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Groupwork Fairness & Assessment

What's this study about?

Undergraduate students are increasingly dissatisfied with ‘groupwork’ as a form of module assessment, mainly due to concerns around unequal workload distribution, relative task contributions, and the perceived inequity in collegiate grading. Despite the best efforts of higher education (HE) programmes to address these concerns, grievances (particularly with groupwork) are aired in module evaluations and feedback as students continue to site 'unfairness' in relation to HE assessment.


Despite unsatisfactory feedback groupwork continues to be a preferred mode of HE assessment predominately because it generally facilitates the division of large student cohorts into smaller units (Gibbs, Lucas, Simonite, 1996), wherein students can foster a sense of belonging (Jacques, 2000), and engage in constructivist learning. This in turn nurtures the development of a range of skillsets including; negotiation, respect, communication, empathy and collaboration, that are desired by employers (Ornellas, et al., 2019). Notwithstanding these ‘organically’ positive outcomes, groupwork as a mainstay of assessment bundles is often met with resistance, from practitioners and students alike.

This project aims to prototype and trial a new framework comprising a team-oriented autonomously structured template (TOAST) and two-tier group allocation protocol (GAP), which intends to alleviate the above concerns. With respect to this style of ‘groupwork’ provision, the empirical evidence collected will help ascertain:

(i) the efficiency of the embedded group assessment workload lifecycle (GAWL) for HE practitioners, 

(ii) the relative changes in the motivational profiles of students to engage with the work and,

(iii) any residual ‘organic’ benefits to the students from the new group responsibilities and immersion

(iv) the stressed conditions which brought about (un)fairness when students assimilated into groups.

Why use groupwork as a form of assessment?

It is well established that groupwork as a form of HE assessment, which bridges the peer-scaffolding approach to learning from secondary education, and team-building skills required in the workforce, tends to be both goal-directed and non-prescriptive. This can have the counter-intuitive effect of limiting student autonomy and intrinsic motivation through two parallel mechanisms. Firstly, the ‘free-rider’ effect resulting from overemphasis on goals means that it becomes strategically optimal for some members of the group to exert less effort than others, with respect to tasks for which some members have a clear competitive advantage; this game-theoretic dilemma can lead to more-able members feeling forced, and less-able members feeling useless (Freeman & Greenacre, 2011).


Secondly, differences in lower-level cognitive and behavioural traits and preferences can lead to imbalances in the coordination of members’ contributions relative to the available activities, if these are not well-defined in advance. This latter issue correlates with divergent personalities and is mediated by socio-cultural factors; this can make the difference between group anarchy versus effective teamwork (Gibbs, 2019). Both issues can lead to student frustration and secondary complaints about the distribution of grades. Furthermore, poor feedback against course modules, conveners and practitioners means that the terms of group assessment are continually re-negotiated to find the right balance that satisfies the individual needs of students, while maintaining the learning benefits accruing to groupwork.


Groupwork intervention

To address these challenges, this exploratory project adopts a ‘prescribe and clawback’ doctrine to the inherent group structure/individual autonomy core. This TOAST approach is a detailed specification of the group project which is developed against the module aims and assessment criteria. It assigns clearly defined and unique tasks (broadly divided into Planning, Designing, Rehearsal and Delivery) to each team member, anticipating a long-tail for the Planning component which is individualised. To enable a ‘clawback’ of group mechanics, groups are not allocated until the planning stage is complete, although all students will be aware of the totality of the tasks required for the project in advance. The non-specificity of the group membership until a late stage means that there is less time to instigate ‘free-rider’ problems.


Research findings & publications

A seeding project was conducted between 2019-2020 on an undergraduate module in at a university based in London. Findings are currently being put forward for publication. 

The groupwork template (TOAST) used in this study is available for download and can be curated to meet the criteria of other programmes and courses. If you would like some more information on using this approach please contact me for more information. 


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