Working effectively in groups is a 21st Century skill that is becoming increasingly important. This is my reflection on how we can effectively evaluate group work and projects. Further, what checks and balances can be put in place to improve the accuracy of group grades?
This choice of topic immediately stood out to me because of it’s natural, logical progression from previous reflections I worked on in PIDP 3100 – Foundations of Adult Education. Those reflections led to me putting forth a concerted effort to incorporate collaborative work during class time and also on some evaluations in my courses this semester. Those initial reflections and research helped me understand the undeniable value of teaching 21st Century skills – especially in technical programs, where students are expected to immediately contribute to the workforce upon graduation. Now that I have started incorporating some collaborative work into my courses, I have discovered some challenges. One of them is how to assign groups in a fair and transparent manner, but the other is most certainly evaluating the group work. Therefore, investigating this issue further is something that I am motivated to do and something that I know will start to have an immediate impact on my practice.
There is a lot of peer-reviewed research on evaluating collaborative work, but one of the most interesting and relevant papers that stood out to me was by Clark & Jasaw (2014). They introduced the concept of “triangulation” to evaluate multidisciplinary groups of students carrying out action research projects in rural Ghana. The triangulation approach used evaluations from all three stakeholders, which in this case was the groups themselves, the instructors facilitating the projects, and the community that the work was being done for. The key insight gained from this method is to use a multi-layered approach to evaluating group work: a form of self- and peer-assessment; instructor assessment; and real-world integrated assessment all contributing to the overall evaluation. This seems like an effective check and balance to help improve the accuracy of group grades, rather than simply relying on a single source of evaluation, such as the group itself or the instructor.
One of the concepts that really caught my attention in previous reflections on 21st Century learning skills was the idea of evaluating the process that a group uses to arrive at a solution, rather than evaluating the final product itself. Revisiting this concept is helping me further understand the value and importance of group work. To me, it is not the final product of the group work that is most important, it is the process that the group used to arrive at the final product that should be what the student takes from these learning experiences. Piercy (2013) supports this idea, having had groups of business students evaluate an experiential learning activity through collaborative reflection. His groups of students worked through a real-world scenario. After the exercise, the groups had to present on their performance and discuss any key issues that they experienced. Each group was required to produce an assessed report where they analyzed their performance and related it back to specific learning outcomes. He posits that this collaborative reflection truly helps solidify the learning experience of working with a team. Therefore, if collaboration is being used to develop 21st Century skills, perhaps using reflection as a form of self-assessment is an effective approach to evaluating the process and not the final product.
Several challenges of evaluating group work to develop 21st Century skills have been published. Zulfqar & Shah (2013) reported that their accounting students did not enjoy working in groups nor did they enjoy participating in oral presentations, even though they recognized the importance of developing 21st Century skills. They concluded that as long as there was a robust and transparent system of evaluating students’ performance in place, staff and students prefer group work to be a summatively assessed part of the curriculum. They also concluded that although staff favoured the use of peer-assessment, that students felt uncomfortable performing this activity. This resonates with me because I have also experienced similar sentiments from students already, in the few instances of collaborative work that I have implemented in my courses.
In one of my first major attempts at using collaboration to help develop 21st Century skills, I paired students to produce a technical report based on noise measurements that were taken in an engineering workshop during one of our labs. In the past, this assignment would have been completed individually and the grade would have been based entirely on the instructor evaluating the final product in relation to a rubric.
This semester, I decided to revise this evaluation to incorporate collaboration by working with a learning partner. I thought this might help weaker students improve but also help challenge stronger students by giving them an opportunity to help a peer. Also, rather than the grade of this assignment be based solely on the instructor evaluating the final product, I gave students an opportunity to collaboratively self-assess their own technical report in accordance with the rubric, by submitting a short rationale. Lastly, I asked students to assess their peer by completing a short form that assessed how effectively their partner collaborated and how much work they contributed to the final product. Overall, I thought the assignment was much improved from previous deliveries. However, in hindsight, the self-assessment was still focused on the final product and not the process, and the peer-assessment seemed ineffective as all students graded their peers a perfect score (which I suppose is possible, but not very likely to be accurate).
Based on the research reviewed as part of this reflection, I would revise this assignment in the future by eliminating the peer-assessment portion of the grade, and rather than a self-assessment of their final report in accordance with a rubric, I would have each set of students provide on oral presentation on the process that they went through to arrive at the final product and their self-assessment of that process. This form of collaborative reflection and self-assessment appears to be much more effective at capturing the value of working in pairs and solidifying the importance of the process rather than the final product. This would accomplish several things: it would still offer a multi-layered approach to the evaluation whereby the final grade constitutes student self-assessment and instructor evaluation; it would widen the opportunity to collaborate because students would have to continue to work together beyond the production of the final report; it would enhance the importance of collaboration by having students reflect on the process together; it would provide further learning opportunities on the process of collaboration by having the students share their experiences with the rest of the class.
Overall, there does not yet seem to be an exact science to grading group work. There are, however, some very effective approaches depending on the learning outcomes of the activity. A multilayered approach of self- and peer-assessment, teamed with reflection seem to be at the forefront of effective group work grading because they help provide checks and balances to improve the accuracy of group grades.
Clark, G., Jasaw, G.S., (2014). Evaluating team project-work using triangulation: lessons from communities in northern Ghana. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 38, No. 4, 511-524.
Piercy, N., (2013). Evaluating experiential learning in the business context: contributions to group-based and cross-functional working. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 50, No. 2, 202-213.
Zulfiqar, S., Shah, A., (2013). The use of group activities in developing personal transferable skills. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 50, No. 3, 297-307.