Groupwork: Design and Assessment

What students are saying about groupwork assessments

"Pay close attention to the issue of fairness; perceived unfairness is the source of students' greatest dissatisfaction."
Getting the most from groupwork assessment, Oxford Brookes University

Many students complain that groupwork assessments are unfair - that it places the group product above the efforts of individuals and that progress can be hindered by difficult group dynamics and lack of effective communication.

How to design good groupwork assessments*

What do students look for in a collaborative task? Understanding their expectations will help you to design groupwork tasks and team assignments that make sense to students. In the context of academic study and research, the terms groupwork and team are used interchangeably here and refer to a group collaborating on a project to produce a piece for assessment.

Ensure that: 

  • the aims and outcomes of the assessment are clear 
  • the assessment task effectively builds on the intended learning outcomes of your subject 
  • the students are actively engaged and supported 
  • processes to monitor student feedback are embedded
  • you have included support and conflict resolution strategies  

Design considerations

Meaningful assignments

Positive student experiences of team assignments are encouraged by the kinds of work they are asked to produce. Not all students are motivated by marks. Team assignments that engage the students with external 'experts' are of value as students know that there will be an expert reviewing the team's output. Students are also more likely to be engaged if they have he opportunity to develop an innovative approach to working with an important contemporary issue.

Keep in mind that tasks that are meaningful and challenging can be time-consuming and can be overwhelming for students. Students may have a number of assessment tasks to complete simultaneously and may resent the workload of certain team assignments.

Easily subdivided tasks

Your rationale for designing the team assignment can be that you want the students to learn the value of working closely together on all aspects of an assignment. You may not want students to divide up a team task, but students probably will.

Time management and levels of interest or prior knowledge can be strong factors for students engaging and dividing the work into manageable sections. This approach presents certain problems as students often find the isolation of 'doing their bit' difficult, and the re-amalgamation of the entire task into say, a final report, can mean that the final collaborative effort does not satisfy all the team members.

To overcome this issue you can design a team assignment with allocated tasks that each member of the team must complete. These individual tasks are then combined together to form a team output and the introduction and conclusion, in a written piece, is written by the team together. Likewise in a team presentation, you can stipulate that all students contribute a small section of the presentation.

Supporting learning

Designing collaborative assignments that closely align to the learning outcomes of the subject, and focusing on what knowledge, skills and abilities you want to engender in your students will assist them to gain tangible benefits from teamwork.

Generic skills such as communication and cooperation, sit with a more specific set of discipline abilities that may need particular attention.

Explicitly communicating to your students the learning objectives and a well structured outline of an assignment, and where it sits in the overall subject design, are important elements in successful teamwork.

The Survival Guides on the Student Learning site provide good advice to help students to avoid and manage problems in their groups and teams.

* Source: Holdsworth, A., Rosse, M., Jamieson, G., Ambrose, K., Teamwork Toolkit, La Trobe University, 2010 [PDF 721KB]

Tips and Suggestions

  • Invite in external 'experts' to provide a brief presentation, attend student presentations, validate the students work, provide constructive feedback
  • Restrict student access to external experts so that they do not become overwhelmed with questions
  • Provide samples of previous assignments as guides
  • Discuss how previous student teams have successfully completed their assignments
  • Design hypothetical briefs, or issues that students can present to an 'expert' if you cannot find a "real" expert.
  • Canvass student comments for issues that they find stimulating within the discipline context as a guide for what you may design as an assignment.

Why not also check out the Checklist for establishing team projects?

Case studies for effective groupwork design

Case study 1: Health Sciences

Course/Discipline: Health Sciences
Number of students: 1,000 - 1,100 students in Melbourne, 600+ students on regional campuses

Description of Teamwork

As a new subject in 2009 (as part of the Common First Year), teamwork was built in from the start with a strong focus on communication and working in teams. Development of teamwork skills is one of the four key learning areas. A five week series of Skills Workshops (teamwork and communication) is followed by two 3 or 4 week enquiries (Weeks 6-8 and Weeks 10-13). The enquiries focus on concepts of disability and illness from the consumer's perspective.

