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July 1, 2021

Planning for Fair Group Work

Group projects have a bad reputation among students—but educators can change that.
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Instructional Strategies
Illustration of small groups at work in a classroom.
Group work has a lot going for it. It incorporates the social-cognitive and social-emotional aspects of learning and can lead to memorable, engaging lessons and increased learning for students (Forsell, Forslund Frykedal, & Hammar Chiriac, 2020; Fung, Hung, & Lui, 2018). But group work can also fall flat—and cause student disengagement—if not carefully designed and assessed.
The original cooperative learning movement, energized in the 1970s, emphasized that group work must be designed to feature positive interdependence (each student's work depends on the others' work) and individual accountability (individual learning is measured and reported)—methods found to increase student achievement. Since then, group work has grown in popularity, under various names (cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and group work, to name a few). Teachers use group work to promote active and deep learning and foster students' collaborative skills (Tomcho & Foels, 2012).
Sometimes group work is still designed according to the original cooperative learning principles of positive interdependence and individual accountability, but not always. Often students are simply assigned a project or task to carry out in a small group, the final project is graded, and that same grade is assigned to each of the members of the group producing it. Students perceive this practice as unfair—which can make them reluctant to participate in group work (Forsell et al., 2020). Unfair group experiences put students in a difficult position, as students expressed in interviews Amir did with 27 Canadian high school students in 2020. The interviews were part of Amir's doctoral dissertation investigating students' experiences of fairness in classroom assessment (all student quotations here are taken from this unpublished qualitative study). One student expressed his feelings about group work this way: "I've definitely been in a lot of groups where people don't contribute, but I don't go to the teacher and try and tell them the problem because you don't want to, you know, be a snitch. Like, we don't want to tell on our friends."

So How Do We Do Group Work Right?

To implement and assess group work fairly, teachers should focus on four elements: purpose of the group work, group composition and student choice, physical environment and task design, and assessment and grading. Let's look at each element in turn.

1. Establish a Clear Purpose for Working in Groups

Teachers generally use group work for at least two purposes: to support students' progress toward learning goals and to develop collaborative learning skills. Each of those goals can be assessed at the group or individual level (Forsell et al., 2020), creating four possible purposes for implementing and assessing group work:
  • Individual learning: Did an individual student achieve a standard or learning goal?
  • Group learning: Did the group project meet standards for quality work?
  • Individual collaboration skills: Did an individual student work effectively as a member of the group?
  • Group collaboration skills: Did the students function well as a group?
Teachers' understandings of their intended purposes for a group work project and what specifically they will assess are often vague (Forsell et al., 2020). Sometimes, teachers just have a general sense that it's good for students to work together, without any consideration of how the students' learning will benefit from a particular group task. This may be part of the reason some teachers give group grades—and it's one reason students perceive group grades as unfair.
Report card grades are assigned to individual students and are intended to be measures of achievement against curricular standards. Therefore, group work that's going to count on individual students' report cards should answer the question of whether each individual student in the group achieved the target standard or learning goal (we'll say more on how to do this later).
Group work can also be designed specifically to teach collaboration skills. In this case, work can be assessed at the individual or group level, depending on the kind of skills entailed—but it shouldn't be graded in a way that counts on students' official records.

