The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Employers are increasingly looking for the ability to work in and direct a team as a key graduate skill. Flexible work patterns and increased dependence on central IT systems are driving this agenda. Nevertheless, assessment in HE continues to relate to activities that students undertake individually. This is perhaps unsurprising, since academics tend not to have much recent direct experience of working in industry and commerce.

It is relatively easy to visualise the benefits of group projects. Apart from the obvious one (enhancement of interpersonal skills), these activities can be readily combined with other key learning objectives. Groups may, for example, prepare projects and present results orally, in the process developing research and oral skills.

The implications of group work for staff time are difficult to assess. There are potential savings in marking, as a project of, say, three individuals may be less time-consuming than three individual projects. However, much depends on how students disseminate their work, and this approach to assessment needs a high(er) level of supervision.

The major challenge in implementing assessment by group work is how to supervise individual contributions and award grades that fairly represent individual effort. In group work, individuals may have some incentive to free-ride and better students in poorly motivated groups may be discouraged. Top Tips 2 suggests some examples of group work in economics and gives hints on how to resolve the problems.

Top Tips 2 Assessing by group work

  • Group work is not a substitute for deep learning.
  • Insist on a group plan for project work, detailing individual responsibilities.
  • Consider random selection of group make-up.
  • Award group marks plus an individual component.
  • It is often appropriate for the group to present their project and results orally.
  • Group work may not be feasible for courses with large numbers of students or core courses.

For example, consider random selection of individuals to groups. In this way, students must develop relationships with their colleagues with whom they are unfamiliar and whom they may not actually like, in the process developing essential interpersonal skills. Typically, the group task is a type of project on which students work over the duration of the module and it involves some research. As with all kinds of assessment, one has to be careful to define the tasks and expected outcomes in a way that promotes deep learning.

Groups are no less likely to engage in superficial learning than individuals and there is always a danger that instructors focus too heavily on the dynamics of the group and the development of interpersonal skills at the expense of deep learning.6

Consider requiring students to submit a short report that discusses their initial meetings, attendance, how the project will proceed and who is to take responsibility for what.

Students are likely to meet anyway, but the written report will motivate the group to organise and discuss amongst themselves the best way forward, and it gives some basis for measuring individual contributions.

As with all forms of assessment, the criteria for assessment should be explicit. Often, it is appropriate for groups to disseminate their work in the form of a group presentation to which all individuals contribute, although it may be better to request a supplementary short report, and thereafter communicate to students what is expected in a presentation.

Apart from enhancing various skills related to presentation, oral delivery can make it easier to evaluate and grade individual contributions and the depth of learning involved. Careful consideration should be given to the allocation of marks, allowing sufficient flexibility to reward individual efforts adequately. One way is to allocate individuals both a group and an individual mark, although the proportion of the final mark should weight the group performance more heavily so as to encourage a collective effort.

As with all innovations, consideration must be given to whether group work complements other core learning objectives or whether it draws scarce student and staff resources from other key teaching and learning processes. On the positive side, group work may be combined with other valuable activities, such as a project or a piece of research, and may culminate in a presentation. This may be a valuable learning exercise in its own right. On the other hand, there is a danger that group work induces students to specialise too heavily on one area or topic at the expense of other aspects of the module. Here are two ways of limiting the extent of this problem:

  • Where the assessment procedure also involves a final unseen examination, consider incorporating a question in the exam that is related to the project work.
  • Consider reducing the number of tutorials to allow students additional time to prepare group work.

The resource implications may or may not involve additional staff obligations. Group work is probably not appropriate for large modules delivered by only one tutor. On the other hand, there are likely to be many scale economies resulting from large-group assessment by a team of tutors.

For example, there are innovative ways of allocating individual marks that take account of the group’s inside knowledge of the relative contributions of each individual. This can work a lot better than may be expected. The group is awarded a group mark that they must divide amongst themselves. For example, a group of four students with 240 marks may choose to share these equally – 60 marks each. Alternatively, they may allocate more marks to the strongest contributions.

It may be surprising that there is evidence to suggest that students are willing to allocate marks in a way that reflects their relative engagement in the project (even if it is to their detriment). It is useful for tutors to insist on a written report explaining the rationale for the marks that have been allocated.

Some tips for allocating group-marked projects are contained in Top Tips 3.

Top Tips 3 Allocating individual marks for group work

  • Allocate to individuals both a group and an individual mark. The final mark should weight the group performance more heavily to encourage collective effort (weightings commonly used are 60:40 and 70:30).
  • Award the group a group mark that they must divide amongst themselves as they see fit – they should have to explain their decision.
  • Award an equal mark to all members of the group, then add further individual tasks for each member of the group. This raises the problem of finding sufficient tasks and allocating them ‘equivalently’.
  • The work submitted should be presented by all members of the group in a ‘live’ situation, so that any ‘free-riding’ may be discovered.
  • Include a question in the examination based on group work.