In today’s online learning environment, there are nearly always group activities, and giving grades to individuals working in those groups can be a complicated undertaking. There will often be situations in which some of the students do all the work, while others in the group provide minimal contributions, a condition known as “social loafing” (Conrad, 2009, p. 90). While some have suggested that a single group grade will create a group interdependency resulting in all members contributing (Cohen, cited in Conrad, 2009), this practice can disappoint students whose good grades depend on others. Trust is essential, and new groups take time to develop trusting relationships. Thus, the instructor is faced with the task of determining individual grades for a group product.
One method the instructor can use is peer assessment, where each member of the team rates the work of the other members. Research has indicated that from time to time this can result in students being more concerned with the peer review than with the actual learning experience (Weimer, 2012); however, the practice is used in online classes quite regularly. Often, these peer ratings occur at the end of a project. Weimer (2012) says that this does not allow for constructive feedback and improvement; she states, “Group members need to discuss rating criteria before they start working together” (italics mine). This will allow adjustments to the work, and set a stage for constructive feedback before all parts of the group project are completed.
Peer review can be one effective measuring tool, but there are others available through computer Learning Management Systems (LMSs) that provide a clearer insight into individual contributions. Metrics from the LMS can indicate, for example, how many times students log in, the time they spend online, and the time spent in group activities (Laureate Education, Inc., 2008g). Of course, if the work is not taking place in the LMS venue, such as when contributions are being made to an online wiki or a PowerPoint presentation, it can be difficult to measure the latter of these.
Siemens (Laureate Education, Inc., 2008g) says that assessment in group activities should be based on the stated outcomes, and also that it should be a measure of individual student growth. Thus, if one student has been reluctant to contribute and moves past this hesitation into a strong collaborative role, grading should reflect that improvement, since the goal of instruction is for learning to take place, not merely to produce a letter grade.
The means of dealing with reluctant members of a group are trickier in an online setting than in a physical group, since no one can force a person to even log on, much less contribute. A number of strategies can be employed. One task for the teacher is to set the expectations at the beginning of the course. If many of the students have no group experience, the instructor might conduct a role play, with strong examples of good group collaboration (Laureate Education, Inc., 2008i). Another method of building stronger learning communities is to begin with students getting to know one another, then working in pairs before moving into small groups (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).
The group should also be encouraged to continue seeking input from the reluctant member. As Weimer (2012) points, out, “It’s difficult to be a silent member in a group if others regularly and directly ask for your opinion and input.” A clear division of tasks and firm deadlines will also help bring the non-performing student into the group work. It’s also important to realize that some people are naturally more introverted than others, and this is as much a physical fact as an emotional reaction (Cooper, 2013). Students who feel “safe” working on their own may feel threatened by group work, even though they cannot physically see their group members (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).
Initial class activities should be constructed to build familiarity and encourage the uniqueness of individuals. One method frequently used is the “online café” or “lounge” where students introduce themselves online. Initial postings to this group are generally mandatory, but seldom go beyond the first post. One way to help students overcome their initial reluctance might be a regular requirement to interact and hold informal discussions, with participation receiving a pass/fail sort of assessment.
The key to effective group collaboration in online school projects is trust, and the reality of most classes is that there simply is not time to build long-term relationships in a 9- or 12-week course. However, the strategies for including the most reluctant members of a class in a group project can be used and improved over time to enhance the group’s overall performance, and the individual’s confidence and willingness to continue participating.
Conrad, R. (2009). Assessing collaborative learning. In P. Rogers, Encyclopedia of Distance Learning (Vol. 1, pp. 89-93). Hershey, PA: Idea Group, Inc. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=sC9Le3jIwzIC&pg=PA89&dq=assessing+collaborative+learning&lr=&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q=assessing%20collaborative%20learning&f=false
Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. (2011). Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Cooper, B. (2013, August 21). Are you an introvert or an extrovert? What it means for your career. Retrieved from Fast Company: http://www.fastcompany.com/3016031/leadership-now/are-you-an-introvert-or-an-extrovert-and-what-it-means-for-your-career
Laureate Education, Inc. (2008g). Principles of distance education: Assessment of collaborative learning [Video]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Laureate Education, Inc. (2008i). Principles of distance education: Learning communities [Video]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Weimer, M. (2012, October 10). Peer assessment is not an elixir for all group work challenges. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: The Teaching Professor Blog: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/peer-assessment-is-not-an-elixir-for-all-group-work-challenges/
Classmates’ blogs I responded to:
http://stansedtechplatform.wordpress.com/module-3-assessing-collaboration-efforts/comment-page-1/#comment-8 (awaiting moderation): I said, “Stan, your comment that it is even harder to get students to accept the assessment is definitely true. I was in one class were 1 of our group members never appeared, or was always so late that we had already passed the deadline for submittals. Our means of correcting this, since it was a group grade, was to email the instructor as a group and let her know what was going on. We were working on a wiki, so we began labeling each section with the name of the contributor, and we would make a wiki page and leave it blank for the missing member’s work. We felt it was our only recourse, but it worked quite well, and the labeling portion is something I would recommend to student groups again.”