Team-Based Learning: Addressing “fairness” in the grading process

For anyone who’s ever been assigned to a project team, there’s always the nagging question, “will everyone pull their weight?”  Invariably, it seems that there are one or two who don’t.  The responsibility for bringing the team grade across the finish line falls on the shoulders of the students who always assume the Atlas role, taking on more than their fair share.  There are solutions for addressing these issues and increasing the sense of fair play where groups and grades are concerned.  The best solutions require increased effort on the part of the instructor to ensure that a sound process is in place, offering students the ability to manage team performance at multiple points in the learning experience.

There are well established processes within the current pedagogy for integrating individual and group grades into team performance through assignments and peer evaluations.  I found that Fellenz offers a useful and informative article on peer evaluation protocol (Groupwork Peer Evaluation Protocol (GPEP)). [To access the entire article, you can summon it by title through the Newman Library online system].

If peer evaluations are to be used, there are a few things that the instructor should keep in mind:

  • Students may need some instruction on how to provide evaluation and receive feedback effectively.  
  • Multiple evaluations may be the best solution since students become more comfortable with the process over time (mid-course and end-of-course evaluations will likely provide better results than a single evaluation offered only at the end of the course).
  • Students tend to be more comfortable providing qualitative feedback as opposed to quantitative feedback in evaluations (this is especially true if they are forced to provide a set number of points to each student in the team – the results in these cases tend to be inflated).
  • Nevertheless, the evaluations need to have “teeth” in order to be effective in preventing non-performers within the team.  Evaluations, individual, and group assignments need to be well structured to identify “fairness” issues early and offer the opportunity for correction prior to assigning the final grade.

There are also a few recent approaches that may be useful to consider when conducting team-based learning exercises.  Some studies suggest that peer evaluations are not an effective means of dealing with team equity and grading.  This is based on the fact that most students are not trained on how to evaluate one another, many are uncomfortable providing negative feedback on a fellow student, and when peer evaluation are used only at the end of the semester, students tend to regard them as a means of retribution rather than a management tool that helps to address equity throughout the team-based learning process.  This doesn’t mean that peer and self evaluations shouldn’t be used.  They should.  It’s just good to be aware of other options that can also be used to promote fairness in grading, decrease conflict within teams, and improve the overall team experience for students.

The Segment Manager Method (SMM) is option that can also be employed.  Here, assignments are broken into segments with specified point totals for each segment.  Each student in on the team is assigned the role of a segment manager.  Student grades are a combination of the group grade and their individual grade as a segment manager.  This method may provide a more consistent process for tracking individual contribution and assessment throughout the exercise.  While it can’t completely prevent a team member from slacking, it may offer other team members and instructors a better way of documenting individual performance and ultimate grading outcomes.  For more information on this method, see: The Segment Manager Method.

The challenge of creating a fair atmosphere in team-based learning is ever-present.  Since most professionals will experience team-based work in the real world, it’s very important to learn how to manage team dynamics and performance as early as possible.  The ability to lead, manage, or contribute to the team environment will likely impact most people’s career and earning potential (whether you’re in academia or working in the public or private sectors).  The more you know, the better off you’ll be.



1 thought on “Team-Based Learning: Addressing “fairness” in the grading process

  1. Group projects have always caused me anxiety because of the fairness in grading issue. In my experience, other group members have not always been slackers, but often they have different expectations than I do. For example, maybe they expect to get a B in the class. I wouldn’t consider such a person a slacker; a B is a pretty good grade. But if my expectation is to get an A, then I have to put in enough effort to make up for all the B work that pulls down the overall grade. I thought the Segment Manager Method was interesting. It seems like it would be less prone to the type of inflation that in-team evaluations commonly have. In the group projects I’ve been in, they always have us evaluate each other, and I honestly always give everybody else a high grade even if they only put in half the effort I did.

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