2. Use Heterogeneous Groups, But Offer Choice If Possible

Teachers give students choice during group work in two ways (Rasooli, Zandi, & DeLuca, 2018). Students can choose which group they will join or students can be assigned to a group and given choices about their role and work within that group.
At times, it's best for the teacher to create the groups; for one thing, this makes groups less homogeneous. To form heterogeneous groups based on ability levels, teachers usually select a mix of lower, middle, and higher-performing students (Williams, Cera Guy, & Shore, 2019). When groups are diverse in aspects other than academic ability—for example, in terms of students' backgrounds and experiences relating to the work at hand—groups will include a broader range of points of view.
Allowing students choice in selecting their group members, however, seems to enhance students' perception of fairness in group work. People perceive fairness when they are given choice and control over decisions that will impact their outcomes (Forsell et al., 2020). Students may also assume more ownership of the work when they've chosen their group.
For some group activities, then, teachers may want to give students choice about which group they will be in; for others, they may give students choice about which role they will play in the project or task. These decisions should be aligned with the purpose of the group work, and are made easier if students have many opportunities to do things in different groups throughout the course. Giving students voice, control, and agency over group work procedures to the greatest extent possible will enhance most students' learning and perceptions of fairness. As one high school student said, "I think giving us the chance to pick people—you know what you're getting yourself into from the beginning. So if there really is a problem, you should speak up. If not, I think you kind of just have to deal with it. It's kind of like a life lesson."
In even the most carefully composed group, however, free-riding (when one member of the group does not contribute) can occur, and high-performing members might reduce their contributions to preserve the sense of fairness (Webb et al., 1998). Careful task design and role scaffolding can reduce free-riding and develop group members' collaborative learning skills. As with any skill, collaboration can be taught. Teachers can develop rules or criteria for fostering trust and respect among group members and communicate these rules to students upon the beginning of the group work. These rules can include: (a) everyone should be respected in the group; (b) everyone should recognize and appreciate diverse ways of thinking, working, and behaving as beneficial to the group learning; (c) no one should be left outside of the group; and (d) everyone should contribute to the group work as much as they would like others to contribute. This relational approach to establishing group dynamics has been found to be a key strategy for an effective group work process (Fung et al., 2018).

3. Use Flexible Seating and Design Tasks So Everyone Contributes

Learning is a social phenomenon and takes place in a physical and social environment. Arrange seating for groups flexibly so that all group members can effectively interact. For example, arrange seats in a shape such as a circle to give all students access to the work and similar physical representation. Since regularity brings focus to complex tasks such as group work, groups may benefit from knowing ahead of time which area of the room they will work in.
Tasks, assignments, or projects should also be designed to encourage interactions among group members. For example, a project may have divisible segments so that group members can distribute tasks and all contribute to the workload, then combine their individual work together. Or a project may be divided into several steps (like planning, outlining, researching, and writing). Students can do the steps collaboratively and receive formative feedback from their teacher about both the learning content and the group process after each step (Brookhart, 2013).

When students are asked about fairness, group work—especially group grades—often top their list of unfair practices.

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Alternatively, a single task may be scaffolded with role divisions to encourage interactions and positive interdependence. A classic format for this is reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984), which aims to help all students comprehend an assigned text and develop skills in independent reading. After reading the text, students take turns fulfilling four roles: questioner, summarizer, clarifier, and predictor. The teacher first models these functions until the students are able to become the "teachers" (hence the name "reciprocal teaching") and perform the functions themselves. In addition to focusing students on the strategies good readers use, the four roles ensure that everyone in the group has something specific to do that contributes to the group understanding. Performance in these roles isn't graded; student understanding should be assessed individually after the reciprocal teaching.
Group tasks, assignments, or projects should also have adequate complexity for group work to be effective. Tasks that aren't sufficiently complex lead to more free-riding. Research also shows that groups of three to four students and tasks of shorter duration result in better learning outcomes than larger groups or longer tasks (Tomcho & Foels, 2012).

4. Grade Individual Learning and Assess Collaboration Separately

For grading purposes, assess individuals—don't give "group grades" (Brookhart, 2013). Teachers generally assess learning goals during group work with either group assessment, a combination of group and individual assessments, or individual assessment. Research shows individual assessment is clearly best, and fairest, for the purpose of individual grade reporting.
While group grading may be the easiest approach, it encourages free-riding and provokes unfair experiences for students. As one high schooler Amir interviewed for his dissertation project said, "Ninety percent of the time, group work is unfair, unless the teacher is really on the ball and knows what's going on. I find that either 25 or 50 percent of the group does all the work, and the other [group members] are just along for the ride." When group grades are given to groups with mixed ability levels, high-ability students often receive lower grades than they usually get individually; the reverse is true for low-ability students (Forsell et al., 2020). Finally, group grading ignores the fact that report cards are issued to individual students, and therefore individual measures of achievement are needed.
Another method teachers report for grading group work is to assign grades based on two components: a group's product (such as a presentation) and individual grades derived by peer assessment or peer assessment combined with self-assessment (Dijkstra et al., 2016). But with this method, the group component has the same shortcomings described for group grading, and the individual component also poses challenges for fairness. Plus, research has challenged the validity, reliability, and fairness of peer assessment, indicating that peer assessment is only weakly correlated with teacher assessment (Forsell et al., 2020). With self-assessment, in addition, high-performing students often underrate themselves for their performance in group work, while low-ability students overrate themselves (Forsell et al., 2020). Overall, a combination of group and individual assessments doesn't seem like a sound approach to grading group work.
Individual assessment, however, addresses the shortcomings of other approaches and makes for fairer assessment of learning objectives. Students work collaboratively on a task, but are assessed individually for their learning of the curriculum objectives (Brookhart, 2013, 2015). Generally, after group work, teachers provide students with individual tasks aligned with that work and its associated learning objectives to grade each student's achievement. Students tend to find this fairer. One told Amir, "Teachers usually assigned group grades, which was hard. But if you get individual grades while working in the group, you would think it is fair."
Teachers do value assessing social skills such as group members' cooperation, positive engagement, and communication (Dijkstra et al., 2016; Forsell et al., 2020). But these skills can be assessed separately from the academic grade, through teacher observation, peer- and self-report surveys, or rubrics. Feedback on social and collaborative skills can be given at the individual and group level, so students can learn and improve in these areas. With this approach, the academic grade reflects curricular learning goals at the individual level and other assessments address individual and group collaborative skills.

