Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Group Grades versus Individual Marks

In the course that I have been most recently teaching, Professional Communication: Principles and Practice, I need to justify for the powers that be the weighting of the various course assignments. One could say it breaks down to 90% for individual marks and then 10% for group grades. The so-called individual stuff includes a blogging regime of six content-based posts and regular commentary on classmates' posts, an application letter process, a peer teaching (in a team) assignment, a team-based discussion of a research project, an oral presentation of that same assignment, and finally, a composite score of various classroom interactions. The "group" grade is for a team-written research-based proposal. Identifying assignments in this way -- group or indiviual -- is nearly as inaccurate as calling the work either individual or group though, as it overlooks the interdependent nature of the work and each assignment.

In the oral presentation (OP), as one example, I give indivdual grades largely based on each team member's performance, but much of the effort, e.g., the slides of the typical PowerPoint, is a group creation (even if one person was initially responsible). The “value” of the slides is then figured into the holistic assessment of the OP for each individual, the assumption being that every OP team member signed off on the final set of slides. In short, each OP team member gets an individual grade, but that is within the context of the group’s effort.

I feel that what constitutes the group grade vs individual “mark” is hard to judge at times (and rather inappropriate), especially in a communication setting where working together/creating together is so much part of the classroom process. In my course, a student is required to find a job, grad school or internship advertisement, and she then does her application letter and resume in a four-draft process. In principle, the various drafts are refined with input from peers and me. Is the work, therefore, individual or group? Well, the grade eventually given is certainly individual. But what about the actual work?

The same question could be asked about each component of the course. Which "product" is the result of a process done independently, individually in isolation? Certainly none of the final products. Perhaps an initial draft of a blog post, say the one written on an interpersonal conflict, is done while the writer is alone in the proverbial ivory tower. But even the blog posts can be updated based on reader feedback. In fact, it's my hope that each one IS refined because that is exactly how writing is effectively improved.

When so much of the work in a course like mine is process-based with lots of requisite peer and tutor feedback given, it could almost be argued that for any final product a team should be judged more accurately than any one individual. You might say, however, that in an assignment like the team-oriented, research-based oral presentation, most of the weight of a grade should be based on each team member's performance, ie., the delivery. But even our OP is founded on a process; it has the required research project discussion as stage one, an “elevator test” summarizing the main content objective as stage two, the mock OP as stage three, and the final OP as stage four. Of course, an individual's performance is factored into awarding the final mark, but so much prior to that performance depends on other individuals, whether in the form of contributions made by teammates or feedback from members of the larger class group. Unfortunately, when I give an individual mark that social element is eclipsed. This may satisfy my superiors because they want to be certain that individual students are achieving the prescribed learning outcomes and receiving the appropriate carrot or stick, but it diminishes the various nuances involved in the educational process. 

Why do we often have to align the educational universe in this manner? Because even for a content-area such as communication, even when the course focus is helping students develop what are essentially social skills, we are in the business of teaching and assessing individuals. Of course, students can only improve communication skills when they develop a sense of other, of audience, and this happens best within the context of team projects and group-oriented assignments. But still our philosophical focus is on the "I," the individual rather than the group. This is because our value system within the educational context, just as in the context of contemporary life in general, is focused on each one of us as an individual; we have a certain obsession, if you will, for giving each individual a specific mark because individualism rules the day, not "the group," not "the learning community."

So I give individual marks, for the sake of the student,  my boss, the system; and  I justify the individual marks given, even when I feel that doing so misrepresents the way effective communication develops or the manner in which the associated skills improve.