Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Small group work: Are group assignments a legitimate form of assessment?

Robyn Morris and Colleen Hayes
Faculty of Business
Edith Cowan University


The constructivist learning approaches emphasise that learning is an active, constructive, cumulative and goal-directed activity. Group work empowers students giving them a more active role in their own learning.

An issue currently being addressed by the authors and others within the Faculty of Business at Edith Cowan University (ECU), concerns the use of group work i.e., where students are required to complete a small-group project (generally, two to four members) as part of the assessment for a unit. The use of group assignments and group marks was a matter raised by the external Reaccreditation Panel in the last round of reaccreditation at ECU as requiring attention. The concern is with the quality of the students' learning experience, and the wider implications that follow, within the group process in certain instances.

Group work and the use of group assignments is a common practice in many higher education institutions. A review of the unit outlines of courses offered by the Faculty of Business at ECU and the content of a seminar discussion held at a recent Faculty retreat revealed that group work is heavily adopted in the areas of Marketing, Management and Human Resource Management at our university and to a lesser extent in some other disciplines.

In some instances the use of group work in teaching has been a response by lecturers and tutors at all Australian university campuses to coping with an ever increasing workload and declining resources. On the other hand, others are employing it for sound educational reasons. It is used as a strategy to link university learning with the workplace by making tasks more comparable to those experienced in the work environment (Candy et al, 1994, p12), to develop transferable skills such as teamwork, time management, communication and interpersonal skills, to enhance "deep learning" and overall to improve the learning outcomes of students. Problem-based group research projects have the ability to develop critical thinking, interpersonal and communication skills (Candy et al, 1994, p144).

Several issues have been raised in relation to the use of small group assignments and the authors were recently asked to address the matter with a group of academics at a Faculty retreat.

Experiences to date

As a first step in exploring this matter we conducted a series of focus group discussions with two Marketing classes, both of which involved a substantial small group project. The effectiveness and difficulties associated with this teaching method and the assessment procedures of the group assignment formed the focus of the discussions. These were followed up with a seminar/workshop discussion with a group of 18 members of the teaching staff. The objective of these discussions was to use some simple exploratory research to identify student and teacher perceptions on the use of group work in teaching and the concerns relating to the assessment of group assignments.

What the students think

As one would expect, both positive and negative comments were made regarding student experiences with group work. Some of the key points raised are summarised in the following comments. When asked if they felt the allocation of a "group mark" was fair and equitable, it was felt by most that the allocation of group marks was reasonable and in the words of one student it was described as "fair but worrying". The students emphasised that they felt the lecturer needed to know the students and be aware of the efforts put in by the various members. The use of peer evaluation was viewed by one group as not valid when working with friends. This concern is a real issue for students on a small campus like Bunbury. Students expressed a need for having the authority (in consultation with the lecturer) to "expel" any member that does not meet obligations or contribute to the overall group effort and that they be required to proceed alone.

Many parallels can be drawn between the comments made by the students at ECU (Bunbury Campus) and the results of a research study undertaken by Dianne Garland (1996) of the University of Plymouth where students reported the primary benefits of group work to be the development of transferable skills, the encouragement of informal tutoring and support, the enhancement of employment prospects, the ability to take on larger, more complex tasks and exposure to a greater depth and breadth of subject knowledge. The primary difficulties identified involved the "freerider" problem, the achievement of fairness and equity for group members, the underestimation of how time consuming group work is by lecturers, the workload and the logistics of getting group members together. Despite these issues students supported the notion of group work and its inclusion as a component of assessment.

What the academic staff think

The teaching staff felt that the use of group work is a valuable teaching and learning strategy for the following reasons: While most staff felt that group work was a valid and useful learning method there were some that felt that there is no need for it and that it tended to be overused.

Some of the major issues raised regarding the use of and assessment of group work included:

A legal implication of using group assignments and the issue of the "freerider" problem was highlighted when one member of the workshop group related a recent experience. The use of a group project as part of the student coursework requirement resulted in the member of staff awarding one non-contributing student a mark of zero, only to have the student appeal the grade. The appeal was upheld on the grounds that it was specified in the unit outline that the assessment was on a group basis and while admitting to having not contributed at all to the project, the student argued successfully that he had a legal entitlement to pass as all other members of the group had passed.

