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May 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 8

Special Topic / Group Grades Miss the Mark

Giving the same grade to everyone on a team is not only patently unfair, it undermines the positive outcomes of cooperative learning.
Instructional Strategies
In my travels in the United States and Canada to conduct cooperative learning workshops, I have encountered almost everywhere some teachers who use some form of group grades.
These teachers have their students work in teams on a project, essay, presentation, or exam; they grade the final product; and that grade is given to each student on the team. In some locations, because of prior cooperative learning training, or because there is an emphasis on cooperative projects, many or even most teachers use group grades.
Every time I see group grades being used I am appalled. They are, in my view, never justified. Ever.
When I state my arguments against group grades, I get a variety of responses—everything from very strong support (“I am so glad you said that; I never felt comfortable doing it”) to a range of counter arguments. It all depends on how thoroughly the teachers have structured their courses around group projects for which all students in the group are given identical grades. In some cases, I am in the uncomfortable position of advising teachers, who have spent years developing cooperative learning lesson plans, to stop doing something that they feel they do successfully. This makes me particularly uncomfortable: I like to see myself as someone who shows teachers alternative ways of doing things, not someone who barges in and tells teachers what not to do.

Group Grades: All in favor...

  • The real-world argument. One mission of schools, these proponents say, is to prepare students for the real world. And in the real world, work teams are often rewarded for their collective contribution, while individual contributions are not necessarily assessed. This argument doesn't hold water: In the real world, there are many unfair practices—racial and age discrimination, unequal pay for equal work, and so on—but that doesn't justify unfair practices in the classroom.
  • The employment-skills argument. Advocates of group grades point out that employers want graduates with social skills, and group grades communicate to students that cooperation is important enough to be graded. Doing this, they maintain, will motivate students to develop the cooperative skills necessary for success in the workplace.There are two fallacies here. First, group grades don't necessarily foster social skills. And even if they did, there are far more efficient ways to accomplish this goal (Kagan 1993). Second, if an uncooperative student lowers the group grade, everyone in the group—even the most cooperative student—receives a lower grade. Further, group grades on academic projects do not fairly assess cooperative skills of individuals.
  • The motivation argument. “If I do not use group grades, my students won't have any reason to work together.” “If I say there will be no grade, my students won't do the project.” In fact, group grades undermine motivation. There are many better ways to motivate students (as I will soon point out).
  • The teacher's-workload argument. Faced with grading many papers, some teachers prefer the relatively faster task of grading groups. The problem is that this is not a legitimate shortcut. Group grades tell us nothing reliable about individual performance; for that, we must look at individual quizzes, tests, essays, portfolios, performance evaluations, and the like.
  • The grades-are-subjective-anyway argument. To my surprise, teachers sometimes argue for group grades by declaring that grading is never objective at any rate. They cite research showing, for example, that a teacher may give different grades for the same essay depending on who the teacher thinks wrote the essay. My counter argument: The sometimes subjective nature of grading does not justify using a method that is even less precise.
  • The grades-aren't-that-important argument. Try explaining it to the parent of a student who, based on his or her grades, has just narrowly missed winning a scholarship or being accepted by a desired college.
  • The credit-for-teamwork argument. Students work hard on their group projects, and they deserve to be given credit for this work. True enough. Individuals should be given credit for their individual work, but not a free ride on the work of others. Moreover, by linking grades to effort, we undermine intrinsic motivation.
  • The group-grades-are-a-small-factor argument. It is sometimes argued that group grades are acceptable if they are only one small factor in determining the course grade. In this way, they will only very occasionally tip the balance in a course grade. Very occasionally, however, is far too often if it means giving individual grades that do not reflect individual performance. An unfair grade may haunt a student later when he or she applies to college or goes job hunting.

Group Grades: Those opposed...