Teaching Approaches

This subject has weekly two-hour workshops. In each workshop there are 30 students divided into five teams of 6. Computer software is employed allocate students to teams, to mix the composition of teams in terms of the students' courses. Students stay in the same team for the whole semester. Team groupings are kept the same as for another Common First Year subject.

Skills development in the first 5 weeks includes exploring team roles and the stages of team development. Team Learning Agreements (TLAs) are used to set the ground rules for the functioning of the team and also for the team to review its performance. These TLAs are examined by the facilitator. TLAs include team goals, philosophy, processes (including decision-making, responsibility for tasks, management of problems, and communicating). Most students set up Facebook groups to facilitate team communication, or can have an LMS discussion board set up for them on request. In the case of a problem within a team, the facilitator joins the online communication, and that often helps to settle the problem. Students are not expected to be able to manage internal conflict without the guidance and support of their facilitator or lecturer.

Assessment

The final products of each enquiry are assessed. Enquiry 1 is a 1,000 word team poster (15%) and Enquiry 2 is a 15 minute team presentation (20%). All team members receive the same mark. According to online student survey results, some students are concerned about the fairness of awarding everyone the same mark, but there have also been problems with peer assessment. The issue of assessment of teamwork is being considered.

Additional Resources

Media resources showcasing well-functioning teams or dysfunctional teams, and online learning materials for students to self-assess their naturally preferred team role, would be welcome additions to existing resources.

Case study 2: History

Course/Discipline: History
Number of students: 300 - 400 across 3 campuses

Description of teamwork

Each team chooses a topic (a mythical figure) from a wide range of options, and then chooses one of 3 possible focus questions. The outcome is a team oral presentation supported by a poster or PowerPoint. The team project spans 5 weeks (including the semester break), from Week 7-10, and makes use of the 1 hour per week of tutorial time, plus additional out-of-class time. Students are provided with detailed step-by-step advice about the research process and with extensive reading lists on the various topics.

One of the reasons for including the teamwork element was that student engagement data showed that the students in humanities/social science were least likely to have a friend at university, least likely to stay on campus for longer than their actual class and, by their own admission, least likely to prepare for that class.

Teaching approaches

From Week 1, students are allocated into teams by the tutor, but then when the assessed task begins, the students form their own groups of 3 students – but this process does vary with different tutors (8 in total). Students have a practice task which requires the team to meet out of class time and present something in class the following week.

Each team is required to keep minutes of their meetings (a proforma is provided) and to post the minutes where they can be accessed by team members (e.g. on a Wiki), and also be available for the tutor to see in tutorials. This provides evidence if someone is not contributing. Teams meet in tutorial time, where they are monitored by the tutor. They are also expected to meet outside tutorial time – but this is not monitored (other than the minutes)

Assessment

The oral presentation, with its accompanying PowerPoint or poster, is worth 15% of the semester mark. The assessment is marked according to six criteria: inquiry/research, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, teamwork, speaking, PowerPoint or e-Poster. Each criterion has notes about scope and evidence, and is graded as A, B, C, D, or N. All team members receive the same mark. Peer and self-assessment have been used in the past, but is not currently used.

Extension

Arising from the team task, the students develop a topic for their individual 1,500 word essay. They are encouraged to form a writers' workshop in their team to help each other with references, read each other's drafts and generally provide peer mentoring.

Case study 3: Law

Course/Discipline: Law
Number of students: 300 students

Description of teamwork

Students work in pairs to conduct a 20 minute role play of a mediation which is performed in Weeks 10,11,and 12. In Week 8 they are assigned their partner and start the preparation. In the preceding weeks, they participate in group activities with different students each week, within the weekly 2-hour skills seminars.

Teaching approaches

For each mediation, the student 'mediators' are given a scenario, a set of facts in about six pages of information, with differently defined roles for each student. The student 'clients' in the mediation are given information that is not given to their mediators. Teams are selected randomly by the lecturer/tutor. Students' participation in tutorials throughout the semester is monitored by tutors, but their work with their mediation partner is not judged until the role play. If there are problems within the mediation pairs, students sometimes record these in their reflective journals, with more serious problems being taken to the tutor/lecturer.

