Groupwork assignments

Groupwork assignments

Groupwork is critical for university students as it encourages discussion, questioning, exchange of ideas, negotiation, leadership, etc. When students work with others on a shared project, not only does it prepare them for future jobs, but it also makes them more valuable in their communities.

Why include groupwork in university teaching?

An important thing about groupwork is that students need to experience it. It is simply not enough to hear or read about other people’s view on groupwork. Students need to get first-hand experience, which will help them to discover different group dynamics and the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of working with other people. It will also encourage students to discover what they are like as team members and reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement.

There is an increasing recognition that teamwork is more than a skill. It is often viewed as a ‘practice’(e.g. Beckett, 2011) that needs to be adapted to different situations and contexts.

What this means is that students need to experience different roles and situations as well as reflecting on reasons why some things worked and others did not, etc.

Research and empirical observations show that student reflection cannot be assumed to happen without guidance and support from instructors. It needs to be carefully scaffolded and supported.

Practical takeaways:

  • Provide students with opportunities to work in different groups
  • Facilitate reflection at different stages of groupwork (e.g. via guiding questions or additional tasks)

When to use groupwork

There are two main reasons to use groupwork:

  1. Developing groupwork skills
  2. Complex or resource-limited tasks

As the very practice of groupwork is valuable, there might be situations when groupwork could be arranged purely to give students an opportunity to become more competent at working with others.

In most cases, however, groupwork should be used when a task is too complex or large for one student, or there might be time or resource limitation (equipment, number of scenarios, locations, etc.). Such scenarios are preferable as they mirror real-life situations that students will encounter in professional and personal lives.

Practical takeaway:

  • When designing a groupwork task, consider whether the task is similar to ones students may need to do after university.

Why groupwork fails?

A common complaint among students is that groupwork is unfair as it tends to result in ‘freeloading’(some students not contributing to groupwork), or poor experience.

Literature suggests that there are 2 key reasons why this may happen:

  1. Assigning the same mark to all group members

    Many studies demonstrate that giving students the same mark for groupwork breeds freeloading. Some researchers explained it in terms of a game theory, some used social dynamics, etc. The implication is clear: students should get different marks for their groupwork. This is why Macquarie University Assessment Policy requires giving at least 50% of group mark as an individual mark.

  2. Not providing students with clear instructions

    Research also suggests that ambiguity is another reason for lack of engagement with groupwork. Some students do not contribute because they do not understand what is required of them. Thus, clear instructions from educators, such as I expect you to …, or do this and do not do that, even group contracts can significantly reduce the ‘freeloader’ effect, and improve groupwork dynamics.

Practical takeaway:

  • Assign individual marks for groupwork
  • Provide students with clear instructions/scaffolding

What's next?

  • Find the most suitable way to assign individual marks for groupwork for your course Scaffold students’ groupwork.
  • Talk to your Faculty Learning and Teaching Team if you have any questions about groupwork
Back to the top of this page