  1. No fair. Group grades are so blatantly unfair that on this basis alone they should never be used. Consider these two typical situations.Example 1: Two students, Joan and Ed, are each hovering between an A and a B in a science course. The amount of work they've done, what they've learned, and their motivation are comparable. They are on different cooperative learning teams, each working on its final team project, and their team grades will be a factor—albeit a minor one—in determining individual grades in the course. Joan and Ed each do about the same amount and quality of work to support their team projects—both independent work and teamwork. And their presentations to the class are equally competent.The problem is this: One of Ed's teammates is a brilliant student who has access to a color graphics program. She creates very attractive color banners and graphs for the presentation. As for Joan's teammates, none is brilliant, and one, in fact, is a slacker. Her team receives a grade of C+, while Ed's team receives an A+. As a result, Joan gets a B in the course, and Ed, an A.Example 2: For years Susan and Bob have been very poor students. They are both in their senior year of high school, and it is not certain if either of them will graduate. In their history course, they are assigned to two different teams.Neither Bob nor Susan contribute to their team's project. On Susan's team, two bright and motivated students do all the work, earning the group a grade of B+. Bob's teammates, on the other hand, don't get along well, and as a result of the lack of teamwork, the final project is given a D-. Fortunately for Susan, her B+ enables her to squeak through the course with a barely passing grade, and she graduates from high school. Bob's D- does nothing for his poor average, and he does not graduate.
  2. Group grades debase report cards. If group grades are given and are partially a function of who the student happens to have as teammates, report cards are meaningless. How can a parent, scholarship committee, admissions officer, or potential employer interpret grades if they partially reflect the work of other students?
  3. Group grades undermine motivation. Group grades undermine motivation at both ends of the achievement spectrum. They reward slackers, who have no incentive to work harder if they are fortunate enough to have a high achiever as a teammate. Conversely, the high achiever may feel there is no use putting in a lot of effort if his or her teammates won't pull their own weight.
  4. Group grades convey the wrong message. The grading practices we choose affect students' values. They can communicate a healthy message: Whatever your ability, the harder you try, the more you will learn, and, in turn, the better your grade will be. But what if we tell students their grades are partially a function of forces entirely out of their control—namely, what their teammates do? What happens when students perceive a weakened relationship between their own efforts and their ultimate reward? First, they will be less motivated. But they may also become alienated from the entire education process.
  5. Group grades violate individual accountability. When students know that they will be held individually accountable for their learning or performance (one of the basic principles of cooperative learning), they are more likely to achieve more (Slavin 1983). The group grade, however, breaks this one-to-one connection between what one does and the grade one receives. If a team consists of one high-, two middle-, and one low-achieving student, the team's best strategy is for the two middle-achieving students to keep the low achiever occupied while the high achiever completes the project! This is a reasonable, adaptive strategy when all that counts is the final group product.
  6. Group grades are responsible for parents', teachers', and students' resistance to cooperative learning. Many teachers attending my workshops relate how their own son or daughter has been victimized by group grades. The stories are usually similar: “My child is very bright and motivated. He or she was put on a team with some low achievers who did no work, so my child worked doubly hard, yet received a lower grade.” Among parents, this is one of the greatest sources of resistance to cooperative learning.
  7. Group grades may be challenged in court. Because grades are often the basis for scholarships and admission to colleges and universities, any system that gives different grades to students whose achievement is comparable is not merely unfair, it may not hold up to legal scrutiny.

The Purpose of Grades

Underlying the arguments for group grades is confusion about the function of grading, which is, very simply, to evaluate students' competence in a given subject. When grading is used for other reasons—to motivate, communicate with, or socialize students—grades lose their meaning.
I offer this personal example. When my daughter Monica was in 3rd grade, she was having great difficulty in reading. It therefore came as quite a surprise when her final grade in reading was B+—a higher grade than some classmates of hers who were far better readers. When I asked Monica's teacher about the grade, she explained to me that Monica had shown good improvement, and she wanted to let Monica know that she knew she was working hard. As she put it, “I want to give Monica a clear message: Keep up the good work!”
While I was pleased with the teacher's wish to encourage my daughter, I was disturbed by her means of doing so. A reading grade in my daughter's class that year was some undefined mix of ability, achievement, and the teacher's desire to motivate and communicate with a student. In short, a grade in that class defied interpretation.
When grades serve more than one function, they mean entirely different things for each student. We thereby sometimes end up in the indefensible position of giving a poor student a better grade than a good student.

Alternatives to Grades

  • Motivation. If a student is working on a task solely for the grade, we need to reexamine three things: the content, the instructional method, and the recognition system. If we provide intriguing content through engaging instruction; and if we make sure teachers, peers, parents, and the community recognize students for their accomplishments, we will not need grades to motivate students.One way to accomplish this is to use written forms for formal feedback from teachers, teammates, and other classmates. Students will work remarkably hard on a project if they know that after they present it to the class, their classmates and teacher will give them written feedback. For many students, no other motivation is necessary.Another approach—one that is underused—is to meet with students individually after asking them to set their own goals. Later, they can evaluate their own progress in achieving these goals. Among other options: point and recognition systems, including class “thermometers” and newsletters; special recognition ceremonies; and frequent opportunities for peers and teachers to informally offer positive feedback (Kagan 1993).We can also tell students their work is appreciated by writing notes of appreciation or simply telling the student outright.
  • Socialization. Sometimes grades are used to socialize students, giving them feedback about such non-academic abilities as cooperation. To do this, why not simply give students a grade in “Group Skills,” or grades in specific cooperative skills? This would be preferable to giving them a grade in, say, physics, that reflects some undefined combination of their knowledge of physics and their ability to work well with others.
In short, there are many more direct and efficient ways to accomplish goals that have nothing to do with students' mastery of a given subject. By eliminating group grades, we will not only make grading fairer and more meaningful, but also remove a major source of resistance to cooperative learning.
References

Kagan, S. (1993). Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: Kagan Cooperative Learning.

Slavin, R. (1983). “When Does Cooperative Learning Increase Student Achievement?” Psychological Bulletin 94: 429–445.

Spencer Kagan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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