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Build equal teams for fair group assignments

Step 2 – Build your class into equally-capable teams

See how we create better teams through better feedback

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Build your teams

When we 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.


  • Arrange your class list into diversely-composed teams.
  • Introduce the group assignment and the academic policies you will apply.
  • Explain the role of the group assignment in developing students’ critical teamwork capabilities valued by employers.
  • Emphasise that you use teammate peer assessment to adjust personal results above or below the team result you will award for each team’s delivered outputs.
  • Have teams develop a team charter that guides how they will work together effectively
  • Conduct a team-building exercise to help your student teams gain confidence working productively with each other

TIP! Introduce your students to their teams and the group assignment as early as possible in their learning schedule.

Arrange the class into diverse teams

The first process for launching a teammate peer assessment is the arrangement of your class students into teams, a teamset. Aim for a team size of between five and seven students. A team of three is less than ideal because when self-assessments are excluded from determining a peer assessment, just two peer assessments per teammate will be available. Michaelsen & Sweet (2012) argue that a team of five is the ideal minimum for achieving the benefits of working with diversity in a team.

One principle to guide the arrangement of students into teams is that each team should be composed such that each has an equal opportunity to achieve as good a grade as any other team. This is an admirable, but practically hopeless aspiration as we’ll see later when we discuss principles for arranging your class.

Once you have arranged your students into teams, extend your class list to produce a teamset structured as illustrated in Gallery 3.1. You will launch the peer assessment survey using this teamset in Step 4 – Create the peer assessment

Gallery 4.1 Create a team arrangement for your class of students

Alternatively, produce the teamset by exporting a comma separated variables (CSV) file from your learning management system. Confirm the column headers match the requirements for launching a peer assessment activity according to the requirements of the platform you have chosen, as illustrated in Gallery 4.1.

Check the teamset is logically consistent. For example, an ideal teammate peer assessment platform will raise warnings for circumstances such as

  • The same student in a class cannot be a member of more than one team in a single peer assessment activity.
  • The same ID should not be included more than once in the teamset. A duplicate ID will lead to an ambiguously-defined state
  • A unique Identity Code (ID) must distinguish different students with the same name, such as John SMITH.
  • Team sizes less than three are unsuitable for peer assessment, because feedback responses will not be confidential. In a team of two, there will be just one peer assessment made by the other teammate!

Explain the purpose of the group assignment

Introduce the group assignment explaining its aims and the academic learning outcomes students are expected to demonstrate through its fulfillment. Alert students to the key benefits you intend such as those mentioned in Why group assignments?, Chapter 1. Namely, you expect performance at a higher intellectual level, higher teammate engagement, and the development of critical teamwork capabilities valued by employers.

Admit some of the drawbacks of group assignments, such as the risk of freeloading behavior and dysfunctional teams. However, explain how your intention to implement teammate peer assessment will reduce these risks.

Explain the aims, impact, and process of teammate peer assessment

Explain to your students that you will use teammate peer assessment to achieve several aims.

  • Fairness through adjusting personal results above or below the team result in proportion to the contribution each teammate makes towards the delivered outputs.
  • Personal and professional development through helping students learn to give and receive feedback about the effectiveness of leadership and teamwork capabilities valued by the workplace
  • Improved team results through helping the team move from a good to a great, high performing team
  • Early identification and intervention with dysfunctional or at risk teams through analyzing the data collected through the teammate peer assessment platform.

Illustrative examples
Present to your students the material presented in early chapters.

  • How the results of the peer assessment survey will adjust each teammate’s personal result above or below the team result in proportion to their contribution, Figure 3.1
  • The rubric you have selected as the basis for your peer assessment survey, Gallery 3.1
  • How a typical peer assessment survey appears to students, Gallery 5.1
  • The academic policies you have selected that will apply to your conduct of the group assignment and peer assessment.

For those students who wish to see example calculations of how a peer assessed score is determined from the survey rubric, present Table 3.3 and Table 3.4, and refer to the Frequently asked questions in this chapter for the underlying mathematical processes.

