Teaching & Learning


An alternative approach to group work assessment

Aine McAllister (UCL IOE), Dr Marquard Smith (UCL IOE) and Dr Silvia Colaiacomo (UCL Arena Centre) on fostering collaboration and shared responsibility amongst students undertaking group work


30 March 2023

This case study discusses an alternative approach to group-work assessment. It advocates that group assessment is an opportunity to foster collaboration, shared responsibility and to develop participants’ understanding and ability to work as part of a team. Students receive one mark for their group, with no differentiation based on individual input.

This approach was led by Dr Marquard Smith, piloted in the ‘Curation and Education’ module on the MA Museums & Galleries in Education in Art, Design & Museology, Department of Culture, Communication, and Media at the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. 

Developing a collaborative approach

The title of the module ‘Curation and Education’ articulates the idea of education as a curatorial act as well as learning through curating. 

The module is based on collaboration as a metaphor, but also a method and a methodology. Its assessment is centred on a piece of group work for which students receive one mark, with no differentiation based on students’ individual performance within their group. Traditional individual assessment doesn’t present valuable opportunities for the students to develop as collaborators, as it places an emphasis on individual gains and performance. 

In groups, students choose a brief (for instance Object Based Learning and Social Justice, Collective Knowledge Production, and Kids in Museums). They are given time to get to know and learn how to work with each other. This is a challenging journey, as students need to overcome their own biases and challenge their assumptions about individual performance. 

To this end, each group are asked to discuss and complete a ‘Social Contract’ which involves them discussing and agreeing on their ‘ways of working together’. This includes logistics [when and where to meet, how often, etc.] but also more ethical issues around being kind to one another, listening, being supportive, being honest, being accountable to one another etc. Students are also given examples of social contracts from different organizations relevant to the module, which they can use to model their practice. 

Throughout the module, students are supported with formative assessment tasks that help them to model practice and encourage reflection in the form of guide questions and patterns of work. 

The group project requires them to collaborate to achieve a common, tangible outcome for which they need to take responsibility as a team, and by do so they need to learn how to overcome individual approaches and goals.  

Through the task, students reflect on the importance of the process as much as the final product. The aim of the task is to enable a shift towards supportive, non-judgemental approaches to group work. 

Challenging the purpose of assessment 

We see assessment as an opportunity to develop empathy, collaborative approaches and an understanding that individuals need to be able to compromise and adjust in order to achieve any given outcome. We wanted the students to be able to work together and place emphasis on the importance of reciprocal support over individual attainment and performance.  

The approach is based on the view that knowledge produced through collaboration is inseparable from the collaboration itself. Furthermore, that assessments designed to recognise and facilitate collaborative ways of working and the ways in which knowing emerges through collaboration, are important means of decolonising the curriculum. 

The assessment of this group assignment is designed so that one grade is awarded to all members of the group for the collaborative outcome. It is also important to recognise the potential in this for developing transferrable and futures focussed employability skills. Group work fosters the ability to negotiate, formulate and respond to feedback, plan and set and manage expectations. It is intended that an awareness of the fact that collaborative leadership extends to developing the capacity of others to collaborate will emerge. The underpinning assumption is that designing a group assignment to offer authentic assessment opportunities and then individualising grades is only going 'halfway' towards foregrounding collaboration as integral to the outcome.  

Working in partnership with students 

It was clear from feedback, both during and after the assignment, that for many students this was both an intellectually rewarding, and professionally useful experience.

Students commented on the benefits of fully understanding what it means to work collaboratively (made clear from visits to British Museum, Live Art Development Agency, Wellcome Collection, and elsewhere), and that collaboration is the only way that the future of art and culture can survive. Students also commented on the benefits of ‘hands on’ and ‘real world’ ‘learning through doing’ and how this professional development (underpinned by academic/intellectual readings and discussions) will have effects on their ability to secure employment in the museum/gallery/heritage sector, and to do those jobs. 

The experience can have beneficial ‘unintended’ consequences, on students' overall development and mental health, as well as the development of a better understanding of the challenges and requirements of complex group projects that they will encounter in their professional life. 

Overcoming challenges with group grades

It is important to acknowledge the occasional resistance to a group grade being given to a group for a group assignment – when for instance a student believes that they have done more/better work for the project, or a student believes that another student has contributed less. In anticipation of this possibility, one needs to be able to acknowledge such resistance as legitimate, justify why it should be addressed, and consider a rationale for facilitating students to overcome it.

This also requires that students are facilitated to collaborate in ways that are set out in the five top tips below. 

Continuing to develop group asesssment

We would like to reword some of the marking criteria, so that emphasis is placed on process and collaboration.  

We would like to emphasise that collaboration requires ways of working that uncover, develop and facilitate the collaborative capacity of others. 

Marking criteria are currently designed for individual rather than group marks. Part of our future work will entail engaging in discussion with the programme team, the quality assurance office of the faculty and external examiner to discuss possible changes to the criteria and the framework for mark allocation. 

Finally, we recognise the importance of offering multiple summative assessment points throughout a module, so that students are not awarded a mark only based on a final 100% weighted assignment. Modules should offer students the opportunity to be assessed at different points and in different ways, including one form of individual assessment per module. Such an approach to assessment design also recognises the importance of authentic assessment that addresses different skills and learning outcomes. 

Five top tips to introduce this approach 

  1. Scaffold the learning experience gradually, so students have the time to adjust to the new approach; facilitating critical and intercultural dialogue is central to this.
  2. Create spaces for students which acknowledge the breadth of students linguistic and cultural repertoires. Spaces that acknowledge different ways of working and knowing, allow students to reflect on their experiences more meaningfully. This can happen through forums, portfolios, diaries and chat rooms.
  3. Provide examples to model practice, as we did by giving them a selection of social contracts. It is important in particular to model critical and intercultural dialogue.
  4. Invite external guests for formative opportunities to give feedback to the students.
  5. Prepare students for the idea that facing discomfort is a crucial part of the collaborative learning process.