Increasingly, group work constitutes an important part of assessment at UWA.
Along with the growth in this mode of assessment, questions have been posed here and at other universities about the challenge of dealing with academic misconduct in this context.
Given the relative newness in some areas of this form of assessment, at times expectations and guidelines may not be as fully elaborated as is the case for other assessment forms. In turn, the amorphous nature of some group work poses the challenge of accurately attributing academic misconduct if it occurs in this context.
Some common solutions – such as penalising all students in a group when academic misconduct is detected, regardless of which individual/s commit an infraction – appear as an unacceptably simplistic and inequitable response to a complex issue.
The nature of group work is considered below and identifies:
- some more common structures that form within work groups
- the problems that may occur within groups, especially as they relate to academic misconduct
- methods of identifying responsibilities within the different group types, and identifying more fairly and accurately the source(s) of academic misconduct.
It concludes with a number of suggestions about group work, including structuring group assessments at the outset in a manner that takes account of the types of group that may form, and ways in which responsibility for parts of the final output may be identified.
The nature of group work
1.1 Group work assessments sometimes appear within unit assessment schedules as a piece of work with an arbitrary but vaguely defined requirement that a number of students work together to produce the final output. There are other units in which group work is specifically included to enhance the learning experience by obliging students to cooperate, and to facilitate discussion of the unit material.
1.2 Some of the deficiencies of the first approach are:
- Groups of students who have neither experience nor training in the requirements of group discipline and group output spend as much time working out how to proceed as they do actually researching and producing the required piece of work.
- The process of coordinating efforts under such conditions sometimes means that finishing the work with sufficient material becomes the primary objective. In such cases, insufficient attention may be given to the process of producing the work, thereby possibly increasing the likelihood of resort to scholarly shortcuts and, at worst, to practices of academic misconduct, including plagiarism, by some members of a group.
1.3 Ideally, group work should be devised to enhance the learning effort or to teach specifically the skills required in working as a project group, as well as a focus upon desired academic outcomes in terms of content.
1.4 In considering such objectives and devising appropriate assessments, it is useful to consider some common group structures used by students working in this context.
2.1 The more common forms of group structure include:
- The group where all members of the group work collectively on all aspects of the project, and in which individual contributions are almost impossible to identify, even by the participants involved.
- The group in which one member takes a clear leadership role, taking charge and sometimes even responsibility for the completion and quality of the work;
The group of individuals or structured group where each member takes an assigned or agreed task (sometimes submitting it to a final editing process immediately prior to submission).
- The dysfunctional group – in which the group may not function at all, but where individuals, or a single individual, may produce the work for the entire group in order to complete the assessment.
2.2 In each of these group forms, the way in which they work, and in turn, the way in which individual tasks and responsibilities may be tracked, are all different.
Tracking effort and contribution
3.1 There are many ways in which the effort of the individual student may be tracked in identifying both quality and quantity of contribution. Some of these are:
- The production of working logs by the group, including photocopies of source material and interim drafts
- Maintaining copies of working papers
- Explicit definition of individual roles and responsibilities with specific reference to the required output
- Specific individual sign-off of sections of the work submitted as a contribution to the group's assessment product
- Group report accompanying the submitted assessment, including such sign-off provisions.
Effective group work guidelines
4.1 Some suggested guidelines on ways in which the use of group work can be formalised and made more effective include:
- The group work should explicitly relate to the outcomes for the unit.
- Expectations of the group work should be detailed in the course outline.
- If this unit builds directly on another (prerequisite) unit where the group work requirements have been detailed, used and tested, then these requirements can be reasonably included with limited supporting instruction.
- In all other instances, it is the responsibility of the lecturer/coordinator to ensure the students are instructed and supported in this area.
- The form of instruction/support may include a combination of:
- The provision to students of printed or web material on the objectives and methodology of group work, and the processes of group work in an academic setting
- Specific seminars or other instruction for students, to complement such written material
- Specific reference to objectives/outcomes of prescribed group work, during the semester.
4.2 The guidelines should also clearly incorporate the mechanisms of accountability required of the students, both as individuals and as members of the group.
Group work and sources of academic misconduct
5.1 One source of academic misconduct may be confusion among students when they do not fully understand what is required of them, or are not sure where the line between appropriate academic conduct and misconduct lies. In most cases, the first time academic misconduct is detected, the student receives firm clarification about what is required, and generally will be inspired not to repeat the actions.
5.2 Beyond any inadvertent misconduct, is the more vexed area of deliberate academic misconduct. Experience suggests that some of the reasons for this are:
- Inadequate understanding of the unit material such that the student fears they may face a failing (or insufficient) grade for the unit.
- Lack of time to complete an 'original' piece of work, with the pressure of assignments and study commitments in a number of units. This problem may be exacerbated by the work and other off-campus commitments of many students, where a large number of activities must be juggled alongside their studies.
- Unwillingness to put in the work required to produce 'original' work, for whatever reason.
5.3 In the case of group work, there are also problems faced by individual students that can cause them to engage directly in academic misconduct, or be a party to it:
- Uneven commitment from members of the group such that one or more must accept a greater responsibility than their 'fair share'.
