Assessing Group Work Contribution – Monika Soczewinski

skydivingDuring 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Quarterly32(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 Education14(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 Business87(6), 358-362.

Community of Inquiry in Online Courses – Monika Soczewinski

Photo by Dan Barbus; retrieved from Creative Commons; license agreement
Photo by Dan Barbus; retrieved from Creative Commons; license agreement

Online courses and programs, and courses with a significant online component, continue to be a popular option for students due to their flexibility and convenience. However, as many students and instructors taking part in an online, or mostly online, course would agree, there can be unique challenges as well. One of these challenges is the sense of isolation students can experience while online. A student might feel disconnected from the class and instructor, and simply read assigned readings and submit assignments, all without engaging in any significant contact with others in the course or engaging in deeper learning. As someone who is currently enrolled in an online graduate program, I can attest that feeling isolated can happen in online or mostly online courses, but it certainly does not need to.

Mostly I have been lucky in my program and had wonderful instructors who worked hard at making the courses engaging and rich in collaboration. One course design in particular comes to mind, which helped make that course one of my most valuable learning experiences. The instructor in this course used the Community of Inquiry (COI) model to structure our course. This model was developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer at the University of Alberta. A course designed using this model strives to establish three important elements – cognitive presence, teaching presence and social presence.  The purpose of these three components is to create a shared learning experience for the students, which is reflective, collaborative and meaningful.

Cognitive presence has to do with students developing critical thinking skills in the subject area, and gaining a meaningful understanding of the topic. This part of the COI model can be fostered by asking students to engage in regular reflections and through guided discussions with their peers (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). In other words it has to do with helping students create meaning of the material they are learning, and can be accomplished with the support of the next two components.

Teaching presence includes how the learning experience is designed and organized, how it is facilitated, and also includes the leadership component of moving the course forward in the right direction (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). An important aspect of teaching presence is that it is not something that only the instructor is responsible for; instead the students increasingly share in this responsibility as the course progresses. It might be difficult to visualize how students can take part in teaching presence, because those components are traditionally solely the responsibility of the instructor. To give you an example from my own course, our instructor gave small groups of students the opportunity to lead the class discussion for a week on a given topic. This included designing the key questions to lead the discussion, making sure the discussion progressed smoothly, and preparing a summary of the conclusions the group reached.

Social presence is a component that might seem tricky to achieve, even in a fully in-class course, but is well worth the effort to strive for. It involves the creating of an environment that allows students to “be themselves” and therefore better identify with each other and the material. By providing an online setting that encourages the sharing of thoughts, reflections and experiences, students can build relationships and engage in discussions for a deeper learning experience (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). In my own course, the instructor first guided us by his own example. In the discussion boards he asked open ended questions, promptly responded to student comments, shared his own experiences and encouraged us to share our thoughts. More than that he made the atmosphere comfortable by being warm and personable with little gestures such us using our names, and even using emoticons when giving praise. Students quickly started to feel comfortable and realized that their thoughts and ideas were valued. Soon we all picked up on the example of the instructor and allowed ourselves to make reflective comments, give each other feedback and share ideas.

Using this framework, a course takes on a more active learning approach, rather than the more traditional lecturer-centered approach. Through active learning students can collaborate and integrate their learning and experiences to create a new shared knowledge (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). Each of the three components of the COI model are important on their own, but it is when combined that the model really makes an impact on the learning experience. When trying to incorporate some of the tactics of the COI framework the key thing to keep in mind is that this is a technique that takes planning, dedication and a time-commitment – both from the students and the instructor.

If your interest in the COI framework is piqued, you may want to visit the Community of Inquiry website, which includes publications about the model and even discussion boards where researchers and practitioners can engage in a community of inquiry on the topic.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 17-23.