Develop a team charter

A team charter or psychological contract defines how the teammates will work together, make decisions, resolve conflict and develop high psychological safety. These are typical questions you can ask students to discuss in their teams as a basis for their team charter (Mazani, 2001)

  • What is the team’s purpose and ambition?
  • What grades are teammates aspiring to achieve?
  • What skills and knowledge do the teammates want to learn about and practice?
  • When, where, and how will the team meet?
  • Who will chair meetings? How will this role rotate?
  • How will the team manage its time during meetings? Outside of meetings?
  • What processes for making decisions will the team strive for?
  • How will the team manage conflict?
  • How will the team ensure members are meeting their personal objectives and the team’s objectives?
  • How will the team ensure that each teammate feels safe to take risks such as asking questions, proposing ideas, and admitting mistakes?
  • How will the team ensure the terms of the contract are met?

Pascale’s wager
Here’s a cautionary tale you might share with your students at they refine their team charter.

Several decades ago I drove to collect my daughter, Hannah Pascale, from kindergarten. As I arrived unobserved, I overheard my daughter explaining to her friend “If there’s something your dad wants you do, and you don’t want to… just pretend you don’t understand”.

I explain to my students “There is no ‘I don’t understand!?*’. If you don’t understand, ask your team. Ask your teacher! You are students. You are here to ask and learn! You are not Hannah Pascale … aged 4.”

I recalled this tale at my daughter’s wedding recently, to which one guest responded “…. and she still tries it on!”…. but less successfully with me!

Conduct a team-building exercise

TIP! Give students the earliest opportunity to work together especially when they conduct virtual teamwork beyond the convenience of the classroom or campus.

Help your student teams gain confidence in working productively with each other, both within and beyond your classroom. As an exercise, have your new groups experience a team building exercise that tests the durability of their team charter. After the exercise, provide time for students to to revise and improve their charter.

Principles and methods for arranging teams

One principle to guide the arrangement of students into teams is that each team should be composed such that each has an equal opportunity to achieve as good a grade as any other team. Naively, that implies that each team should possess a diversity of academic potential, measured by a proxy for previous academic achievement such as Grade Point Average. Secondly, since one important aim of using group assignments is to develop teamwork capabilities valued by students’ future workplace there is merit in ensuring each team is heterogeneously composed according to students’ age, gender, country of origin, and personality.

Here are several methods for arranging teams

  • Random allocation The teacher assigns each member of the class randomly to a group, typically using a computer-assisted randomiser
  • Student-selected Students recruit members to their team in an anarchic process of ‘first up, best dressed’
  • Diversity-managed The teacher applies a crude heuristic first allocating the most scarce and/or important resource across teams (for example, academic achievement to date), then scarce ethnicities or nationalities, then age (as a proxy for maturity), finally gender. In a variation, some teachers ensure that minorities, broadly defined, are always clustered in pairs with teams. For example, in an engineering school with which I am familiar, there are either two women, or none in a team.
  • Leader fair-share The teacher receives nominations from the class for ‘team recruiters’ according to the required number of teams. Next, the team recruiters take turns to recruit one additional member. As each teammate joins, the growing team makes the decision on the next member to recruit. Eventually, all class members are allocated to a team. In a variation, I allow a student to reject one invitation to join a team. They must accept the next invitation they receive.

Almost by definition, you will not achieve a set of teams equally matched across all desirable attributes. In particular, the student-selected and random method of team arrangement will rarely achieve the richness of diversity that you can achieve through the diversity-managed heuristic, and, to a lesser extent, the leader fair-share method.

Furthermore, it has proved remarkably difficult for even the most well-endowed and commercially-motivated researchers to predict the future success of a team based on the attributes known at the instant membership of the team is designated. Since the 1960’s Meredith Belbin’s research with teams enabled his development of a personality-based platform that promised this desideratum. However, in my experience, the platform is more likely to help you identify teams that will experience dysfunctional outcomes, such as the so-called Apollo Syndrome. There is also the practical difficulty of ensuring all students complete a relevant psychological personality test BEFORE you arrange teams. For instance, I usually have my student teams working together during their first class, so I prearrange teams before the first class, making minor adjustments for new and absent students on the fly in class.

