Task distribution scaffolds

This is the 10th post in a series titled ‘All Things Group Work’. The home page is here.

There are countless numbers of research papers on the deleterious effect of social loafing, where one student does more work than others. There are equally as many anecdotal stories – just ask anyone who has used group work as an assessment task. What is overwhelmingly clear is that it creates serious dysfunction in a group (Aggarwal & O’Brien, 2008).

The Ringelmann effect goes some way to explain the phenomenon: the more people in a group the less each person will do (cited in Karau & Williams, 1993).

However, little research has been done on whether in such a group the students actually possessed the required skill to break up the task into equal components. It could easily be the case that the student who does more work than others and complains of such an outcome was destined for such a result from the outset, as no one in the group was able to see that it was unfair to begin with. 

Because the level of skill of individuals in a group being able to distribute tasks amongst themselves will be so varied, it makes logical sense to design a task that makes the distribution manageable. Usually, however, group tasks are not designed to be group tasks at all, but more so tasks that can be done individually but given to a group. In such cases, the chances for failure are increased significantly.

Equity = validity

When assigning individuals a final group score, in order for that score to be valid, the individuals in the group should have done an equal share of the work. Bearing in mind that most groups will be comprised of between three and five students, the design of a task should then be able to be separated into three to five components. Of course, these components will be interweaved and need to be seen as contributing to the whole, but the reality is that lots of students will be working on their own on their respective components. They will come together soon after beginning (see below) and at various times (milestones) to discuss progress and to re-orientate themselves contextually with the bigger picture.

Practice what you preach

Without exception, the best way to ensure that an assessment is achieving what you think it is going to do is to actually do the assessment yourself. That way, you see all of the possible barriers and limitations that may be present and can make adjustments and tweaks to fine-tune the original idea. It is clearly much more difficult for the same rule to be applied to a group assessment, but the reality is that it is no different and should have the same pedagogical approach. In this light, the design of a group task should actually be done by a group of people, all collaborating to understand how the task will be done by a group of students. This will truly ensure that the task is being designed so that multiple people will be able to engage in it.

It’s not holding hands

An argument could be put forward that in the real world, teams are not afforded this, and are required to distribute and organise the task on their own. That may be the case, but the advantage for a team in the real world is that they are a team, have likely been working together for some time, and also, quite importantly, have team structures in place with project management usually connected to them. Students in a group task are not as experienced and certainly don’t spend as much time together as a team would in industry.

Also worth noting, the scaffold approach is not binding but is there to mitigate against inequity. A team may choose to ignore it if they are capable and can see another way to distribute the tasks and the workload. This alleviates any concerns that the scaffold becomes a regressive tool for highly motivated students. But also, another approach to push more responsibility onto the students is to use an adaptation of an engineering design approach, designed by John Murphy at The University of Adelaide.

Practising task distribution

Some course coordinators in the Faculty of Sciences, Engineering & Technology at the University of Adelaide inculcate students with a systems thinking approach to solving problems. In the methodology, students learn to define the problem, list all the elements within the task, and then apply a weighting to each element. It is the weighting that then informs the amount of time and energy that is dedicated to each element.

John, a University of Adelaide Learning Designer, has innovatively appropriated this approach to support task distribution in group work. He suggests that groups learn about this process by practising, and this is best achieved by incrementally building the requisite skills. The practice is initially done through analogy.

In a tutorial setting, an analogy you could use to help train students to define and weight tasks is to have them define and weight chores in the running of a household over a period of time (e.g. a fortnight to a month), as seen in a completed table below.

 Chore 1Chore 2Chore 3Chore 4
Description of choreDishwasherVacuumingBathroom and toiletsCleaning windows
Student nameJohnSialJocelyn and RamonePaul

By changing the size of the house as a second practise activity, or adding different elements, you highlight that estimates of effort would need to vary.

Having introduced the analogy, students apply the same thinking to the current group task, using a similar table to the one above. In fact, what this activity encourages is a robust conversation about the respective elements, and helps students to begin to deepen their understanding of the assessment. At the same time, you will be able to see who actually doesn’t understand the task by identifying poor progress in filling out the table. 

Being agile

Honouring the engineering design approach, once the initial task distribution is organised, the group should meet after a time to consider whether the allocation needs adjustment, as it likely will once students realise what their task requires. This iterative approach helps to ensure equity, and thereby mitigates against inequity being a cause for group dysfunction.

In the next post, I discuss how technology can be used to advantage in group member evaluation.


 Aggarwal, P., O’Brien, C. L. (2008). Social loafing on group projects: Structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, 30, 255-264. doi:10.1177/0273475308322283

Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger or on LinkedIn

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