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The 5 pillars of effective group assignments

“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,” Kenneth Bruffee.

There are many benefits to effective group work. Kenneth Bruffee summarises one key benefit well. The ability to work collaboratively is not an innate skill. It must be learned. Once learned, students can produce work of a higher academic quality and feel a greater sense of engagement with their results. However, these are key outcomes of effective group work.

In a perfect classroom, students would understand the value of group work, organise themselves accordingly and take these learnings with them into the real world where indeed the ‘stakes are high’. However, educators and students alike will be quick to tell you that is rarely the case. Group work is often met with disdain due to the uneven distribution of work as some students take the brunt of the work.

This is why successful group work stems from good teaching. To prepare students for success, educators must give structure to the teams. Our research has identified five pillars that inform good practice for achieving effective group assignments.

Pillar 1 – Assuring fairness

Our first pillar acknowledges one of the fundamental issues of group work: contribution. Not every student contributes equally to a project, therefore, it is not appropriate or motivating to give one grade for the whole team. This is why teachers must rely on peer assessments amongst teams to assess contribution fairly.

Pillar 2 – Addressing freeloading

To prevent freeloading, educators must outline how a student’s contribution to the group work will determine their grade. At the start of the project, it should be clear to students that the educator will rely on the students to assess the effort of students. This degree of effort will determine if the student passes or fails.

Pillar 3 – Introducing assessment criteria

Before students begin the group work, the educator must address how they will be assessed. Students must be trained on how to assess their peers. They must then provide feedback in a timely manner so their peer has time to correct their behaviour and contribute positively to the group work.

Pillar 4 – Training students to work together

Teamwork is a learned skill. As an educator, you can help set students up for success by training them to work together. If you do not have a specialisation in leadership or coaching, consider having your institution’s learning centre conduct a teamwork workshop. Alternatively, if you’ve recognised leadership characteristics in some of your students, you could request they conduct a presentation for the class.

Pillar 5 – Preventing dysfunctional behaviour

Identifying dysfunctional team behaviours, such as outlier ratings or inflated self-assessments, can help you prevent at-risk students from failing. With timely intervention, you can reverse these potential failures around before it is too late for the student.

Once you understand these pillars, you will be prepared to begin teaching effective group work in your classroom. For more details on each of these pillars, and how to conduct effective group work in your classroom, download our eBook, the definitive reference guide for group assignments and peer assessment.

How to teach using group assignments: the 7 step formula for fair and effective team assessment
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