By Callum Wilson
Many higher education courses now incorporate some form of collaborative learning, where students work in groups to produce some output collaboratively. This can have many benefits such as developing students’ teamworking skills and preparing them for group projects in the workplace. Some professional institutions also require courses to have collaborative learning for professional accreditation. One of the challenges with collaborative learning is finding a suitable method of assessing students. In particular, where grades are assigned to a whole group as opposed to individually, this can cause problems of misaligned student behaviour and can often be deemed unfair by students. Here we will look at some advantages and disadvantages in the methods used to assess collaborative learning and provide recommendations for how it should be assessed. We will refer to a case study from an Australian University which looked at assessment policies from various Australian Universities and surveyed academics on their approach to group assessment.
Motivations for group assessment and the opinion of its effectiveness vary between teachers. Most commonly in the study, it is said to improve team working skills and prepare students for group projects in the workplace. In addition, some suggest group assessment can improve the learning experience for students by encouraging them to also learn from each other. For some, one of the reasons for having group assessment is to reduce the marking workload. Regarding the outcomes of group assessment, most teachers from the study agree it teaches students how to work in teams, but less than half agree that students learn "discipline knowledge". This suggests the learning outcomes of group assessment can be more teamwork based than related to subject knowledge.
The most raised issue with group assessment is "free-riding" behaviour. This is where one or several students in a group will do little to no work and still receive a good grade from the other team members’ work. This behaviour has several implications for group assessment. Where group assessment is summative and forms part of a student’s grade, free-riding behaviour can inflate a low-achieving student’s overall grade, which has been shown to happen in other studies. A grade given to the group is clearly not reflective of individual performance in this case. One way to mitigate this is to incorporate peer-assessment, which can either affect students’ marks or simply be used for feedback. Some lecturers also indicate only giving differing marks where students complain about other team members, but the way to do this differs substantially between lecturers.
In addition to free-riding behaviour, summative team assessment can also produce "performance-focussed" behaviour. In this case, with students aiming to achieve the highest mark possible, they will adjust the group work accordingly in a way that might not achieve the desired learning outcomes. For example, the team member who is best at writing does the entire write-up, rather than having a collaborative effort on this part. This also shows that the design of collaborative learning and its assessment are not separable: assessing individual performance from collaborative learning requires careful design to ensure equitable contribution from students.
Common solutions to the issues discussed with group assessment are listed below:
Include an individual component to the group assessment process, possibly through peer-assessment or through teacher observations. Consider holistically the design of collaborative learning and assessment to promote effective teamworking practices. Limit the proportion of a class grade which is assessed by group assessment, e.g., such that students cannot fail on account of group assessment marks.
At the course level, also limit the overall proportion of a students’ grade which comes from group assessment (suggested limit from case study of 30%).
The first point of incorporating individual marking is important where group work assessment is summative and forms part of a grade on a student’s transcript. Some teachers in the study choose not to use peer-assessment as it is deemed beyond the capabilities of students to properly assess each other. Then the teacher must assign individual grades themselves, which ties in to the second point of the overall design of collaborative learning. Some teachers will manage groups themselves with regular meetings. This makes it possible not only for the teacher to assess individual students in a group but also steer the group activities to meet the desired learning outcomes. Of course, this is less feasible in larger classes with many groups. Another way to help teams work effectively is to dedicate class time to teaching industry best practice for teamwork. This is most obviously beneficial where learning outcomes of a class include preparing students for industry projects. Finally, where developing teamworking skills is not a desired learning outcome, it is worth considering whether group assessment is at all necessary, or if it could be replaced with some collaborative learning which is entirely assessed individually.
Where group assessment is still deemed necessary, limiting the extent to which it decides a student’s grade can make it fairer. As discussed, better-performing students tend to get lower grades in group assessment and vice versa. For this reason, it is fairer to limit the proportion of a grade decided from group assessment such that this does not substantially affect a student’s grade. This also applies on a broader scale to whole courses. A student’s transcript should be indicative of their own abilities and not that of their peers, but group assessment may not always assess this effectively. Therefore, limiting the proportion of group assessment in a course, but not necessarily the amount of collaborative learning, means a student’s grades better reflect their own competencies.
[Source paper] Augar N, Woodley CJ, Whitefield D, Winchester M. Exploring academics’ approaches to managing team assessment. International Journal of Educational Management. 2016 Aug 8.