September 23rd, 2008

Assessment in Groups Round 2


The September 4 blog offers criteria for assessing the contributions of individual students when they work on group projects.

My mentor and colleague Gene Melander responded with a number of salient points, including this one: “A frequent rationale provided for making collaborative learning assignments references a need to prepare students to function as members of teams in world-of-work settings. It is a misconception, however, to assume that members of teams are assigned in practice as if they were interchangeable parts, as if each member could do the project if only there were enough time and resources.”

As soon as I read that, I knew he was making an important point. When we use (or have students use) the same criteria to assess each other’s contributions to the group process, we are saying that every group member should do exactly the same things in the group.

Gene makes the point more eloquently, “In fact, in world-of-work practice most teams are assigned to complete tasks of an investigative, evaluative, planning or strategy formulation nature and individual members are selected on the bases of specific knowledge or skills. The group is expected to think together, learn from each other and act collaboratively by incorporating individual inputs to expand the vision, possibilities and judgment bases for the group as a whole. In this group, as everyone learns from each other, individuals with their unique perspectives serve as teachers of the others, and the learning outcome for the group is more than the sum of the parts. When groups function like this, the criteria for peer assessment should focus on the contributions of each individual. In short, how well did that individual bring his or her personal knowledge and capacities for critical and creative thinking into the group’s interactions?”

This does make assessing individual contributions a whole lot more complicated. And while I don’t think we want to walk away from that, I’m wondering if there might still be a place for criteria like those offered in the September 4th blog. We are starting with students who have little or no experience working productively in groups. If you don’t arrive at group meetings on time, prepared and ready to work, you aren’t going to make contributions that build and grow the ideas of others in the group. Maybe it’s a bit like learning to print before learning to write.

I don’t think this mitigates Gene’s point. If we are using group work to teach collaboration, we do need to design assignments and assessment mechanisms so that they move students to these more complex skills.

—Maryellen Weimer