- Uneven ability in which one or more members feel pressured by peers to produce work that they fear is beyond their capacity within the unit.
- Time pressures for individuals or the whole group caused by the full-time workload that most face, so there is insufficient time for reflection and a proper analytical effort.
- The time taken for some individuals and groups to understand the process of group work and to find a suitable way to meet the project/group work requirements.
5.4 As a result, some students may engage in academic misconduct as a means, in their view, of 'supporting' the overall academic effort of their group.
Detection of academic misconduct in group work
6.1 Anecdotal evidence suggests where academic misconduct in the context of group work is detected, there is often a cost to all students in the group involved. Unfortunately, unless there has been some form of oversight of the processes within the groups involved, students may be penalised for an infraction of which they had neither involvement, nor responsibility, nor knowledge.
6.2 The ideal is to be able to assess the responsibility, and hence culpability, of students in a group where academic misconduct is detected, and apply penalties that are consistent with levels of individual culpability.
Setting the environment to discourage academic misconduct
7.1 The best way to tackle academic misconduct within group work (and indeed all assessable work) is for students to be aware of the ways in which this might occur, and the ways in which they may avoid it as a part of their education in effective group work processes. Attention to and active involvement in group work practices, where there is explicit consideration within the group of academic misconduct and its avoidance is a good starting point.
7.2 For this to occur, students must be properly prepared for the process of successful group work. Instruction from teaching staff in faculties, and support from Student Services and the library will ensure good group work principles and practices become more firmly entrenched. Such instruction may take the form of:
- Written or web material that can be distributed generally, or used more specifically by academic staff using group work as one of the means of assessment in their units.
- Specific reference to group work practices, processes and objectives within unit outlines when this means of assessment is used. More explicit formalisation of group work requirements and group work processes may include:
- Clear explanation of the generic skills objectives of any group work, as well as its content-based academic objectives
- A statement of the assessment mechanisms and criteria for group work, ideally including assessment of the work practices of the group as well as the group's final 'product' for submission
- Guidelines for students engaged in the group work that support the objectives of using group work as a teaching and learning tool.
8.1 Within faculties, the use of group work will vary in its intent and its form. For this reason, it is not possible to propose guidelines that will fit all circumstances. While guided by University material written and presented generally as a guide to successful and legitimate group work, it is incumbent upon the faculties to develop specific guidelines for the material that staff will use in unit outlines and other relevant unit material.
8.2 In formulating guidelines, faculty groups may benefit from considering the common forms of group structure identified above. While not exhaustive, such models may form the basis for ensuring that the accountability structures recommended to students within unit outlines. What minimum general requirements might be incorporated into group guidelines, to ensure that any type of group – from the most to the least functional – presents sufficient evidence of individual effort and responsibility? For example, using the four group structures cited earlier, it is clear that an understanding of what members within each contributed, would vary: for less well-functioning groups, more evidence of group work process would be required to satisfactorily assess effort. For the successfully collaborating group, it may be sufficient for its members to maintain copies of their working procedures and to 'sign-off' on their contributions, to achieve accountability. For the least functional group however, accountability procedures may include many more steps, including the maintenance of working logs; retaining individual copies of work; records of meetings and of the relationship between individual input, and the final product; a final group report with a sign-off attesting to the originality of the work.
8.3 Such examples offer some preliminary ideas about the ways in which the process and practice of group work can be formalised, and accountability assessed, if necessary.
When academic misconduct is detected
9.1 The detection of academic misconduct brings penalties to those engaging in it. However, in any group work situation, it may not be obvious prima facie who actually has engaged in the misconduct. While some attempts may be made to assess the individual level of culpability within a group, in the absence of any accountability measures embedded in a group's process, any judgement may rely solely on statements made by the group members when interviewed. Absence of clear evidence may increase the likelihood of all members being penalised.
9.2 The approaches suggested in this outline are designed to allow a Head of School or Dean investigating any allegation of academic misconduct, or adjudicating on an appeal against a penalty imposed, to have a firmer basis for the decision. This basis constitutes the students' own work in forming a 'chain of evidence' on their own behalf as part of the group work process. In this way, the assessment of culpability, and the extent of that culpability should be clearer.
9.3 In conclusion, it is strongly recommended that any incorporation of group work into academic assessment include explicit information to students; explanation of its intended academic and generic skills objectives; and the inclusion of accountability measures for individuals to promote ethical scholarship in this context, and to extend principles of fairness and equitable handling in such contexts in the case of allegations of academic misconduct.
9.4 It is an approach that involves the University, individual faculties and academic staff in the promotion and understanding of group work as a significant area in which students may develop valuable skills. In particular, the strategy includes:
- Development of material about group work and the pursuit of ethical scholarship within it, for inclusion in the University's website relating to academic literacy and academic misconduct
- The development of faculty guidelines on the use and process of group work by academic staff
- Where group work is required as part of assessment, clear explanation in unit outlines about the nature and objectives of the activity, the appropriate preparation of students for work in a group context, and the inclusion of accountability measures among group members.