A Group Final

Posted by jlubans on June 30, 2015

Caption: My students doing the end-of-class anonymous plus/delta .

One of the oft-heard hesitations about working in groups is that an individual’s brilliance may shine less, over-shaded by the group result.
That’s a fair objection. Our culture may talk team, but it venerates the individual. We tend to compensate individual effort more than that of a team. Other organizational structures, like performance appraisal, promotion and salary setting, perpetuate the notion of individual achievement over team achievement. After all, independence (critical thought and action orientation) is a valuable asset, is it not? So, becoming one of a faceless team may not be the best career move. Understandably, there may be reluctance among top performers to subordinate themselves to a team assessment.
A constant complaint about group work, certainly in school, and probably just as often on the job, is that the “slackers”, or the less able, are rewarded the same as those who do all the work.
In my own way, I perpetuate this dual perspective: my class is about teamwork and freedom at work, yet the final is an individual exam.
Now, I do give a lot of credit when it comes to participation – 30% of the grade*. But, participation is difficult to grade. It can be observed to some extent, e.g. does the student show up, does the student have something to say during small group discussion, does the student lean into the group or sit back silently?
But, still, my final exam is all about the individual’s ability to understand and to identify class concepts.
This latest group taking my 8-week Democratic Workplace class struck me as more together; there seemed to be fewer differences among the students than what I had seen in the three previous classes. This group worked well together, always including everyone in discussion – helping each other with translation and clarification of concepts - and they all seemed to be making genuine efforts to contribute in positive ways to the class. While a few students were better at English and had a bit more to offer, they were not that far superior to the group. And, for those weaker in language, that did not seem to affect their performance in group work in which they could speak Latvian.
So, on the day of the final, I surprised them with a choice:
Take the exam individually or in small groups. They opted – unanimously - for small groups even after I said, “No, you cannot choose your group.” I’d assign them randomly.
There were three groups, of 3, 3, and 4 students. If these groups asked to collaborate with each other – something they had done in class activities – I would have let them.
The results – the scores - were excellent - and should serve to drive home a central class notion that group work – when everyone is prepared to do their best – can often be superior to individual effort, to going it alone. These scores (on a scale of 10) seem to confirm this: 10.0, 9.5, and 9.3.
The previous three classes used a similar exam, with much greater variation among individual scores, ranging from lows in the 6’s to high 9’s.
And, I saw that the students learned from each other in coming up with answers. There was much animated discussion during the 50 questions final. And, given the course content and class objectives, the students saw for themselves that group work can be more effective than individual – on average - if everyone is prepared to bring their best.
Caption: Students Klinta Kalnēja, Linda Voropajeva, and Evija Lapsa after their group final.

One student later observed in the anonymous plus/delta review:
“We as a class/group are a better team.”
Yet, another did comment, in summing up the class:
“Not so much opportunity to show our individual skills and knowledge.”
So, the tension between group and individual goes on, but I do recommend experimenting with group examinations. And, on the job, if you really must do performance appraisal (it really is best not to do it), try group assessment. Let the team “product” – however it is to be assessed - be the basis of the evaluation. Perhaps there can be ways to identify the “stars” – the MVPs – and to reward them above the team reward.
Once you make team assessment clear at the start of a year, that may encourage a team’s addressing its common problems. Often teams go through the motions rather than openly discuss individual effort toward teamwork.
If someone is a slacker, why should not the team confront that person and find out why and what can be done? Currently, it appears that team members are too intimidated and fear being labeled “not a team player” for calling out a team mate’s shortcomings. Instead avoidance and accommodation are practiced rather than talking through performance issues.
Frankly, I like this group exam approach and given another group with similar abilities and interests, I’ll do it again.

*REQUIREMENTS FOR GRADE in my Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia, Department of Information and Library Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences:
30% - Attendance and participation in class
30% - Assessment of individual work and participation in team assignments, including the “Books2Eat” project
20% - Solo paper
20% - Final examination

© John Lubans 2015
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