Christine Harrington Professor, Psychology and Student Success - Middlesex County College
Group projects are a great way to promote the development of many important skills while allowing students the opportunity to dive deeper into course content. However, I’m sure I’m not alone in my struggle to figure out the best way to grade group work. Over the course of the past fifteen years, I have been continually asking myself whether I should use group grades, individual grades, or a combination of both. I also wonder about whether group members should be active participants in this process.
Does it have to be graded?
The first question we need to ask is whether the group work must be graded. King and Benke (2005) remind us that we don’t need to grade everything. Grades are often viewed as a way to motivate students to engage, participate, and perform. We can also motivate students by providing a rationale about why you are asking them to participate and the benefits of doing so. For instance, I tell my students about research that highlights how we learn more when we work with others as opposed to working alone (Schmidt & Moust, 1998). In my classes, we are engaged in many different types of group work. I don’t grade all of it. I typically only grade the group project where students must work together to produce a final product, such as a presentation.
Should we include students in the grading process?
Faculty members often ask students to participate in the grading process; however this can be problematic. First of all, students are likely to give high grades to both themselves and their group members (Breneiser, Monetti, & Adams, 2012). Second, we are asking students to shift from the role of peer to one of evaluator. In addition to this not being an appropriate role for students, they also do not have the training needed to effectively grade others. As we all know, grading is a complex task! On a related note, I’ve heard some faculty talk about giving group members the power to “fire” other members if they are not completing their tasks and meeting the group expectations, modeling the world of work where employees may get fired for not completing job tasks. However, it is not typical for colleagues to be able to fire colleagues in the world of work. King and Benke (2005) caution us against this approach because it can promote unhealthy and unproductive relationships. This potential for negative interpersonal relationships is perhaps the most important argument against using group grades. Using a peer grading process may result in interpersonal conflicts among the groups (King & Benke, 2005). Thus, although the group experience was designed to promote positive relationships, it can have the opposite effect when students are involved in evaluating/grading their peers. In addition to the potential negative consequences for students, a group grading process can be quite time consuming and cumbersome for faculty. This may take time away from more productive and meaningful tasks.
Should we use group or individual grades?
The easiest approach is to assign a group grade based on the final project; however, this can be problematic. Research shows that group work can negatively impact the grade of a high performing student while positively impacting the grade of a lower performing student (Almond, 2009). High performing students are often frustrated by doing the lion’s share of the work while lower performing students may be engaged in social loafing and getting a free ride. Barfield (2003) found that students who were inexperienced with group work were more likely to believe that everyone should get the same grade as compared to students who have had more experiences with groups. After participating in groups, students quickly realize that a group grade may not be fair.
Throughout the years, I have tried numerous approaches to grading group work. Most recently, I have opted to primarily use an individual grading system. Holding students accountable, an essential part of productive collaborative groups, by having them submit parts of the project prior to working together on the group has worked well for me. For instance, I typically have students do a final group presentation on research. Prior to meeting with groups, students must complete a paper on the same topic as their presentation. This way all members of the group have something to contribute and as the faculty member, I’m better able to assess individual contributions. I will often also use a group accountability log or online discussion forum so that I can track the contributions by group members on an as needed basis. When students know their contributions are being monitored and they are being held individually accountable, they are more likely to actively engage and participate in the group process.
Feedback is a Different Story
Group members do have access to information that the professor may not have, especially related to level and nature of contributions being made throughout the group process. Thus, I do believe it is important to ask group members to give one another feedback. Rather than feedback in the form of grades, it can be more formative in nature. Formative assessment promotes positive relationships as students are supporting one another before grades are assigned by the professor. To maximize the effectiveness of this feedback process, it is important to provide students with some structure about how to provide feedback. Focused feedback will in most cases be more productive and useful than general feedback. Providing a structured format for this process will lead to better outcomes. Another way to use feedback is to ask group members to submit progress reports that summarize what tasks have been completed and by whom. Progress reports can help you discover problems that may need to be addressed early on instead of at the end of the group process, and provide you with good information about how well the workload is being managed by all members.
While there is clearly no absolute “right” way to grade group work, there are several important factors to consider:
Does it even have to be graded? While grades can motivate, other strategies such as providing a rationale for the project can also be effective.
Involving students in the grading process asks them to do a task that they are not trained to do and this process can contribute to negative interactions among group members.
Asking students to provide constructive formative feedback to one another (and teaching them how to do so) can increase student learning and facilitate a supportive group environment.
Individual grades for group projects are generally more fair and meaningful.
It should also be noted that many of the problems that arise during group work can be prevented by training students on how to function effectively in a group, providing clear guidelines and expectations, and using some class time for group work. This last point of using class time is an important one as it allows us the opportunity to provide ongoing formative feedback to groups about their progress. This will result in a better academic outcome and will make grading a more pleasurable experience.
Almond, R. J. (2009). Group assessment: Comparing group and individual undergraduate module marks. Assessment & Evaluation In Higher Education, 34(2), 141-148.
Barfield, R. L. (2003). Students’ perceptions of and satisfaction with group grades and the group experience in the college classroom. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(4), 355-369.
Breneiser, J. E., Monetti, D. M., & Adams, K. S. (2012). The Nexus between the above-average effect and cooperative learning in the classroom. Educational Research Quarterly, 36(2), 42-61.
King, P. E., & Behnke, R. R. (2005). Problems associated with evaluating student performance in groups. College Teaching 53(2), 57-61.
Schmidt, H. G., & Moust, J. C. (1998). Processes that Shape Small-Group Tutorial Learning: A Review of Research. Retrieved from ERIC database.
1 This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2014 Lilly International Spring Conference in Bethesda, MD – Maximizing Learning via Group Work: Putting Research into Practice (click the link for session handouts).