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Accountability: The Key to Successful Group Assignments

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. In short, we let the students know that we will be holding them accountable for their actions in the team and their contributions to the work produced by the team. In addition to informing students of our expectations, educators must also provide them with the tools to help students hold themselves accountable.

There is a smorgasbord of tactics from which the teacher can select to raise a student team’s effectiveness through improved accountability. These tactics for accountability include class policy, contracts, project plans, team roles, and responsibilities, mandated collaborative tools, journaling, and the writing of a concluding reflective essay.

Class policy for group assignments

Class policy refers to your institution’s policies and your own expectations regarding teamwork. Relevant institutional policies include

  • Academic integrity
  • Peer assessment and self-assessment
  • Equity and diversity
  • Countering harassment
  • Student complaints resolution
  • Student disciplinary process

Your personal policy or expectations could include

  • Recommended process for managing and/or excluding teammates who freeloader.
  • Advice on managing personal workload and stress
  • Advice on keeping teammates advised of changed personal circumstances
  • A statement that you use teammate peer assessment as a basis for adjusting personal grades above or below the team result you will award for each team’s delivered outputs. Later you’ll explain how the peer assessment works and you’ll give students practice at using the peer assessment process.

Examples of how these policies and expectations are presented in an extract from a course syllabus by Peter Mellalieu. Peter recalls

“I make it clear to students that they need not carry a freeloader in their team. However, they must first seek to manage the free-loader to give them the opportunity to contribute. If that fails, they can apply my ‘three strikes’ process. A strike against a student includes behaviors such as failing to respond to communications, failing to attend a scheduled meeting, or delivering unsuitable, unprofessional, or plagiarised material. However, I explain I must know in advance that a team is proceeding towards excluding a teammate. There may be a special circumstance of which the team might not be aware that requires my diplomatic intervention.”

Teammate peer assessment, feedback, and grading

The ultimate accountability is awarding students individual grades based on their contribution to task and contribution to team harmony and performance. The process that we recommend begins with teammate peer assessment, proceeds to teammate peer feedback, and concludes with a personal result derived from teammate peer assessment.

Teammate peer assessment engages teammates using a form of peer assessment to rate each other’s contribution to their team’s processes, outputs, and outcomes as they pursue together a group assignment. The peer assessment typically includes quantitative ratings and qualitative evidence to support the awarded ratings. Based on each student’s relative peer-assessed contribution, a personal (grade) result may be calculated and awarded. 

Teammate peer feedback communicates to teammates in a personalised report the quantitative and qualitative results of teammate peer assessment. Ideally, the report includes developmental advice from each teammate directed towards raising the report recipient’s individual effectiveness for their current and future group assignments. Typically, the communication of the peer feedback report is the first stage for constructive, courageous conversations between teammates as they clarify understanding of the feedback received, and the implications for the adjusted behaviours recommended by their teammates.

Personal result from teammate peer assessment is a grade awarded to one teammate calculated from the relative teammate peer-assessed score received by that teammate combined mathematically with the team result awarded by the teacher for that team’s total outputs (essays, reports, presentations, software, designs, prototypes, posters…). Typically, the personal result is calculated automatically above or below the team result in proportion to the relative (peer assessed) contribution of each teammate.

Psychological contracts, project plans, and team responsibilities

Psychological contracts

Using Psychological contracts as part of your group assignments is a great way to hold students accountable. Psychological contracts allow students to take an active role in setting the tone for group interaction, group contracts can help “motivate ownership of learning” (Hesterman, 2016, p. 5). Writing group Psychological contracts can also help students identify expectations of one another, communicate those expectations, and practice articulating their expectations.

The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center at  UC Irvine has a great sample group psychological contract form as does the University of Waterloo. The important thing to remember is that you dedicate time in class for the student teams to craft their own contracts.  Having students co-create their group contracts will result in better engagement and individual accountability.

