We generally teach courses in single semesters.  Twelve weeks of teaching, which feels like a triple marathon yet also flies by. In these three months, I want students on my courses to engage, to share, and to pick up the baton for themselves. I want them to do this from week 1.

I see that the majority want this too, but they are not always sure how to do it. The silence when I invited thoughts, ideas, and contributions during the early weeks of this wobbly, half-out-of-lockdown semester was particularly deafening.

But even during ‘normal’ times, classroom dynamics in the early weeks tend to go like this: ‘Oh this is nice, you will tell us some new things and if we’re interested we’ll listen.’   Then, once there’s a deadline: ‘Wait what? I need to do something?’ (Fair enough, most of us need deadlines to get things done.)   In my teaching, I usually design a structured graded assessment with a Week 6 submission point, and get this started in Week 3.

Collaborative group projects can – potentially – create a nice space to learn about a lot of stuff.  They can foster a community vibe which significantly boosts the quality of teaching and learning.  And the chance to learn what it takes to be an employable human. They can minimize the mid-semester marking burden while still generating lots of good quality feedback for learners. Or, they can be hellish for everyone.

Group work will never please everyone. Oh well.

When it comes to digital tools and course design enhancements, here are some reasons not to try anything new and fancy:  Assignments and grading in one course need balancing alongside our other courses and teaching, and also alongside the routinely unpredictable tasks we all do day to day. These are legion: initiating, proposing, explaining, writing, practicing, re-purposing, collaborating, project-managing, re-creating, advocating, administrating, persuading, re-imagining, inventing, facilitating, caring, and also these days some servitorial duties, manual labour, and completing inscrutable and coded HR information returns using obscure Excel worksheet formulae.  We also have to spend a lot of time learning and re-learning new digital tools, interfaces and systems that are not always fit for purpose, and which change the nature of the job that we set out to do in the first place.

But I do really like WebPA.

I’ve been using WebPA for quite a few years now.  It’s a system to manage peer assessment. It was devised at Loughborough University – here’s a link to the WebPA homepage for more about this open source project. Some clever team at Edinburgh University have integrated WebPA into our regular VLE.

What This Means is that I grade and provide feedback on the attainment of, say, 10 assignments – but my 60 students each receive an individualised mark which reflects their contribution to the project. It also provides students with scaffolding and feedback to understand how to work well in a group.

It took me a while to understand what WebPA is. This is ‘it’:  Once the submission is in, students take 2 minutes using a Likert scale to answer survey questions about how everyone in the group contributed to getting the project done. Based on these numerical responses, the WebPA algorithm generates a weighting which moderates the project marks. The output takes into account the assigned grades and groupings (so you can have uneven group sizes), and you can tweak the parameters to fit your criteria.

The target and the tone of the survey questions are worth getting right. I’ve devised four questions that seem to work for me regardless of the topic of the course, or the nature of the assignment. Here they are:

For each of the four criteria below, choose the best fitting statement for YOURSELF and EACH OTHER MEMBER OF YOUR GROUP:

1. Getting started: Contributing timely and appropriate ideas
  • Plenty of appropriate suggestions – score 5
  • Plenty of suggestions – score 4
  • Some suggestions on the right lines – score 3
  • Contributed only a few, or inappropriate, suggestions – score 2
  • Contributed no suggestions – score 1
2. Getting going: Turning ideas into action!
  • Unstoppable! A powerhouse of initiative! – 5
  • Good amount of initiative – 4
  • Fair amount of initiative – 3
  • Took action when nudged – 2
  • Showed little or no initiative – 1
3. To the finish line! Completing work and delivering the project
  • Highest level of contribution – 5
  • Great contribution -4
  • Kept at it – 3
  • Not especially helpful – 2
  • Obstructive – 1

4. Overall: General contribution to the group (e.g. through punctuality, respectful behaviour, good communication)

  • Score from 5 (highly positive contribution) to 1 (not a positive contribution)

Obviously, a process like this needs talking about in class well before the project is in progress. Doesn’t take long to run through survey questions. It’s a nice quick discussion that demystifies group work and saves a lot of time in the long run.

Basically, in setting up group projects I try to use the platform as academic lead to model the attributes that I think will serve students best in their study, and in general life. These include commitment, humour, honesty and a bit of loving-kindness. With this approach, assessed group projects can be a really important component in course design, steering the ship towards peer-directed and peer-supportive waters – an essential survival strategy for the 12 week semester model and hybrid HE meltdown strike-stricken pandemic workload that we all have to operate in.