The other day, Ms. Snider approached me with a simple query, “Do you have a minute to discuss grading of my group project?”
The ensuing conversation centered around two questions:
1. Should the group be assigned one grade?
2. How can we assess for individual learning and provide meaningful feedback to each individual?
We began with a resounding “NO!” to the first question.
Both of us believe that a grade stands for what each student learns, so this was easy. But, as we explored the subject in more detail, we soon realized that assigning the group one grade actually defeats the purpose of a cooperative assignment. Ms. Snider shared a story of her daughter, a high-achieving student, who often felt pressured to pick up her group mates slack. Like many students, her daughter felt it easier to do their work than to wait for them or to work with them.
Is it any surprise that a lot of our top students, cringe at the thought of group work?
We had our starting point: individual students will be responsible for their own learning and will receive their own grades.
Our next challenge was to determine how students would be held individually accountable while still relying on each other to successfully complete the assignment. Although this was a new project for Ms. Snider, she knew exactly what she wanted the students to learn and what skills they would acquire. That led us to our next question:
How can we assess learning and provide feedback?
After much back-and-forth, we stumbled upon the following idea. Periodically, each student reflects on his/her own contributions to the group and on his/her own learning. (Sometimes this might be daily and at other times it might be weekly.) We immediately began to craft a rubric, but then another idea hit us. Why not have the students share their own experiences and have the class create their own group participation rubric.
This, of course, led us to our next problem. Ms. Snider teaches some of our best students—students who are highly grade-motivated. Some would undoubtedly grade themselves harshly, while others would unfairly inflate their grades. To counter this, Ms. Snider came up with an outstanding idea: After each self-reflection, lets allow the students time to share their own rating and give the other members of the group time to provide feedback.
For the student who grades herself harshly, this would be easy. For the student who inflates, his/her grade the task would be more difficult for the group mates, but the ability to provide truthful and honest feedback is an important skill. Additionally, this would take some of the pressure off of students having to actually assign their peers a grade (an idea we nixed). Again, we could use the same student-created rubric to help this process.
While great ideas were flowing from our conversation, we hadn’t yet discovered a way to accurately assess student learning. We were getting closer though.
Last year, I remember watching Ms. Mathews’ students create a Rube Goldberg machine. Along the way, she peppered the students with individual questions, and after presenting their machines, students were asked more detailed questions. Her questions required students to demonstrate their knowledge; their reflective nature also shed light on the entire group experience.
Ms. Snider took Ms. Mathews’ ideas to the next level, “You know what? That’s a great idea.” With increasing enthusiasm, “I think we can go one step further. Why not have the other students in the class ask questions—and I mean real questions after each group’s presentation?”
Finally, we started to discuss two very important individual components. First, all students would be asked to grade themselves according to the class-created rubric. Finally, each student would be required to demonstrate his or her knowledge of the assignment through an additional assessment—perhaps a test or an essay.
We were definitely on to something. As the project progresses, I’m sure Ms. Snider will improve upon the ideas we generated.
What started as a simple conversation morphed into something much more complex. Our focus centered around 4 basic, research-supported premises:
1. No group grade will be assigned
2. Students will not be told to grade each other. Students will, however, provide meaningful and honest feedback to their group mates.
3. Reflection is critical to the learning process.
4. Targeted, well-crafted and specific questions will be used to assess student learning. This will provide meaningful feedback and can be used as both for both formative and summative assessment.
By the way, I need to give Ms. Snider’s project a plug. This is not a group project in which students simply gather facts, arrange them neatly on a poster or PowerPoint, and then spit them out during a presentation. Ms. Snider’s project required students to think for themselves, to pose questions, to think creatively to solve problems and to rely on each other. I can’t wait to see the end results.