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Nate Palmer is the primary author of Sociology Source, the editor of SociologyInFocus.com, the creator of SociologySounds.com, and a lecturer of sociology at Georgia Southern University.
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Sunday
Dec112011

Grading Group Work Effectively

Students hate group projects because… wait for it… students hate students. That’s right, students hate one another, but only when their fates are intertwined. Weak excuses, blown meetings, unrealistic expectations, and ridiculous requests for hand holding from students[1], these are the things that we as teachers deal with on a regular basis, but students are not accustomed to this side of their compatriots.

But here’s the strange part, while students may hate group work and freeloading students, they will almost never do anything about it. For the longest time I’d have my students evaluate one another after a project using a 1 to 10 point rating scale. Then after a few semesters of getting nearly all 10s most of the time I came to my senses. I mean, even students who passionately complained about their group mates, would give straight 10s to their freeloading peers. To negatively impact a classmate’s grade is apparently akin to snitching for many students.

So how do you hold students accountable for their contributions and promote a good collaborative process? A well designed assessment helps. Below I describe the assessment I use in my classes which you can download here.

1. Rank Your Peers

Asking students to rate each other doesn’t work because giving a 10 to a freeloading student doesn’t harm anyone. However, if you ask students to rank each group member in order of their contribution you can force students to be more honest. I’ve found students struggle with ranking students in the middle (i.e. who should be 3rd and who should be 4th), but ranking the most valueable contribtuion and the least is relatively easy. So keep that in mind when reviewing student’s assessments

2. I Statements

Sometimes the distance between the greatest contribution and the smallest is really not that vast. If everyone worked their tails off, then the top ranked student and the lowest ranked student are artificially separated.

To get an idea of what everyone contributed I ask my students to write a brief description of their contributions to the group. I tell them to use “I statements” to describe what they contributed. For example “I designed and wrote the entire survey and then got 15 people to complete it.” For students who didn’t do much of anything it will be really hard here to “fake the funk” without lying.

I statements are handy here, because if you ask students to describe the contributions of others they are much more likely to see them inaccurately or at the very least subjectively. Furthermore, if the group went south and everyone dislikes everyone else, asking them to talk only about themselves side steps any complianing about their peers that they would like to do. I want to know what happend in their group, but when grading hearing about in-fighting isn’t really helpful.

3. I Deserve - because -

I finish up the assessment by asking them to grade their contribution on a A-F scale and then to persuade me why they deserve this grade. I tell them that if they do a poor job of persuading me, then they will almost certainly not receive the grade they feel they are due. I’ve found that students are much more likely to be honest here if they have to back it up. It’s easy to say, “I deserve an A”, but it’s hard to back it up if you didn’t do anything deserving.

Conclusion

I don’t assign points to any single component of the assessment because I don’t want to comit to a single element of the it more than any other. Each piece of this assessment helps me get a picture of the overall contribution of each student. If you are looking for a non-subjective way to assess your students contribution, then this isn’t the approach for you. However, if you really want to hold students accountable and reward students for their efforts, then this is the way to go.

Lastly, I highly recommend reviewing this evaluation at the begining of your group project. Let the students know how they will be assessed and hopefully the promise of accountability will spring them into action and facilitate good collaboration.


  1. You may read this and think, “wow this guy really doesn’t like students,” or worse, “this guy must work with some of the most awful students in the world.” Niether is the case. I have the privilege of working with hundreds of students a semester and it should surprise no one that out of this large number, a few students have a bad semester or act in way that doesn’t reflect their true character as a student. I work with excellent students, but they are human too and have off days just like we all do.  ↩

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