Putting It All Together

Research indicates that group work can be an important part of both cognitive and social learning. However, such work has to be done carefully if it's to enhance learning and not alienate learners; when students are asked about fairness, group work—especially group grades—are often at the top of their list of unfair practices. We believe that when teachers hew to the four principles outlined here as they plan collaborative tasks and projects, group work can be a highly satisfying experience for students.

What a Well-Designed Group Project Looks Like

Here's an example of a successful, fair group project a teacher designed, keeping in mind four principles: (1) establish a clear purpose for group work; (2) use heterogeneous groups and give students choice when possible; (3) use functional, flexible seating and well-designed materials; (4) grade individual learning and assess collaborative skills separately.

Classroom groups have been given a project to investigate the impact of World War I on the social, cultural, and economic conditions of a region in North America. Students were given the chance to select their group members, with each group having four students. The teacher shares with students the rubric she will use for grading the project (principle 1). Groups must find multiple sources, including multimedia resources, and must present the product of their collective work on a poster. Students may choose which region they will investigate and may divide up the research work as they choose (principle 2). When they have collected their sources, they meet as a group to integrate their findings (principle 3).

Each group exhibits their poster in a classroom gallery walk. The teacher and students use peer assessment to provide feedback about each group's poster and achievement of learning outcomes, and selfassessment for feedback about their group process (principle 4). After the gallery walk, the teacher asks students to write individual essays about the impact of World War I on the social, cultural, and economic conditions of a region of their choice in North America. The teacher provides feedback on each student's essay and assigns individual grades based on the rubric (principle 4).


Brookhart, S. M. (2013). Grading and group work: How do I assess individual learning when students work together? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Brookhart, S. M. (2015). Performance assessment: Showing what students know and can do. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Dijkstra, J., Latijnhouwers, M., Norbart, A., & Tio, R. A. (2016). Assessing the "I" in group work assessment: State of the art and recommendations for practice. Medical Teacher, 38, 675–682.

Forsell, J., Forslund Frykedal, K., & Hammar Chiriac, E. (2020). Group work assessment: Assessing social skills at group level. Small Group Research, 51, 87–124.

Fung, D., Hung, V., & Lui, W.-m. (2018). Enhancing science learning through the introduction of effective group work in Hong Kong secondary classrooms. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 16, 1291–1314.

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117–175.

Rasooli, A., Zandi, H., & DeLuca, C. (2018). Re-conceptualizing classroom assessment fairness: A systematic meta-ethnography of assessment literature and beyond. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 56, 164–181.

Tomcho, T. J., & Foels, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 159–169.

Webb, N. M., Nemer, K. M., Chizhik, A. W., & Sugrue, B. (1998). Equity issues in collaborative group assessment: Group composition and performance. American Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 607–651.

Williams, J. M., Cera Guy, J. N., & Shore, B. M. (2019). High-achieving students' expectations about what happens in classroom group work: A review of contributing research. Roeper Review, 41, 156–165.

End Notes

1 Good rubrics for this purpose can be found in Brookhart, 2013, pp. 9, 12 and on the Learning Sciences International website.

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