Group Assessments

I saw a short talk on group assessments by Kelly MacArthur from the University of Utah at PCMI this summer. I was intrigued.

It’s simple. On any assessment that was previously individual, students are assigned to groups. Randomly at first, though it can be more strategic later. Assessments can be the same, though group assessments also create an opportunity to pose harder problems.

I imagine many folks are saying, “well I can’t do that.” Maybe. But maybe that’s just a norm that we’ve created for ourselves. Why not? What’s wrong with making every assessment a group assessment?

But the grades won’t be valid! They won’t actually communicate what each individual student knows and doesn’t know.

Why is that the point of grades? Why are we so obsessed with putting young people into silos and ranking and sorting them so that they can have access to different opportunities in the future? Our entire education system is premised on educating individuals, but humans learn best in groups, and practice mathematics with support of collaborators. Do we really have to have a system where we watch students struggle, silent and alone, to figure out what they have learned?

But you have to give a letter grade at the end of the year!

Our education system is deluding itself that grades actually say anything substantive about what a student knows or doesn’t know. Why not just end that pretense? Grades signal what we value. I value collaboration. Why shouldn’t students collaborate on assessments?

But students will fall through the cracks, depending on each other and never taking responsibility for their own learning.

I can still ask students to answer an exit ticket or similar formative assessment on their own — though not for a grade. And I can use that information to respond to what students know and don’t know. But I think that, when the stakes are high and an assignment is going into the gradebook, asking students to complete assessments alone is fundamentally dehumanizing. Think about the enormous percentage of adults who hate math and spend their lives terrified of it. What if we could change that?

Ok so there’s this thing called standards-based grading. You describe all the different skills that you want students to learn, and you report the results of assessments based on those specific skills so students know what they need to work on and grades are actually meaningful.

Eh. Not impressed. Sounds like a lot of work, and really just puts a new veneer on top of assessment without changing the student experience. I think our system is fundamentally broken, and standards-based grading seems like a change in style rather than substance.

In all seriousness, I don’t know that I will go all-in on group assessments, but I really am intrigued. Do we as teachers insist on individual assessments because they are best for student learning, or do we do it because it’s an institutional norm that is baked into some unfortunate ways we think about education? Could group assessments transform the evaluation of learning into a humanizing and affirming process, rather than a process that instills anxiety and fear? I’ve experimented with lots of assessment systems the last few years, but every time I’ve felt like I’m just tinkering around the edges, that despite grand ambitions my changes haven’t actually influenced how students experience assessment. Maybe the answer is to change something more fundamental.

6 thoughts on “Group Assessments

  1. Leslie

    I am intrigued by this as well.
    I agree that our system is broken. The focus for some students is either what do I have to do to get an A or what is the minimum I can get away with and still pass.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Yup. I don’t think it’s possible to assess without creating a system that students can game. Why not make gaming the system an activity that can result in learning, rather than avoiding learning?

  2. G.W.

    I have used Group Assessments from time to time in my practice for different reasons and rarely have I ever regretted doing it. I think it is a great way for students to learn and to generate authentic collaboration if the group assessments are used in the correct way. I would like to increase the frequency of my group assessments to when I saw the title of this post, I was very intrigued. However, you lost me when you said “On any assessment that was previously individual, students are assigned to groups.” I’m not convinced that this is the best way to utilize the powerful tool that is group assessments.

    I see Group Assessments as both a means and an end, but for different contexts. I think it can be a means for moving all students to improve their understanding on particular skills and concepts. It basically has all the same benefits that are documented with group-work, only because their is more accountability with an assessment, I have noticed that students are fully engaged and motivated for every problem. But I would not substitute the individual assessment with the group assessment, just supplement it. At the end of the day, I still want to be sure that every student can meet the learning objectives for the course. A group assessment can be a great tool, but a magic bullet it is not. Students with grave misunderstandings can still earn a decent grade on a group test if they have strong groupmates.

    I see Group Assessments as an end, but not for the type of task that represents the garden variety assessment we would give individually. We value collaboration skills–yes. Why? Because collaboration is an important skill that most (not all) students will engage in for their career occupations. It also helps students to achieve tasks collectively that they might not have been able to do individually. So, if I gave regular Group Assessments, I would not give problems that I would expect students can (should) solve individually. I would try to find a single robust, complex task with multiple entry points. This would be akin to the types of collaborative tasks groups in the workforce might undertake, but on a much smaller scale of course.

    While I don’t feel like we should have to give letter grades, there does need to be some form of communication on how well each student has met the learning objectives for the course so that they know whether they are ready for the next math course and what areas need to be addressed. There is also something to be said for accountability on the part of the student. In a perfect world, every child would strive to learn every objective for its own sake and every day of instruction would be so engaging that students can’t help but be motivated to learn by their own intrinsic forces. This is not the reality we live in. While I agree that there is much work to be done in the area of public math instruction, I don’t feel that individual assessments if of themselves is part of the problem. If we want to hold all students to high standards and we believe that everyone can learn math (there are not predetermined math people and non-math people), then we should be able to individually assess the students. What that assessment looks like should be the point of discussion (something other than a timed paper and pencil assessment?).

    1. dkane47 Post author

      This makes a ton of sense — and I think your approach attempts to balance the realities of schools with our ideals of what school might be. I agree that group assessments shouldn’t be used exclusively, though I think it’s an interesting thought experiment to ask what school might look like if group assessments were our dominant assessment paradigm.

      1. G.W.

        I think it all comes back to our objectives. If our goals are to cultivate collaborative critical thinkers who can apply previous knowledge to solve complex, novel problems and justify the validity/reasonability of their solution, then sure, I think group assessments as the predominant form of assessment could make sense. But I don’t think most current individual assessments would be an adequate instrument for measuring the aforementioned qualities in a group assessment as most individual tests are predominantly skill oriented.

        Basically, I think an effective group assessment must look different than an effective individual assessment. This is not to suggest that I think effective individual assessments should be mostly skill oriented, just that our expectations of what one person can do should be different than what 3 or 4 people can do working together. This is the point of collaboration, after all.


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