Assessment

Assessment is summative - performance of the role play is worth 20% of the marks for the subject. Although the role play is jointly conducted, each student is marked separately. The reflective journal activity, which is associated with the role play of the mediation, is worth 5% and there is also a class participation mark of 10% awarded by the tutor.

Additional resources

It is intended that readings on reflective practice and teamwork skills will be incorporated into this subject in the future.

Case study 4: Engineering

Course/Discipline: Engineering
Number of students: 35 students at regional campus

Description of teamwork

The motivation for the project is to give students some insight into civil engineering and to provide the opportunity for students to get to know other students. The teamwork project lasts for the entire semester. The Task is to provide advice to government on the installation of a solar electricity generator and to present this advice in an oral presentation and a written report.

Teaching approaches

A lecture is given in Week 2 covering a wide range of aspects of "Working in Teams", including types of teams, team development, team roles, dealing with conflict, and factors affecting performance etc. The class of 35 students is divided into 6 teams of 5 or 6 students. Teams are formed by the end of Week 2, using Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) scores to distribute students across the teams, with 3 teams forming Task Force A and 3 teams forming Task Force B.

Each Task Force has a management team and two worker teams. Teams organise themselves in terms of internal structure, but for the purposes of communicating with the management team they have to appoint a leader to meet weekly with the management team. Formal minutes of meetings are not required, other than for the management team, but attendance is monitored. Timeslots within the teaching schedule are used for teams to meet, plus additional out-of-class time. Each team has a supervisor who meets regularly with the team and monitors their progress. Roles and responsibilities of students and supervisor are clearly defined in the documentation for the project.

Assessment

The teamwork project is the centrepiece of assessable work for this subject. In Week 8 an introduction to the team report is submitted (worth 5%), with the final team report being submitted in Week 12 (worth 65%). The team's Oral Presentation is in Week 13 (worth 15%). The team mark for each of these assessments is shared by all team members.

How to assess groupwork

Groupwork assessment principles

Teamwork is sometimes implemented in the hope of streamlining assessment and marking tasks, as it is seen as a way to reduce the number of assessment items can be vastly reduced.

The following principles are worth considering when designing and implementing team assessment tasks to ensure validity, fairness and reliability:

  1. Designing assessment for teams should be consistent with the subject intended learning outcomes
  2. Ensure that students clearly understand the purpose and procedures of teamwork within the subject.
  3. Encourage and reinforce effective teamwork and comply with principles of good assessment by:
    1. monitoring the team's work and providing feedback
    2. timetabling some of the student's teamwork meetings into the subject meeting schedule
  4. If there is peer assessment and/or self assessment of the relative contribution of students to a team project, then:
    1. provide adequate preparation and support
    2. design a process for collecting the ratings that is confidential, clear and simple to use.
  5. Assessed teamwork should be moderated by:
    1. having an individual component as well as a team component
    2. a rating of contribution of individuals to the team.
  6. The weighting of assessed teamwork to the final subject grade should be commensurate with the subject learning objectives.