In a few courses, serious exploration about the value of personality and its contribution towards high-performing teams is directly pertinent to the curriculum. Pertinent classes include organization development, leadership, and management development. However, such exploration merits little or no attention in many other courses courses where group assignments are also used. Over 25 years of teaching, I have employed several personality instruments including Belbin Team Roles, the Margerison McCann Team Management Profile, and Gallup Clifton Strengths. The academic programmes included a senior undergraduate adventure and action learning practicum, and masters programmes in innovation, entrepreneurship, and organization development. I certainly found having students share and discuss their personality profiles was productive in helping teams respond to issues arising from the ‘hand of cards’ with which their team had been dealt. However, discussing such matters is rarely relevant to the immediate academic learning outcomes of other programmes.

Furthermore, in a teaching context of 8 to 12 week teaching episodes, I have found it impracticable to use personality tests as a basis for spreading talent around in a way that anyone might declare ‘balanced’ or ‘fair’. Moreover, in the workplace, teams are rarely formed where personality profiles are they key determinant. The workplace requirements are typically pragmatic – personnel availability, relevant technical skills and knowledge, and sufficient teamwork and communications skills. In the next section, we explore how recent research from information technology company Google’s quest to build the perfect team has implications for helping your student groups achieve better performance from their ‘hand of cards’.

‘How’ is more important than ‘who’

In 2012, Google’s People Operations Department recognized that its conventional wisdom about what made individuals and teams productive was not substantiated by research-informed evidence. Consequently, Google commissioned a far-reaching research project, code-named Project Aristotle to address the question “What makes a team effective at Google?” (re:Work, n.d.) Over several years reviewing research literature and Google’s own teams, no strong patterns for identifying the composition of successful teams emerged. There appeared to be many ways for a team to be ‘good’ rather than average. Furthermore, teams identically composed could deliver either good or dysfunctional outcomes (Duhigg, 2016).

The Google researchers happened across the notion of psychological safety, defined by researcher Amy Edmondson in 1999. Elaborating on Edmondson’s work, Google defined psychological safety as
“referring to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” (re:Work, n.d.)

Reanalyzing their data, Google found that whilst several team behaviors were important for team success, psychological safety, more than any other factor was critical to making a team work highly effectively as illustrated in Figure 4.1. What really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

Now, psychological safety is not something that can be predetermined nor imposed externally. It’s something that must be developed explicitly and consciously by the members of a team. Specifically, there are processes that the team can undertake to measure and build psychological safety. A case study (Return Path, n.d.) illustrates how the company Return Path reoriented its human resource management practices to focus on team effectiveness (in contrast to individual effectiveness) through measuring team engagement and conducting peer feedback.

For your student teams, their first step is to construct and actively use the team charter introduced earlier. Teammate peer assessment and the formal team feedback event presented in Step 6 – Courageous conversations, Chapter 8, further advance your teams towards improving their level of psychological safety.

Figure 4.1 The prime importance of psychological safety for achieving effective teams

Source: re:Work. (n.d.). Identify dynamics of effective teams

Adjustments to team composition

Inevitably, you will find several matters disrupt the initial team arrangement you planned.

  • New students enrol or arrive late for the class
  • Students withdraw from or fail to arrive for the class
  • A team requires a restructure for extreme reasons

Choose a peer assessment platform that handles fluently these adjustments without loss of survey results already submitted by students.

How Peer Assess Pro helps

Table 4.1 How Peer Assess Pro helps the team building step

Knowledge base - studentsVideo and Frequently Asked questions that explain the purpose and process of teammate peer assessment and feedback. Illustrative examples of how peer assessment survey results are used to determine personal results (grades).
Teamset validationIdentifies and distinguishes between critical and informative warnings about the logical validity of the team arrangement, such as duplicate ids, duplicate names, duplicate email addresses, and small teams.
Teamset managementEnables update of the team arrangement (teamset) any time between initial formation of groups and finalisation of the peer assessment process. Only members of teams whose membership has changed must adjust their responses. The platform will automatically notify students of the need to resubmit. You do not need to abandon the peer assessment then launch a new activity.
Multiple, concurrent group arrangementsStudents can be allocated to membership of multiple teams concurrently, provided that separate peer assessment events are scheduled.
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