Evaluating assessment strategies for online group work

Donelan, Helen and Kear, Karen (2016). Evaluating assessment strategies for online group work. In: Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference: Making Connections and Sharing Pedagogy, 30 Jun - 31 Jul 2016, Leicester, UK, Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference 2016.


This presentation will report on a recent project investigating the challenge of implementing and assessing group work in a distance learning setting.

Whilst educators and employers agree that being able to work as part of team to solve problems and develop solutions are crucial skills it has also been shown that students often do not enjoy group work or understand why it is important to their studies (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007).

Group working is particularly difficult to achieve in a distance learning setting with significant added challenges in supporting collaboration between group members who may not know each other in person. This project considered the perspectives of students and tutors, involved in an online group project on a level 2 undergraduate module: Communication and Information technologies.

Three key aspects were explored and evaluated:

1. The collaboration and how students interact. There are many collaborative technologies that can be used for online group work. The tools used in the module explored in this project mostly support asynchronous interactions and include discussion forums, wikis and website development tools.

2. The task and what students produce within their group. It is important that group work activities are not only engaging but the tasks and context of the tasks have real-world relevance so that students can understand the value of the work (Herrington, Reeves & Oliver, 2010). In a distance learning setting, where building something physical is often impractical, the output of group work usually takes the form of a piece of written work or a digital artefact, such as a website that students are asked to create in this module.

3. The assessment of group work. Assessment is a particularly sensitive issue in group work. One of the reasons students are often unwilling to participate is that the marks they achieve can be dependent on others. Another aspect to consider in assessing group work is whether just the final product (in this case the website) will be marked or will the collaboration process be assessed somehow? The balance of marks between individual and group, and product and process, are also investigated.

The findings show that the majority of students who took part in the research enjoyed the group project and understood the benefit of taking part. Students generally found the collaboration challenging yet rewarding. However, the research also highlighted that group work causes anxiety in some students.

In terms of the task, a tension was identified between allowing students to explore technically challenging solutions to the task set and ensuring that the group focus their time on the important aspects being assessed. In addition, giving students the opportunity to showcase their final products may improve their motivation to do well.

Students were divided in their opinions about the assessment of group work. Whilst the majority of students were happy with the group marks they received, the necessity and fairness of having group marks was questioned and these were obviously a cause of concern and worry for some students.

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