During my post-secondary education I always had some mixed feelings when I would find out that there was group work in a course I was taking. On the one hand, I was excited at the prospect of learning with and from my peers. On the other hand – as anyone who had a poor group experience in the past – I worried that some members in my group might not be as committed and would not put in effort into the project.
Group work in the classroom has many learning benefits. Students get an opportunity to work on some more generic skills, such as working in a team, collaboration, leadership, organization, and time management, among others. These are the kinds of skills that are valued by employers, and as competitiveness in the entrance into many professions grows, it is becoming increasingly important to teach them in university.
Despite these positive points, many students (and some instructors) have mixed feelings about group work, just as I did in my classes. One major concern in group work is that some students will not contribute equally to the work within their group – a behaviour called free-riding. According to studies, free-riding was identified as one of the greatest concerns students had about group work, across faculties and disciplines (Gottschall & Garcia-Bayonas, 2008; Hall & Buzwell, 2013). Since most of the work is done in a setting where the instructor cannot observe the group dynamics, instructors might have similar concerns about free-riders. The fairness of the assessment process might be compromised if students do not contribute equally but receive the same group mark.
One solution to determine how much individual students contributed to the group project is to ask group members to assess each other, in a process of peer assessment. In this situation, peers are providing feedback on their group members’ contribution levels to the project, not assessing the actual project itself. This is a popular technique because group members are in a position where they clearly see how their peers have contributed. Students are also able to decide what kinds of contributions were valuable in their unique group setting. This can include the forms of contribution that are more difficult to quantify, such as attitude, receptivity, insightfulness, organization, etc. Each student’s final grade is then a reflection of both the whole group project, as graded by the instructor, plus the peer assessment of their contribution. Each student will then come out with a unique grade.
Final Grade = group project (marked by instructor)
+/- individual contribution level (rated by peers)
Some considerations for peer assessment of group work contribution include:
- Set the expectations for group work: Start off the group projects with a class discussion about the expectations for each student, and why the peer assessment of contribution is important. Students will have a better understanding of their responsibilities in the group, and will know that contribution is an important factor in their grade.
- Criteria of the peer assessment: The best practice is to provide students with at least some guidance or criteria to help rate their peers (Goldfinch & Raeside, 1990; Wagar & Carroll, 2012). Depending on the type of project, the instructor can ask students to rate members based on contribution to each project task, they might ask for ratings on generic skills such as level of enthusiasm, organization, etc., or a combination of the two. Whatever criteria the instructor selects, it is beneficial to involve the class in the decision.
- Open peer assessment versus private peer assessment: Should students have an open discussion about group member contributions, or should they rate each other anonymously? According to Wagar and Carroll (2012), students show a preference for confidential peer assessment. Having an open peer assessment can detract from the sense of collaboration, and students might be afraid of openly criticizing and offending their peers.
- Timing of the peer assessment: Ideally, students should be given the criteria of the peer assessment at the start of the project, and fill it in once the project is completed. This allows students to understand from the start how they will be assessed, especially if they divide the work in unconventional ways that might do not fit into the criteria. Students can also pay closer attention to contributions throughout the project, and make more accurate assessments (Goldfinch & Raeside, 1990).
Visit the CTE Teaching Tips to read more about methods for assessing group work, and other group work resources.
Goldfinch, J., & Raeside, R. (1990). Development of a peer assessment technique for obtaining individual marks on a group project. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 15(3), 210-231.
Gottschall, H., & Garcia-Bayonas, M. (2008). Student attitudes towards group work among undergraduates in business administration, education and mathematics. Educational Research Quarterly, 32(1), 3-29.
Hall, D., & Buzwell, S. (2013). The problem of free-riding in group projects: Looking beyond social loafing as reason for non-contribution. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(1), 37-49.
Wagar, T. H., & Carroll, W. R. (2012). Examining student preferences of group work evaluation approaches: Evidence from business management undergraduate students. Journal of Education for Business, 87(6), 358-362.