Collaborative assessments, in which pairs or small groups of students work together, allow learners to benefit from their peers’ knowledge and teacher feedback in the same activity. Successful collaboration can boost student understanding by encouraging them to defend their thoughts, thus building their metacognition skills, and can expose students to other perspectives and ideas. Learning to work collaboratively can be a challenge, but it builds valuable interpersonal skills that can help students transition into their careers.
There are many ways to encourage students to collaborate in ways that can be assessed, but most of them can roughly fall into three categories: Group discussions, group projects, and peer review. No matter what type of collaborative assessment fits with a specific course, there are certain best practices that will be helpful to keep in mind.
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Collaboration can help students develop a deeper understanding of course content, but adding more people always adds complexity and the potential for conflict. Here are some general best practices that can help collaborative assessments succeed.
- Design group assignments/activities around a question or problem that requires interaction. Activities that require consensus building or problem solving are great fits for collaborative assignments.
- Clarity matters. Students should know what the goals and expectations are for an assignment and should have the opportunity to check their progress periodically. Provide resources for succeeding, such as technology tutorials, rubrics, and examples. If you encounter student resistance, being explicit about why collaboration benefits them can also help.
- Devote time to team building. Allow groups to get to know each other and to see what each individual can contribute. Provide clear guidelines for appropriate interaction in terms of respectful behavior and time commitment.
Maintain accountability by incorporating roles or individual components. You may also want to allow group mates the opportunity to evaluate each other.
Asking students to have discussions about content is a simple but effective way to encourage them to work together and assess their contributions to and knowledge of the subject at hand. To make a discussion truly collaborative, it should have specific guidelines and focus on questions that spark sharing and creativity.
A discussion will benefit from specific prompts that ask students to answer a question that is debated among experts, defend an opinion, or solve a problem together. They should go into the discussion with specific goals for the end of it. This will make it easier to evaluate whether a discussion was successful.
Providing a simple structure to the activity will also encourage fuller and more equitable participation. For example, giving each student a unique and important role can encourage a quieter student to speak up. Roles could include a discussion leader who makes sure everyone speaks, a presenter who summarizes the discussion to the rest of the class, or a devil’s advocate who looks for underrepresented viewpoints and asks the rest of the group about them.
In an online discussion board, these roles might still apply. Or, for a more general discussion, an instructor can simply make sure the instructions provide specific guidelines for both an initial post and responses to other students. The post and replies should serve different purposes that contribute to the larger goal of the assessment. A rubric will help students distinguish between the purposes of these posts.
Just like in a discussion, assigning roles to each student can facilitate group work by ensuring each student knows what they are responsible for and encouraging everyone to pull their weight. Another way of doing this is to incorporate a mix of both individual and collaborative parts in the assignment. For instance, a jigsaw activity – where each student does individual work in preparation and a group activity brings their different knowledge bases together – can make it clear who was prepared. Grading students partially on their individual contribution to the group project or activity can make students feel the score is fair.
With any group work, students should be working with a goal or end product in mind. Since group projects can be complex, it may be helpful to provide examples and to scaffold large assessments by breaking them into smaller ones.
Peer review is a great way to reap benefits of collaboration on otherwise solitary activities. It can be intimidating to give feedback to a peer or to be evaluated by one, so peer review should be designed to maximize the impact and minimize the discomfort.
Students may feel more comfortable with peer review if both parties are anonymous to each other. It can also help to have communication guidelines so students know what sort of respectful communication they should use.
Additionally, basing a student’s grade off of a peer’s review might make students hesitant to give substantive feedback. Instead, consider using it as a formative assessment that students revise for a larger grade later. Alternatively, peer review could be a small component of a grade while an instructor provides the majority of the points.
Finally, students will give stronger feedback if they have guidance on specific things to review. Providing them with a rubric that they can use as a starting place or with a set of guiding questions can help them focus their feedback on meaningful items.
References and Additional Resources
- Dittman, Dawn R; Hawkes, Mark; Deokar, Amit V; Sarnikar, Surendra (2010). Improving virtual team collaboration outcomes through collaboration process structuring, Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11, 195-210 & 289-290.
- Paz Dennen, V. (2008). Pedagogical lurking: Student engagement in non-posting discussion behavior, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, 1624-1633.
Available Instructional Development
For personal assistance in developing collaborative assessments that meet your course goals, you may request assistance from the Center for Instructional Technology and Training.