment, when a student evaluates the quality of an output component for which one (or several) other student(s) had responsibility for delivering. This peer assessment may apply across all students undertaking the group assignment: intra-programme peer assessment. Alternatively, the peer assessment of delivered outputs may be restricted to the teammates of the same team: intra-team peer assessment
- Teammate peer assessment when a student evaluates the contributions of their teammates with the primary focus on the processes of teamwork, leadership and contribution to the delivered outputs of the team and/or its teammates.
- Teacher’s confirmatory assessment of the quality of teammate peer assessment and the realism of self-assessment conducted by the teacher’s students.
We advocate that teammate peer assessment is applied to ensure a fair personal result is awarded to each teammate in proportion to their relative contribution to the team’s collective delivered outputs.
The 5 pillars for group assignments
Through our many years’ teaching we have identified five key research findings that inform the 7 step formula for effective group assignments we will propose.
- PILLAR ONE — Awarding all teammates the same grade is not valid, fair, nor motivating for students (Kagan, 1995; Zhang & Ohland, 2009)
- PILLAR TWO — Freeloading in group assignments is less likely if students’ contributions will determine their grades (Gibbs, 2009)
- PILLAR THREE — Students should receive training in the assessment practices they will use (Sprague, Wilson, & McKenzie, 2019).
- PILLAR FOUR — Training in teamwork compounds the benefits for team effectiveness and employability (Carr, Herman, Keldsen, Miller & Wakefield, 2005)
- PILLAR FIVE — An effective peer assessment platform identifies dysfunctional team behavior such as outlier team ratings and inflated self-assessments (Sprague, Wilson, & McKenzie, 2019; Dodd & Mellalieu, 2019; Mellalieu & Dodd, 2019)
We suggest you accept our pillars as possibilities, as propositions that ‘might be true’ for you and your students. After you have practiced applying our 7 steps formula, you’ll be better informed to make your own assessment about the validity of our pillars for your teaching and adapt them to your learning contexts.
In the next chapter we revisit these five pillars explaining in more detail how they reinforce each other to yield the benefits of effective group assignments realised through adopting our 7 step formula.
The 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessment
In the following chapters we detail each of the 7 steps summarized in Table 1.2 and presented as an infographic in Figure 1.3.
Table 1.2 The goals and aims of the 7 step formulas
|Goal and aim
|Prepare the group assignment as an authentic learning experience
Before we introduce our class to their group assignment, we must create an engaging assignment that meets academic learning outcomes and develops teamwork capabilities valued by employers.
|Build your class into equally-capable teams
When we first introduce the group assignment to our students we establish our expectation for professional teamwork delivered by all teammates. We emphasise that we will adjust individual grades fairly, proportional to the peer-assessed contribution of each teammate to their team's delivered outputs.
|Train your students to give honest feedback accurately
We give our students practice in using the survey instrument so they can accurately, honestly, and constructively assess and provide developmental guidance to their teammates. With our students, we fine-tune the survey rubric to align with the professional teamwork capabilities expected from our students' level of study.
|Create and distribute the peer assessment survey
We create and distribute the teammate peer assessment survey to all the teams in our class. Our students must also be alert to receiving notifications about provisional results and requests we might make to resubmit an unsatisfactory response.
|Manage the peer assessment survey
As our survey progresses, we might request a resubmission from a student who appears to have rated others unfairly or assesses their contribution to a degree markedly different from the assessment made by their teammates. We might need to adjust the composition of a team by adding or dropping a teammate.
|Promote courageous conversations among your students through feedback
We calculate each student's personal grade combining their average peer-assessed score with the team result we awarded for the team's outputs. We despatch a personalised report to each student comprising their personal grade and the developmental feedback to guide improvement in their future teamwork.
|Improve the next cycle of your students' group assignmentsWe examine the feedback, charts, data, and analytics resulting from our peer assessment to help improve our design of future group assignments and our next conduct of teammate peer assessment.
Table 1.2 illustrates our assertion that teammate peer assessment is a crucial element for enabling grades to be awarded in proportion to a teammate’s contribution, thereby reducing the likelihood of freeloading – Pillars 1 and 2.
Furthermore, when used as part of a formative assessment cycle, an effectively-used peer assessment platform motivates and supports just-in-time training of students in peer assessment, peer feedback, and teamwork competencies – Pillars 3 and 4.
Finally, an effective peer assessment platform identifies dysfunctional team behavior in a timely manner so that the teacher and/or the team can undertake remedial action to improve their behavior before the submission of the team’s outputs for final teacher grading – Pillar 5.
Figure 1.3 The 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessment
Download wall poster from https://tinyurl.com/papinfographic © Peer Assess Pro. All rights reserved.
Benefits from applying the 7 step formula
When you apply the 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessments you should expect these key benefits
- Students develop professional teamwork capabilities valued by employers, Table 1.1
- The team’s work is produced to a higher academic quality, argued later in Chapter 2.
- Students feel a greater sense of engagement with the team work, and satisfaction with those results achieved
- Students feel a greater sense of fairness that grade results are apportioned according to the relative contribution that team members have made
- Dysfunctional teams, at risk, and outlier team members can be identified early in the process of teamwork, enabling remedial intervention to be taken by either the teacher and/or other team members
- The risk of student complaints is reduced since the teacher has strong evidence in support of the grades awarded – whether high or fail.
- The validity of the grades awarded to students from group assignments is raised in consequence of the evidence of provided by students well-trained in teammate peer assessment
In conclusion, let’s reflect on the words of Kenneth Bruffee (1999) as he introduces one of several approaches to teaching through group assignments, that of collaborative learning.
Collaborative learning teaches students to work together when the stakes are relatively low, so that they can work together effectively later on when the stakes are high
The chapter Collaborative learning: Working in Groups is part of a comprehensive self-study book intended for students ambitious to advance their academic skills (Turner, Ireland, Krenus, 2011). The chapter extends upon the importance and benefits of studying in groups, the roles students play in groups, how the challenges of working in groups can be overcome, and tips for making the micro-processes of group work function effectively.
The infographic How to Teach using Group Assignments: The 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessment summarises the aims, checklist and tips for each step in a convenient wall poster format.
The video Enhancing career-ready competencies in diverse teams through teammate peer feedback records a professional conference presentation that extends on several of the ideas presented in this chapter.The slideshow Digital tools for enabling developmental feedback and teamwork grading through teammate peer assessment is used in support of an immersive workshop to compare and contrast the features of alternative teammate peer assessment platforms.PREVIOUS: Introduction NEXT: Why peer feedback?Return to top of page