Project plans

If you’ve got a real meaty project for your students, then requiring them to develop a simple project plan as part of the assessment is a fantastic way for students to understand all of the tasks that need to be done in order to complete the project. Once they understand the tasks and dependencies, then they can decide who is going to do what and the date that the task needs to be completed.  Remember, a project plan is a living document. You will have teams that underestimate the time required to complete a task or discover that they left out a task. It’s ok to amend and adjust as necessary.

Project management tools that we recommend are the following:

  • Gantter – excellent tool that integrates well with Google Drive.
  • Trello – easy to use and integrates well with Slack
  • Asana – easy to use and also integrates well with Slack

Team responsibilities 

Some projects may lend themselves to have students mimic workplace roles such as project lead, project manager, writer, researcher, editor, and so forth. If this is the case, then it is a great opportunity to have rotating roles to ensure that each student in the group has a go at each of the roles, thus ensuring that all of the students have greater exposure to as many areas of the project as possible. Again, this tactic inhibits students pursuit of a  ‘divide and conquer’ approach).

Rather than mimic workplace roles, students can choose from a list of general project roles such as facilitator, checker, explorer, Carnegie Mellon presents a list of possible roles for group projects that will get the ball rolling.  You can even have students create their own roles.

Collaborative tools (Google Docs and Slack)

Having insight into the assessment groups’ progress, processes and communication is critical. The level of insight to which we refer means that you would be able to quickly see when groups actually start working on their projects, the level of participation from each group member, and the quality of their communication. This can be realized if you use collaborative tools like Google Docs and Slack to which you are a shared viewer. We believe that it is important to note that it is not enough to simply require your students to use these tools. You must demonstrate that you are taking a hands-on approach. This need not be more complex than commenting on their communication in Slack or adding a comment to their Google Doc. For example, “It looks like you guys are running a bit behind schedule. You need to pick it up.”

We wrote a detailed blog post on using Google Docs for group projects that will help you get started.

While Google Docs will give you insight into progress and processes, Slack is the tool that will provide insight into their communication. If you are not yet familiar with Slack, it is one of the most popular communications tools used in industry. Slack is also catching on with leading-edge tech adopters in education, as Professor Phil Simon of ASU reflects 

As I entered my second year as a full-time college professor, I wanted to shake things up a bit inside the classroom. I had known for a few years about how Slack was gaining traction as a new communication and collaboration tool in the private sector. I was intrigued. I did some research and, this semester decided to give it a shot.

My rationale here was straightforward. First, I was curious to noodle with a tool that has received so much hype. Second, in all likelihood, my students will not use a proper learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard or Canvas after they receive their diplomas. On the other hand, they will almost certainly use a new collaboration tool at some point in their careers. Why not introduce one of the most powerful and popular ones while they are still in school?

Professor Phil Simon, ASU

We, too, came to the realization that learning management systems tend, in practice, to be little more than a one-way communications platform ‘broadcasting’ content and communications outward from the teacher. Specifically, Patrick adopted Slack as the communications tool of choice for all of his classes. He now has insight into all group discussions. He can see immediately if groups are struggling and can identify unconstructive communication. Another advantage of using Slack is that it connects seamlessly with apps that are already used to manage group projects like Google Docs, Trello, and Asana. Since adopting Slack, Patrick has found his students are much more engaged and productive in their group projects. 

Conclusion

The foundation for every successful group assignment is student accountability. Set the expectation when you introduce the group assignment by including the class policy for group assignments. Once you’ve set the stage, then create student buy-in by letting them co-create their psychological contracts. From this point on it’s about providing students with the tools to communicate and collaborate effectively and that provides the educator with the visibility to monitor group activity if needed. Having a formative peer assessment activity halfway through the project will allow students to see how their peers believe they are performing. If this is done at the midpoint of an assignment, then there will be enough time for students to get back on track if they did not meet their peers’ performance expectations. 

Though accountability is crucial to the success of group assignments, it is but one piece of the puzzle. To help you with the other pieces, we have written an ebook  titled, “How to teach using team assignments: The 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessment.” 

Download the free ebook now.

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