Good, Bad and Ugly: Student comments on group work in e-learning

I thought it would be interesting to add an addendum to my three-part series on group work in online environments by including a selection of comments from students from the very same courses I discussed in the previous posts on group work. The series focused on the why, what and how of implementing and executing group strategies, yet I think it may be helpful for readers to consider student feedback, and appreciate the group process from student perspective.

What students say anonymously about group work…
The comments below are a selection of student responses to a feedback survey given at the end of the online courses at the college where I work. I’ve included the ‘good, bad and they ugly’, in order to give an honest ‘snapshot’

Question: “What did you like best about the course?”

“I enjoyed the discussion boards the best.  I enjoyed the topics that were chosen for the students to discuss.

“The interaction with other students.”

“I really enjoyed every aspect of the course.  I thought it was challenging, meaningful and I was very impressed with [the professor]..”

“It really made me think. Although I worked about 15 hours a week I thought about the material much longer.”

“Working in groups is useful…”

What student liked least….

Below are responses to the question, What did you like least about the course?  [I’ve add my own comments after each student comment.]

The group project.  I did not understand how an online class would even attempt to require a group project.  It was shocking to me actually.  It proved difficult to contact people.  The group ended up having to use Google documents to be able to edit and IM simultaneously.  If I could change something about the course, it would be removing this assignment.” [This supports the reason and purpose for having group assignments. I’ve since added descriptions of the purpose for each group assignment and activity].

Teams are too small…” /  “Teams are too large.” [you can’t please everybody]

Working in teams is frustrating...” [agreed, in person too…]

The group assignment was difficult. One of the benefits of taking a class on line is doing things in your own convince, it was difficult coordinating with my group members.” [I have since added instructions that are further clarified with suggestions for coordinating the group work. Though again, we see the value of group work — students not working in a vacuum, being ‘forced’ to collaborate with others].]

Participating in the forums! I had a really hard time figuring out what to do and when.” [I added further instructions with a weekly schedule of due dates].

“I thought the group project should have been worth more points since there was only one other person in my group.” 

There often appears to be more negative feedback than positive, however I find negative feedback crucial to helping students learn and be successful by making changes and adaptations based on their observations and frustrations.

Keep Learning 🙂

Making peer evaluations work in Online Learning

This is the final post in a 3 part series on group work in online learning communities. Post 1 featured why we need group work in online learning, post 2 –  strategies for making groups work and in this post we’ll explore the topic of assessing group work in an online college-level course.

What are we assessing and Why?
I like to start with the obvious – what are we evaluating and why? Though the ‘why’ seems apparent, on the surface at least – evaluation in a college course whether online or not, requires an assessment component in order to demonstrate that the student as acquired knowledge in light of the instructional objectives. In this instance we are applying assessment collectively, which adds a layer of complexity. How well did the team project meet the learning goal of the assignment and what about individual contributions within? Do we need to evaluate this dimension? Many educators appear to agree with the ‘peer evaluation’ or ‘peer assessment’ concept for group work. Peer assessment allows the group members to provide a score or some kind of measurement on team members levels of participation and contributions. Rather than assessing whether the student learned from the assignment or not, this method seems geared to identifying any ‘slackers’ or those who sit on the side lines through the entire project, with minimal contributions.

Peer Evaluation – the ultimate expression of individualism?
Peer evaluation is not a concept exclusive to online learning. Numerous higher education institutions use peer evaluations as a scoring mechanism as part of the overall grading strategy for a given class involving group work. This sample peer evaluation form is available on Penn State’s World Campus resources, which appears to be used for face-to-face classes on a consistent basis.

I have mixed feelings about peer evaluations, leaning towards not using peer reviews as part of the assessment strategy. I wonder if the concept of peer evaluation is exclusive to higher education institutions in the USA? In considering the theory of collectivism vs. individualism, the US is extreme — on the far end of individualistic spectrum, which is perhaps why the concept of evaluating one’s peers contributions seems to be a ‘given’ in the academic setting. There are many examples of academics supporting the concept of peer evaluation. An academic paper has this to say, “Most group work is assessed by giving every individual the same grade for a team effort. However this approach runs counter to the principles of individual accountability in group learning…. difficult to determine the individual grades for work submitted by the group.” (Lewis, 2006). I respectfully suggest that this professor is missing the point of a collaborative activity.  I digress. Let’s move onto the how-to of assessment for these ‘collective’ assignments.

Grading Strategy
There are 3 main grading strategies to evaluating group assignments in online college classes that I’ve experienced firsthand.

  • Peer Evaluation with team grade. What appears most common is incorporating two grading components —  a team grade AND a grade allocated for the peer evaluation, the latter usually accounting for a small percentage of the total assignment. How it works – each group member completes an evaluation on his or her team members which is then submitted to the instructor. The instructor usually takes the average of the peer evaluations, and shares this grade with each team member which serves as the student’s grade in the peer evaluation portion. In principle, team members do not see any peer evaluations completed by their peers (though there is a case for sharing these). For example, in one of the classes I am taking now, we have a scoring table which where I will evaluate my 3 other group members, and myself. Below a copy of the actual evaluation that each team member completes:

Of course the point value of peer evaluation is unique to each situation, as determined by the instructor. Though, my experience is that the points do not motivate the student to participate in the project on the front end, but more allows the other group members to express his or her dissatisfaction with the other group members lack of participation or cooperation. I do not recommend including an option on the peer evaluation for team members to make comments about their peers. Should team members have negative comments to make about peers, this tool is not a constructive venue. Should negative comments be made on peer reviews about team members, instructors should not share these comments with the group member, but have a Skype meeting or conference call with one or more members if deemed necessary.

  • Team grade only. The second option, that several professors at my workplace use  is to assign a team grade, but not to use peer evaluations. Granted the assignment is small, only contributing 10% towards the final grade, however, the instructor monitors participation by viewing each groups’ discussion board within the LMS. In cases with a non-participating group member, he intervenes with an email to the student. Alternatively he will address the entire class in his weekly professor news posts and remind students about the need for participation. Overall this assignment works well, though perhaps a contributing factor to its success, is the size of the groups which are usually limited to 4 participants, and often are as small as 3 team members.
  • Self evaluation and team grade. This is my preferred approach. I believe the learner will benefit far more by completing a self evaluation (that is well crafted to include focused self reflection questions) that forces him or her, to examine how he or she contributed [or did not] to the group process. The tool also encourages the student to consider actions that he or she demonstrated to support the team and to estimate what percentage of the work he or she contributed to the project.  ‘Forcing’ the individual student to assess their own behaviour, as opposed to others is more constructive – it supports the aim of developing collaboration skills, along with the knowledge component.

Evaluating the Team AssignmentUse a Rubric
I barely touched on the use of rubrics, which is the tool I suggest for evaluating the completed team project itself. Effective group collaboration begins with a well defined assignment that has clear goals and expectations. A well written rubric not only helps the facilitator score the assignment but it and can greatly increase the quality and effort put into assignments by giving students a clear expectations with knowledge that must be demonstrated. I could write to great length about rubrics, but some other individuals have done a far better job than I ever could.  That being said, I have provided links to several resources for creating or adapting your own rubric.

Resources for Rubrics:
Blog- e-learning blender – group project design
Click here to download a rubric template from Microsoft

Lewis, K. (2006). Evaluation of online group activities: Intra-group member peer evaluation. Retrieved from…/45796_2011.pdf

Keep Learning 🙂