The Eternal Pain of Group Work

I set more group work now than I used to, in both 1st and 2nd year. It’s always interesting when it is group work season because the students are somewhat more fraught than normal and  staff (myself included) are enhancing their diplomatic skills. I always feel like running group work is like putting out fires: you correct the major flash points only to find that the following year a whole different set of issues arise. There can be no doubt that group work is valuable and essential, but it is challenging for all concerned.

I considered using webPA (http://webpa.ac.uk/) for a bit of group assessment this year. I found the interface quite challenging to navigate and the basic concept a little confusing. Having thought about it some more, I could work around the major concern I have if I needed to but it wasn’t obvious at first. My understanding of webPA is that an academic grades a group assignment and webPA uses student generated weightings to moderate that grade to reflect the contributions of the students. My problem was that I could see no way to ensure that the highest grade achievable was the one assigned by the academic and not 100% (because marks of greater than 100% are not allowed by default). I can see how this is perceived as fairer because students contributing little get a lower mark, but my confusion came because I had already split the group work assignment into a group mark for the work and a component for working in the group. It is easier for me to allow the students to directly mark each others performance and convert that into a grade for the additional component, with appropriate measures for students who do not participate at all (e.g. they get zero for the group work task and the working in a group).  Thinking about webPA as peer moderation of a group work mark makes thinking about it much easier (as advertised on the webPA site) but I’m still disquieted by the notion that peer moderation of a mark given to assignment can raise it beyond that which academic judgement felt was valid.

Group work is an authentic activity for students. There are very few aspects of ‘real life’ that do not require the skills that are developed in group work but it is not common in group work to assign the type of hierarchy that may exist in many work place scenarios.  Group work undertaken by a group of peers with no specific designation or area of responsibility would be unusual in a work environment. Group work where everyone has different roles to play by virtue of their job description is probably more typical. In the former case, the group has to establish who has what skills, in the latter, the skills are broken down automatically.  And you can’t please everyone…