Different types of assessment

Assessment option Possible advantages Some Possible disadvantages
Shared group mark
The group submits one product and all group members receive the same mark from the lecturer/tutor, regardless of individual contribution.
  • encourages group work - groups sink or swim together
  • decreases likelihood of plagiarism
  • relatively straightforward method
  • individual contributions are not necessarily reflected in the marks
  • stronger students may be unfairly disadvantaged by weaker ones and vice versa
Group average mark
Individual submissions (allocated task or individual reports as described below) are marked individually. The group members each then receive an average of these marks.
  • may provide motivation for students to focus on both individual and group work and thereby develop in both areas
  • may be perceived as unfair by students
  • stronger students may be unfairly disadvantaged by weaker ones and vice versa
Individual mark - Allocated task
Each student completes an allocated task that contributes to the final group product and gets the marks for that task.
  • a relatively objective way of ensuring individual participation
  • may provide additional motivation to students
  • potential to reward outstanding performance
  • difficult to find tasks that are exactly equal in size/complexity
  • does not encourage the group process/collaboration
  • dependencies between tasks may slow progress of some students
Individual mark - Individual report
Each student writes and submits an individual report based on the group's work on the task/project.
  • ensures individual effort
  • perceived as fair by student
  • precise manner in which individual reports should differ often very unclear to students
  • likelihood of unintentional plagiarism increased
Individual mark - Examination
Exam questions specifically target the group projects, and can only be answered by students who have been thoroughly involved in the project.
  • may motivate students more to learn from the group project including learning from the other members of the group
  • may diminish importance of group work
  • additional work for staff in designing exam questions
  • may not be effective, students may be able to answer the questions by reading the group reports
Combination of Group Average and Individual Mark (weighted)
The group mark is awarded to each member with a mechanism for adjusting for individual contributions.
  • perceived by many students as fairer than shared group mark
  • additional work for staff in setting up procedure for and in negotiating adjustments

Source: James, R., McInnes, C., and Devlin, M., (2002) Assessing Learning in Australian Universities and Table based on Winchester-Seeto (2002)

Real-world learning in groupwork*

Groupwork assessments can offer your students a rich learning experience and help them apply industry-relevant teamwork skills in a real-world environment, long after they have finished your subject.

Group work can encourage intercultural learning and problem solving. Teachers and task designers can encourage students to use and value each others' skills and knowledge.

Principle 1: Focus on students as learners

What to look for

The subject as a whole has been planned to support students' skills development

  • It is not assumed that students will commence a task with the ability to work effectively in groups.
  • Across the subject, there are structured opportunities for teaching, practice and feedback on students' ability to work in groups, including culturally and linguistically diverse groups.
  • Teachers discuss the importance of being able to work in culturally diverse groups with students and some of the challenges and opportunities this provides in different learning and professional contexts.
  • Students have adequate opportunities to demonstrate their learning individually as well as in groups. One way to do this is to use fewer, longer and better-designed group work assignments across a subject.
  • Graduate attributes or program outcomes specify discipline and program specific intercultural and collaborative skills that are developed in groups.

Intercultural group work skills are taught and assessed

  • Teachers seek expert guidance on teaching the intercultural skills needed to work collaboratively in diverse groups.
  • There is time for safe practice in working collaboratively before students are assessed on a group task or product.
  • Students are supported and encouraged in the process of peer learning.
  • Overall responsibility for teaching group work skills is managed at the course and subject level. Individual subject teachers check and reinforce skills teaching. Effective group work skills include communication in English with others who are still developing their capability. Students learn to check that they are understood. Where staff are unsure how to teach this, they seek guidance from language professionals. The ability of individual students to work in culturally diverse groups is assessed only after students have been instructed in how to work effectively in such groups.

Teachers require students to reflect on their intercultural learning as part of the group task

  • When teachers are calculating how much time they can expect students to need for completing the group task, they factor in time for reflection too. Students are given a structured way to make sense of their experiences. Focus is on awareness of current strengths and gaps for future learning. This can be done through reflective journaling or focus group discussion.
  • Assessment of group work includes peer assessment as well as self-assessment and reflection.

When designing group tasks, teachers attend to the workload on students

  • The task brief takes account of the assumed demands (time, travel, research, organised shared work, etc.) for completing the task.
  • Contemporaneous demands on students are considered when setting a group task. Teachers protect students' other commitments from being threatened by an over-demanding group task.

Principle 2: Respecting and adjusting for diversity

What to look for

Assessed tasks are truly collaborative

Task design does not encourage students to divide up the task, allocate subunits to be completed independently then recombine for submission. To require collaboration, the task might be to:

  • 'collect and compare'
  • 'catalogue and evaluate'
  • 'analyse in terms of each member's context then crate a theoretical framework for ...'
  • 'document the process used in problem solving then rank the effectiveness of ...'

