DoingCL - Grades






A crucial component in structuring collaborative learning activities is assessment. Assessment should encourage collaborative work, positive interdependence, and individual accountability. Assessment can be either summative or formative. Formative assessments are usually anonymous and not graded, provide insights on how much and how well the students are learning, and provide feedback to the student. Summative assessments usually provide information to grade students. Since very few instructors have the luxury of teaching without grades, this section is primarily devoted to summative assessment. For more information on formative classroom assessment techniques, see Angelo's and Cross's Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (1993).

McKeachie states unequivocally, "Grading 'on the curve': Don't do it!" (1994). If grades are "curved" (i.e., the top 10% of students receive an A, the next 25% receive a B, etc.), the goals of positive interdependence and collaboration will not be realized. Curved grades encourage strong competition and a "survival of the fittest" mentality since only x-percent of the students receive the top grades. It is in the best interests of the student to hope that other students do poorly and remain confused, and there is no incentive to collaborate. This grading scheme encourages the students to isolate themselves and sends the message that an individual's achievement does not determine his/her final grade. An absolute grading scheme (i.e., earning 85% of the total points earns an A, 70% earns a B, etc.) on the other hand, opens the door for collaborative work among students (Miller, et al., 1996; Millis and Cottell, 1998).

It is crucial that regular feedback (formative assessment) be provided to the students by the instructor and peers. This not only helps the students know whether they are "on track," it also makes the grading at the end easier because the instructor has observed the group process the tasks outcomes. Furthermore, students are informed on how they are doing every step of the way so there are no surprises at the end.

In the traditional course, grading is based on work submitted by individuals. Things are not so easy when learning groups are used. To encourage collaborative work between the students, some form of a group grade is needed in addition to individual grades, otherwise the efficacy of group work is open to question. The challenge is how to assign a group grade. There are no easy answers but here are a few suggestions: (Miller, et al., 1996; Millis and Cottell, 1998)

  • If the group produces a product, the product can be graded and this grade given to each group member.
      Pros: The grading is straightforward. Also, this method may reflect a reward system found outside of the academic arena: Often workers are "graded" on their product, not who did what.
      Cons: With this grading approach individual efforts (and individual accountability) is not assessed. Also, two students working at the same achievement level but in different groups may receive different grades because of different group efforts. This method can lead to frustration on the students' part as they may feel they have lost control of this part of their grade. This approach also can exacerbate the problem of "free riders": students who don't pull their weight while working in groups.
  • If a presentation or product is part of the group's goals, group members can evaluate one another.
      Pros: Learning to assess other students' work and providing helpful suggestions is a valuable skill which can help students evaluate their own work. With peer input, the instructor is removed from being the sole determinant of success or failure; this encourages students to address what they define as competency. Students (or their groups) can also be given the task of determining the criteria to be used in the evaluation, and hence become authors of the evaluation process itself.
      Cons: Time must be devoted to instruct the students on what and how to effectively assess the product or presentation. Again, if only one grade is given to the group by their peers, individual efforts may not be rewarded. Students may feel reluctant to evaluate other students.
  • Group members can evaluate their own contributions to the group.
      Pros: Being able to evaluate one's contribution accurately is again a skill worth developing.
      Cons: Students may evaluate themselves leniently. Time must be devoted to assure that students know how and what to assess.
  • Group members can assess the other members in their group.
      Pros: Since group members work closely with one another, they have a great deal of information upon which to base their assessment.
      Cons: This should probably only be a small part of the entire grade. Students can become upset if they feel they worked diligently only to find out other group members thought they had not carried their fair share. Alternatively, students may give each other high grades irrespective of individual contributions.
  • If all group members attain a specified competency level on, for instance, an individual exam, all group members receive bonus points.
      Pros: Encourages positive interdependence since group members are encouraged to help struggling students overcome confusion.
      Cons: Care is required here so group members don't feel that they are losing points (i.e., not getting the bonus points) because they have "poor" students in their group. Likewise, the students not doing well may feel isolated and disliked.
  • An alternative to awarding bonus points for a specified score is awarding bonus points for a combination of competency level and improvement.
      Pros: Permits groups with a low average score to earn bonus points for improvement.
      Cons: Basing bonus points on improvement fails to reward those who do well from the start.
  • Group exams.
      Pros: Reduces test anxiety and encourages students to work together. Promotes positive interdependence.
      Cons: Grade may not reflect the students' individual competency levels.
  • Combination of group and individual exams. The scores from each part can be added directly or one part can be weighted based on the outcome of the other part. (See other examples in Johnson, et al, 1998 and Millis and Cottell, 1998)
      Pros: Can assess individual's understanding on individual exam and also encourages positive interdependence since part of the grade is group work. Reduces exam anxiety.
      Cons: Group part of the exam may not reflect individual's skill level while individual part may discourage effective group work.

    Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers, 2nd edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Boss.

    Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

    Miller, J. E., Groccia, J. E., and Wilkes, J. M. (1996). "Providing structure: The critical element" In Sutherland, T. E., and Bonwell, C. C. (Eds.), Using active learning in college classes: A range of options for faculty, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 67.

    Millis, B. J., and Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty, American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education. The Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ.

    Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers, Inc.

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