Group work is a time-tested strategy in many classrooms, but educators are starting to rethink how to evaluate these projects not just on the content students learn, but the skills they hone to work in teams as adults.
Collaborative problem-solving—the ability to work with others on new and complex problems—is one of the most highly sought-after skills by employers. It’s required under both the common-core math and reading standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. But it’s also notoriously tricky to pull off a project that builds both students’ cognitive and social skills as they meet content standards.
“As teachers, we assume students know how to collaborate,” said Diana Lowe, a curriculum director for math and science in the Texarkana, Ark., school district, which adopted project-based learning as part of its own shift to the Common Core State Standards.
In practice, though, Texarkana educators found group projects often foundered—not because students didn’t understand the content, but because they couldn’t work together successfully. The district has been working with the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit which provides teacher training on implementing project-based learning, to integrate both content and teamwork skills into assessing their group projects.
“Part of what makes it risky to launch collaborative problem-solving projects for a teacher is there’s a lack of research on how to set up contexts for problems,” said Art Graesser, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis in Tennessee who studies collaborative learning and problem-solving. “Emotions can be involved; the kids might fight over who gets to do what and ... have conflict because part of the construct is to try to get different people’s perspectives.”
Breaking Down Skills
In 2017, the Program for International Student Assessment released the first worldwide test of students’ collaborative problem-solving skills. U.S. 15-year-olds scored in the top 15 of the 52 participating countries, but fewer than 10 percent had strong collaboration skills. On average, U.S. students knew how to volunteer information or ask for clarification in a group, but they were less likely to be able to handle complex problems, mediate group conflicts, or evaluate the quality of their teammates’ work.
The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, evaluates a dozen different aspects of collaboration for 15-year-olds across the globe. U.S. students have proven more adept at such group problem-solving than the international average, but girls outperformed boys in every country.
Here’s a breakdown of what that involves:
1. Understanding roles to solve the problem
2. Monitoring and repairing the shared understanding
3. Discovering the type of collaborative interaction to solve the problem, along with goals
4. Identifying and describing tasks to be repeated
5. Monitoring results of actions and evaluating success in solving the problem
6. Enacting plans
7. Discovering perspectives and abilities of team members
8. Building a shared representation and negotiating the meaning of the problem
9. Describing roles and team organization
10. Following rules of engagement
11. Communicating with team members about the actions to be/being performed
12. Monitoring, providing feedback, and adapting the team organization and roles
Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
“Employers are asking us for specific things that kids can do ... to be able to solve problems on the road, to communicate well with each other,” said William Brazier, the professional-learning supervisor for the Loudoun County, Va., district, which launched a districtwide project-based and group-learning initiative in 2014. “Previously, the question was, ‘What information do I need to know for a test?’ Now that question is, ‘What work do I have to produce that will actually have an application in the world that makes collaboration much more important?”
More-typical group projects, such as science labs, don’t necessarily boost students’ collaboration skills. In fact, students who spent the most time doing practical experiments in science class performed 31 points lower on average on PISA’s collaborative problem-solving test than students who rarely did so.
That may be because group projects in which the answer is already known can make it easier for individual students to slack off, according to Graesser.
He recommended teachers instead set up problems in which students with different skill sets must come together to solve a new problem and produce something. “It’s very visible when you create something. Each person has to do their part or else it doesn’t work,” Graesser said.
The Loudoun district now requires its teachers to explicitly teach students collaboration skills as part of introducing project-based learning and has students develop “contracts” laying out roles and agreeing to rules to guide discussions, such as active listening.
“What we think is needed is not simply assessing the teamwork, but it is training, practice, and feedback,” said Stephen Fiore, director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory and team cognition researcher at the University of Central Florida. Research has shown that people in teams taught how to distribute expertise and evaluate what they are discussing, such as the pros and cons of the solutions they develop have been found to produce the best work, Fiore said.
For teachers, that means the process of assessing group projects should include “explicitly quizzing [students] on whether they know what their team members are doing,” Fiore said. “When we look at the kinds of teamwork processes, we would break it down into: How well are they sharing information? How well do they recognize the roles the team members are taking on? Are they trying to meet the goals that the team has identified? How well are they addressing any conflict?”
Teachers in the Texarkana district mapped out both individual benchmarks for content in each project and a “soft-skills rubric,” which they use to monitor students’ communication, creativity, and teamwork over the course of group projects.
“Even though you’re still measuring students’ individual progress toward the content standards, those soft-skill rubrics do give you a way to look at a team assessment that is not based on the student’s content knowledge,” said Rachel Scott, the director of the magnet program for the Texarkana district.
Teachers build up students’ skills in areas like listening, assigning roles, and monitoring each others’ work in short, low-stakes group activities before moving to major group projects, Texarkana’s Lowe said.
“It’s important as a teacher to establish a [collaborative] culture ... so that students develop some trust and appreciation for each other’s abilities and skill sets,” Lowe said. “It sets the tone for them being able to do more with their projects and teams.”
Renee Dooly, a 1st grade teacher at Chico Country Day School, a project-based charter school in Chico, Calif., said she builds in time for class reflections after group projects.
“Kids will be very honest,” Dooly said. “This year’s class ... they do have a hard time working together, but they are very good about saying, ‘Oh, this went well because we all had a turn to talk,’ or ‘This didn’t go well because so-and-so wouldn’t participate.’ ”
Emerging technology may also make it easier for teachers to assess students’ collaboration skills, by allowing teachers to track students’ participation in online planning discussions or edits to group projects.
Dooly said group projects allow students who struggle on traditional tests to show their academic strengths while also getting more support from their partners. For example, in an internal study of eight charter schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the EdVisions school network found students’ stronger scores on an assessment of collaboration skills were associated with better math and reading performance.
“You’re also going to have some kids who may not be able to perform at the 1st grade [level] work, but they really are putting the most effort into some part of the group project,” Dooly said. “Group work [becomes] a strength area for them.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as How to Assess Group Projects: It’s About Content and Teamwork