Approaches may include:

  • Some teachers design tasks with a 'jigsaw' approach, meaning each student is provided with only part of the information to complete a task. This 'gap' requires the student to work with others to complete the task. In this way, successful task completion evidences successful group work.
  • Students can be set a task which is too difficult for any one member to complete alone, along with a rationale for the task being constructed in this way. Assessment criteria need to make the seemingly 'impossible' feel safer.
  • Assessors might judge the group's progress or their approach; a mark could reflect an individual's learning gain rather than a judgement of the 'perfect' product.
  • Students can nominate or be assigned roles and responsibilities, then be required to record and reflect on each individuals' role achievement. Where this includes peer evaluation, students must be trained and supported to do so in ways that are sensitive to cultural diversity.

Tasks use and value students' cultural, social and personal knowledge

  • Tasks are designed to value how the students complete the task, as well as the end product.
  • Tasks require students to use past experiences or share ideas on how things can be done. This allows scope for a range of approaches rather than assuming those from the numerically or linguistically dominant students will prevail.
  • Assigned roles can be allocated so as to play to strengths or, alternatively, to develop less favoured areas. Knowing students well enough to assign roles assumes prior efforts to audit and reflect on a students' skill sets.

Teachers take care when establishing group membership

Student-selected groups

  • Students select their own groups where tasks are short-lived and/or where only the product or result of the work is being assessed. Since students tend to select those they feel comfortable working with, student selected groups are more likely to just focus on the outcome. Student selection may be preferable where the cohort does not know each other well. It is inappropriate to allow students to select their own groups if encouraging broader interaction is one of the reasons for using groups.

Teacher-selected groups

  • When teachers are designing group work, they include mechanisms for students to react to and perhaps challenge membership decisions. Requests at the onset of group work are treated carefully and are not normally agreed to if there is a pedagogical reason for allocating membership. Later, requests are managed in ways that are specified in the task brief.
  • Teachers are aware of potential clashes between students but avoid stereotyping or over-generalisations. Teachers avoid student combinations which might make collaboration too demanding or even impossible for some students.

Teachers offer choice and negotiation in group work where possible

  • Where there is no negotiation, teachers explain why this must be so.

Teachers consider language issues

  • Teachers seek guidance from professionals/specialists on language issues. Guidance could include strategies for using tasks to enhance students' language development and/or ways of mitigating potential difficulties.
  • Tasks are modified as appropriate to down-play the impact of language on assessed outcomes. For example, teachers might ask for a recorded presentation rather than a 'live' one. The recording could then be followed up by a face-to-face question and answer session to check if the group has met the learning outcome. In this example, students who doubted their language skills and/or felt compromised by a public error could rehearse and correct, yet all students must demonstrate they have learned and understood the task. In another example, the group report could be done as a mind map rather than a full text. If so, then students' ideas and how their ideas inter-relate are prominent, and language fluency takes a back seat on this occasion.
  • Assessment criteria make clear the relative importance of language and content, and then, importantly, markers apply the stated balance. Where balance is not explicit, students often assume a much larger significance for language in their overall grade.

Principle 3: Provide context specific information and support

What to look for

Task requirements are clearly communicated to and understood by students

  • The group work assignment states what students must do, plus any requirements as to how they do it and over what time frame. This enables planning for those who typically require longer to complete a task.
  • Task briefs include what is and is not acceptable in relation to help and support. Examples might include proofreading and additional tutoring.
  • Teachers check regularly with students and peers as to whether their perception of the clarity of materials matches others' views. Materials are accessible to speakers of English as an additional language.

Assessment criteria are clear

  • Assessment criteria balance the importance of how students do the work (the process) with what the group produces (the product). Consideration is given to the fact that diverse groups often take time to negotiate group processes before they can start to work effectively together. This is taken into account by those managing group work.
  • Students have a chance to discuss and explore what the assessment criteria mean, including checking differences with their previous experiences of assessment.
  • Assessment criteria take account of the challenges, potential synergies and benefits of working in diverse groups. By using criteria sensitively, teachers can guide students towards regarding intercultural communication as integral to what is being valued rather than a threat to achieving a quality outcome.

