Group work at University. Dreaded by some students and much appreciated by others. In my experience, students often question the value of having group work as part of a course. If they are graded on the group work, the resistance and questioning of the form is usually strong. It is simply not perceived as fair that they should be graded entirely or partly on the group’s performance. If the structure of the group work means that several students are given the task of solving a problem and submitting it in writing for assessment, I must agree with them. The result is often not fair.

For highly motivated and engaged students group work might mean that they end up carrying more work load than they would have if they had been assigned the task to solve it individually. This is known to happen for example when highly motivated students are grouped together with less motivated and engaged students (Strijbos, J. W. 2011). If for example students who aim at getting good grades are paired up with students who are happy with any grade, there is a risk that the students that aim for a good grade feel compelled to take on a facilitators roll to make sure that the result of the joint effort is of high quality. Or, even to do more or less all of the work themselves. Less motivated students might for the same reasons perceive group work as a fantastic learning form. If the students motivation mainly is to pass the course, the lack of actual learning outcome doesn´t really matter. What matters more is that they get one step closer to pass the course without doing any work. 

So why use group work at all, one might wonder. Well, firstly to be able to work and collaborate with others is an important social skill (Crisp 2009). For students that are studying to become lawyers for example, this skill is required and an expected ability for their future working life. Secondly, collaborative learning – if it takes place – can enhance deep learning, student motivation, and help students with low level performance. As human beings we are ‘designed’ to learn from others. To mimic and learn from other peoples experiences. Collaborative learning group assignments can facilitate this (Cayubit 2022). 

The primary question that we should ask ourselves as university teachers might then not be why we should use group work and collaborative learning in higher education. The question should rather be how can we use it? Unfortunately, at least with regards to the law programmes, this might very well be the Million Dollar Question. 

In highly competitive student environments, such as for example law or business programmes, where students are highly motivated to learn, but often also have a strong focus and aim to get high grades, the form of assessment can be expected to be an important motivational factor. And, when it comes to assessment tools for collaborative learning, there is no perfect tool. Three common forms for assessment are (1) group assessment, (2) individual assessment, or (3) intra-group peer assessment. And all of these suffer validity issues (Meijer, 2020). In short, students might not perceive them as fair, and they have valid reasons to feel this way. 

Why doesn´t these forms of assessement give us a functional way of grading and valuing the students abilities and knowledge when they work together to solve a problem? Well, to just give you a short explanation and summary of what Meijer has wrote on this topic, group assessment will likely result in a grade that is based on the ‘average’ of what the students in the group have performed, yet, the grade for each student appears as individual performance in their respective grade transcript. Individual assessment could then be assumed to be a better option. If individual assessment is used though, there is a stark risk that the actual collaboration part of the work does not occur. The collaborative learning form and assessment will rather be an individual learning task ‘disguished’ as collaborative work. 

The third option, to use peer assessment, is better aimed at being able to actually measure the students abilities to contribute and work well in a collaborative learning environment. For example if the students are given the task to grade their peers performance as group members and not their knowledge. This can then be used by the teacher as part basis for the individual grade. The problem though is that peer assessments of this kind are often not reliable. Sometimes student peer assessment is more a reflection of personal like or dislike. The peer assessment can also be influenced by students fear of being punished by their peers in return if they right an honest review of their peers work.

For me, the struggle to find a fair and functional form of assessment for collaborative work has resulted in a reluctance to force my students into collaborative learning forms. In fact, I don´t use it at all when it comes to grading and assessing their performances or subject knowledge. I always encourage students to work together though, and in my experience students who value working in groups form their own groups. I also use group discussion and group work as part of my teaching in the classroom because,  for all the reasons above and in my experience, students who participate and engage in discussions with their peers do develop a deeper understanding of the subject and also a better ability to pedagogically explain and develop their thoughts. In a short sighted perspective, I want my students to learn to do this since they are going to be given the task to explain and motivate their thoughts in the written exam at the end of the course. With a longer perspective, learning how to work with others and learn together with others, is an important social and professional skill.  

However, within the last two weeks, my reluctance towards using collaborative learning as examined parts of my courses has lessened some. Through working with others – collaboratively and online within the Open Networked Learning course ONL – on the topic that I am reflecting on here, I have now developed a better understanding and deeper knowledge of collaborative learning. For example I now have a better understanding for why it so often goes wrong… and I also know more about what should be done to avoid collaborative learning forms from going wrong and how to create functional, motivating and inspiring collaborative learning settings. 

Unfortunately, what I have learned does not change the fact that I still don´t feel that using formal assessments of collaborative learning as part of my classes is a good idea at the moment. But, it has changed my attitude towards it, and I am now very interested in exploring setting up a course with the aim of focusing more on the actual collaboration. And, I also know more about which formal changes to the syllabus that I think would be appropriate to do, and what knowledge and skills I need to develop further myself, If I do decide to make collaborative learning as an integrated and graded part of my courses.  

Here are some thoughts on which steps that I – and my home department at Stockholm University – need to take to be able to better utilize the research and knowledge that exists within the field of collaborative learning and use it in my teaching:

  • Develop better collaborative learning assessment literacy (Meijer, 2020)
  • Explore and try out good examples of how collaborative learning can be used in higher education, e.g; Gilly Salmon’s five-stage-model for online learning (Salmon, webpage); interactive collaborative work using webinars (Creelman 2017); 
  • Explore how collaborative learning skills ought to be formulated and how to create an effective and constructive alignment between the expected learning outcomes, the teaching and the assessment of this skill. (Biggs, webpage
  • Explore the possibility to have students grades on collaboration and working with others to be recorded separately in their student transcripts.(Meijer, 2020)
Litterature and sources:
Creelman, A., Árnason, H., & Röthler, D. (2017). Webinars as Active Learning Arenas. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 1–14.
John Biggs | writer, academic, traveller, webpage on
Five Stage Model – Gilly Salmon, webpage on
Meijer, H, Hoekstra, R, Brouwer, J and Strijbos J-W (2020) Unfolding collaborative learning assessment literacy: a reflection on current assessment methods in higher education, Assessment & Evalutaion in higher Education, vol 45 (8) 
Strijbos, J. W. (2011) Assessment of (Computer-Supported) Collaborative Learning.” IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies 4 (1): 59–73. doi:10.1109/TLT.2010.37.
Crisp, G., & Cruz, I. (2009). Mentoring college students: A critical review of the literature between 1990 and 2007. Research in Higher Education, 50(6), 525-545.

Cayubit, R.F.O. (2022) Why learning environment matters? An analysis on how the learning environment influences the academic motivation, learning strategies and engagement of college students. Learning Environ Res 25, 581–599 .

Oh no. Group work…