The non-contributor issue

Both staff and students have expressed concern about the widely recognised "freerider" problem i.e., the problem of the non-performing group member who reaps the benefit of the accomplishments of the remaining group members without little or no cost to him/herself. We draw on the following case from our preliminary research to illustrate the point.

In week two of the semester students A, B & C formed an alignment for the purpose of undertaking a group project which formed the major part of the assessment for the semester in the unit involved. The criterion for self-selection of the group membership was confined to 'who was available in the classroom at the time'. The students divided the work load for the project equally. Student C failed to 'deliver' on consecutive pre-arranged dates. Consequently the group roles were redefined. A & B assumed greater responsibility for the final product, and as a result were obliged to compromise on their aspirations for the standard of performance associated with their respective 'second' unit. Student C's subsequent contribution to the project comprised heavily plagiarised material. Following a request from A & B to correct the situation, the student simply altered the opening four lines and delivered the work at 11.30 pm on the evening before the due date for the assignment. Both A & B were left to rue the experience, question the merit of group work and contemplate appealing pending the outcome of their results.

It is acknowledged that one way of dealing with this dilemma is through the use of peer assessment of the individual group member's contribution (Montgomery, Feb. 1986). However, whilst this provides a means of achieving a measure of equity in such situations, it is our belief that it does not address:

  1. the wider ramifications of the problem evident in the above scenario, nor

  2. the cause of the freerider problem.
In short, our preliminary research suggests that the freerider problem may lie, in part, with the failure of the instructor to adequately 'manage' the group process. Irrespective of our motive(s) for setting group work - to reduce the marking load, economise on project resources, and/or to promote team skills - a consequence of the requirement is that we demand team skills. Under these circumstance it is incumbent upon us as educators to provide students with the opportunity to undergo a productive learning experience in that respect - not least of all given the growing importance of generic (transferable) skills in today's curricula, which, in turn, are an important adjunct of 'learning to learn' (Candy et al, 1994; Candy, 1995). Failure to do so may be counterproductive and, in those circumstances, puts in question the legitimacy of the use of group work as a form of assessment - not to mention the prospect of student appeals on the basis of group work adversely affecting grades.

The evalution of group assignments generally focuses on assessing the end product (the group output - essay, presentation, montage) rather than the processes students go through, and the skills developed through this learning experience, to achieve the output. This is possibly because it is easier to do so.

The literature suggests that there are four critical stages in the development of transferable skills: teach, demand, monitor and assess (Gibbs et al, 1994). Again, our research suggests that with respect to the use of group work, little, if any, attention is paid to stages one, three and four. Further, Candy et al (1994, p147) argue that "...excellent learning outcomes can be achieved if students are asked to reflect on the way they approached a task, to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies/processes they chose, and to describe what they have discovered about their own learning style as a result".

As was suggested earlier, the question arises as to whether, in certain circumstances, the ineffective performance of the freerider is a manifestation of the failure of the instructor to effectively 'manage' the group process. Perhaps, only when we are certain that that is not the case can we legitimately penalise the freerider. Whilst peer assessment provides a means of monitoring/measuring the individual's contribution, it does not assess the learning outcomes of the group process.

The dilemma

The issue of how effectively we use small group work for the purposes of assessment is a matter needing to be addressed by staff in the Faculty of Business at ECU. Key elements of the dilemma are reflected in the following, not necessarily unrelated, questions:


Candy, P. C. (1995). Developing Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education. In L. Summers (ed.), A Focus on Learning: Proceedings of Teaching Learning Forum '95, (pp. ii-viii). Perth: Educational Development Unit, Edith Cowan University.

Candy, P. C., Crebert, G. and O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Garland, D. (1996). Using Research to improve student learning in small groups. In Graham Gibbs (Ed), Improving Student Learning, pp. 224-230. Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff Development.

Gibbs, G., Rust, C., Jenkins, A. and Jaques, D. (1994). Developing Students' Transferable Skills. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development.

Montgomery, B. M. (1986, Feb.). An interactionist analysis of small group peer assessment. Small Group Behaviour, 17(1), 19-37.

Please cite as: Morris, R. and Hayes, C. (1997). Small Group Work: Are group assignments a legitimate form of assessment? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p229-233. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/morris.html

[ TL Forum 1997 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/morris.html
Last revision: 6 Apr 2002. Murdoch University
Previous URL 15 Jan 1997 to 6 Apr 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/morr229.html