Designing group assignments
In this unit
This unit includes suggestions for designing group assignments which students will finding motivating. It will cover issues such as making the assignment:
- easily allocated into sub-tasks
- relevant to learning outcomes
How important is the assignment set for the group?
One of the most crucial aspects of group work is the task set for the group. If students engage in their task, they will be more likely to be motivated to be an active participant in group work and develop new skills. Unfortunately, many students find their tasks to be inappropriate or too difficult for group work and thus lack motivation to work collectively on the assignment. In fact, many students view their assignments as little more than an individual assessment task applied to a group of students to reduce marking.
What's a motivating group assignment?
To develop a motivating group assignment, first you need to understand what students look for in a collaborative assessment task. Understanding students' expectations is important because it allows you to see where your task can be aligned with their expectations. It also allows you to identify where alignment may not be possible. These differences can then be discussed with the students so they understand your reasons. Students will always work better when they understand why they are being assessed in a particular way.
There are four important factors which students look for in a group assignment: 1) if it's meaningful 2) if it is easily allocated into sub-tasks 3) what they will learn? and 4) is it achievable?
For students to read
Students are not only motivated by the mark they will receive for their assignment. They are also motivated by the work they will produce.
Students often report that their most motivating group assignments are those which are "client-based". These are assignments where the groups enact the role of consultant and work on an issue which has been identified by the client (in most instances, an organisation). Groups usually produce some form of written report (or in some disciplines a product) which is assessed by the lecturer. Occasionally, the client is also invited to assess the group's output. Students are particularly motivated when they know that the client will be viewing and assessing the work.
Designing "client-based" group assignments are becoming increasingly popular in university settings. Many organisations are interested in participating in such projects because of the insights and perspectives generated by the project groups. Non-profit organisations, with their limited resources, are often keen to become clients and students are particularly motivated to help such organisations.
Some lecturers are even beginning to view the university as a client and are designing group assignments which address particular concerns faced by students and staff.
Easily allocated into sub-tasks
Student groups almost always divide up their task and allocate different sections to each member. Even if you do not want the assignment to be broken up, they probably will (or at least attempt to do so).
Students argue that this is the only strategy to use when they are members of 3 or 4 other groups. Unfortunately, most groups struggle when they attempt to divide up the task because it has not been designed to be broken up. It has been designed to be completed collectively. The rationale behind this strategy is that students learn group skills by closely working together on every aspect of the task.
While this strategy can be effective, it usually takes much longer than one semester for it to work. Furthermore, it usually requires that members work together full-time on the one task. With students working part-time, on more than one task, in more than one group, it is in many ways an unrealistic strategy. There is just not enough time for students to work together on every issue.
Knowing that students divide up their group task, many lecturers are beginning to devise group assignments with this in mind. In these assignments, each group member is required to do a piece of work. These individual pieces are then combined together to form a completed group product (there is usually an introduction and conclusion which the group write together to bring the individual sections together).
Students are motivated by these types of assignments because:
- They are less dependent on each other,
- They don't have to make joint decisions on each and every issue,
- There are fewer disagreements,
- They have the opportunity to "shine" as well as contribute to the group.
Lecturers also benefit greatly from the task design. They are reporting:
- Fewer complaints about free-riding (because each member's work is identifiable)
- Greater enthusiasm for group work
- Less conflict in groups
- Greater peer support
Lecturers also report that they are better able to assess group work. They are able to assess each member's individual piece and how the pieces fit together as a group product.
As with any innovation, there are of course critics to the approach. The main criticism is that students are not working in "fully fledged" groups and, as such, fail to develop a broad range of skills. While this may be true, proponents argue that it is far better to learn some skills well than many at only a shallow level. This approach works on the rationale that students should not be expected to learn too many skills in a semester, but rather focus on a number of key skills (eg. coordination, peer support, accountability). Proponents also argue that the notion of the fully fledged group rarely exists in industry and that their approach more accurately mirrors the "real world". In many organisations, team members often work independently on individual pieces and bring them together to form the product (or the collection of group products). The aim of their approach is to reflect this style of team work and to teach students how to operate under such a system.
It is understandable that many group assignments must be collaborative and result in a single product. For these assignments, it is important to remember that students will try to split the task up. If the task can be logically divided, it may be advisable to help them do so — this will save the group valuable time. If the task cannot be broken apart, this should be clearly explained to students before they try to do so.
What will they learn?
As mentioned earlier, many students are sceptical about collaborative assessment tasks and often view them merely as a way of reducing marking. For students to be motivated to participate in group assignments, they often need to see the tangible benefits of doing so. This is best achieved by designing group assignments which are closely aligned to the learning objectives of the subject.
When designing collaborative assignments, it is important to consider what knowledge, skills and abilities you want your students to learn through group work. While there will be a generic set applicable to most group assignments (eg. learning to communicate and cooperate with peers), there will also be a specific set which need to be geared to the assignment. For example, what type of interpersonal communication skills do you want your students to learn? Do you want them to learn to communicate face-to-face or also to learn computer mediated communication? If the latter is important, then establishing an "on-line" group task (eg. an on-line debate or discussion group) would be appropriate. What type of group presentation/reporting skills do you want your students to learn? Do you want students to learn how to produce a written document as a group and/or to make a formal oral presentation? If you want your students to learn both, then oral group presentation would be appropriate component to the assignment.
All too often, lectures design group assignments with little reference to the learning objectives and this can create confusion for students. For example, students often fail to see how requirements such as communicating "on-line" or making a group presentation are relevant to their learning outcomes. Whilst the objective may be clear to the lecturer, students often have little idea. It is therefore important that the objectives of the group assignment are explicitly made known to students. This is best achieved through a well structured subject outline that breaks down the group assignment into its sub-components and links each component to a key learning objective. For example, in a subject outline, a student might read: "In this assignment, you will be required to communicate with your fellow group members both face-to-face and on-line. This requirement is to help you learn how to communicate in multiple modes and understand how your participation in each mode may vary depending on your preferred communication style." As can be seen in this example, students will understand what they will be required to do and most importantly, what they will learn through their participation.
Is it achievable?
When designing an appropriate group assignment, it is also important to set a task which can realistically be achieved by students within the specified time frame. Whilst the task may be meaningful and challenging, it can become too time consuming and overwhelming for students. This is particularly the case when students are doing equally challenging group assignments in their other subjects. Students often complain that many of their difficulties arise from the multiple group assignments they are forced to do each semester and how many lecturers are either insensitive or oblivious to this fact. The unfortunate result is that students become disillusioned with their group assignments and tend to apply themselves less. This usually results in a decrease in learning, motivation and output quality and an increase in group related problems such as conflict and the withdrawal of effort. To help design a realistically achievable task, it may therefore be worth "standing back" and viewing the group assignment from the student's perspective.
Options to consider
- You may want to invite the client to a class or classes throughout the semester. It may be particularly useful if they attend any group presentations.
- You may want to restrict students from contacting the clients whenever they choose. Clients can become overwhelmed if they are continually being contacted by students.
- You may want to provide samples of work completed by groups in previous years.
- You may want to discuss how groups, particularly those who have done well in previous years, have gone about completing their assignment (eg. how they allocated tasks to members).
- If you are having difficulties finding a "real" client, design your group assignment around a "mock" client (eg. a hypothetical client or a client from a previous year).
Students are often still motivated to perform for a mock client because they enjoy enacting the role of the professional consultant.