Students are clear on how to seek help and/or teacher intervention, should they need it

  • Before students start group work, teachers discuss common blocks to effective group functioning. These include failing to get to know others, too little time spent agreeing on the process, jumping to conclusions about what someone else means if the other person communicates in an unfamiliar or unexpected way and so on.
  • Teachers monitor group activity through, for example, requiring minutes of meetings, an on-line log or interim reporting, by intermittently observing the group in action or by asking groups to showcase work in progress. Teachers could provide a suggested meeting schedule or an indication of the number of meetings required/expected. Teachers state when, how and in what circumstances students can seek support and once problems have been identified, what action or intervention might occur.

Principle 4: Good teaching across cultures will enable meaningful intercultural dialogue and engagement

What to look for

There is a climate of interaction from Day One

  • Course promotion states that interactive intercultural learning is expected and valued.
  • Students encounter and interact with each other regularly, on and off campus, throughout their studies and in many classrooms. Course and subject documents make clear that students are expected to enter into dialogue with those they perceive as different from themselves as a resource for learning.

Teachers support and choreograph interactions between students, both in and out of classrooms

  • Previous interaction organised at the course level (see under Principle 1 above) means that students can start group tasks with some knowledge of each other's past experiences, strengths and approaches to learning.
  • In class and online teachers guide students on how and when to interact and tell them the rationale for doing so.

Where a group task is required, the teacher has ensured prior social interaction

  • 'Ice breaking' activities are incorporated into face-to-face and online teaching early in each teaching period.
  • 'Getting-to-know' each other is encouraged to continue once groups form. The group size supports and encourages interaction. Ideally the group should be between 4 and 6 members.
  • Activities are designed to raise awareness of fellow students' skills and experiences.

Student-student interaction is a specific aim of group work

  • Group work is not used as a strategy to manage large class numbers and/or to reduce marking time and cost.
  • Group work tasks last many weeks and ideally, up to several months. This allows time for students to use, review and develop their intercultural skills as well as time to ensure they can create a high quality product.

Teachers support interaction using a range of media

  • The range could include: face-to-face, on-line, learning management systems and social media.

Principle 5: Be adaptable, flexible and responsive to evidence

What to look for

Teachers seek students' reactions and feedback

  • Feedback on teaching is collected from different groups' and individuals' points of view. Data can come from teachers, students, from academic learning specialists and even from external observers such as peers, quality assurance officers or external examiners.
  • Feedback is appropriately analysed and attended to by teaching staff and their managers. Key issues are identified and acted upon. Students are informed of the actions that have been taken.
  • Changes are evidence based and care is taken to avoid over reaction to isolated negative comments. Approaches which repeatedly cause issues are modified.
  • Group work is reviewed across the program, looking for patterns in terms of workloads, frequency, and the type of tasks required.

Teachers develop theoretical frameworks to explain and justify their decisions on managing and assessing culturally diverse groups' work

  • Teachers and course designers are familiar with the literature on managing learning in culturally diverse groups.

Staff development needs are identified and met

  • Teaching staff are regularly consulted on their professional development needs in relation to managing culturally diverse groups.
  • Good practice in managing intercultural group work is included in the induction of new staff.
  • Opportunities are provided for ongoing professional development for staff in responding to feedback from students on intercultural group work.

Principle 6: Preparing students for life in a globalised world

What to look for

Students are assisted to deal with negative interactions and experiences in intercultural groups

  • Negative experiences can reinforce rather than challenge stereotypes and assumptions about fellow students who are perceived as 'other'.
  • Opportunities for reflection and discussion of negative as well as positive experiences are included in group work assessment items.

Reflection on the significance of learning in diverse groups and of intercultural work is built into tasks, making reflection on experiences over a course a part of subject design

  • Students are prompted to make explicit links between their experiences in culturally and
    linguistically diverse study groups and their likely post university life. These could be recorded in a personal log and/or other summative reflective process.
  • Teachers guide students on how to use intercultural group work as evidence of intercultural skills in CVs, personal development plans and job applications.