Helping students distribute group work evenly

This is the 19th post in a series titled ‘All Things Group Work’. The home page is here.

In a previous post outlining the pedagogy behind the importance of scaffolding the development of group work task distribution, I posited that a great deal of group dysfunction likely emanates from group members being unable to initially identify what a task’s fundamental components actually are. And then, even if groups manage to initially agree on the components, they are still at the mercy of the accuracy of the distribution and what then to do if it becomes apparent some time into the project that the workload is heavily uneven. This post offers some strategies to ensure that groups are well-equipped to manage both contexts.

Make it apparent that there are opportunities to separate components

Because many students have had negative experiences with group work assessments, it is worth taking the time to assure them that the task they are about to do is deliberate in its use of groups. This not only satisfies Zimmerman and Moylan’s (2009) proposition that increasing student metacognition related to certain tasks leads to enhanced self-regulation, but it more pertinently draws from Chapman and Van Auken’s (2001) exhortation of the need for coordinators to not set and forget a group task: ‘Specifically, instructors who convey the value of group work, provide insight into group dynamics, and make attempts to limit the negative aspects of group projects may positively affect students’ attitudes toward group work.’

Create practice opportunities in applying weightings to components

Learning is defined by the incremental acquisition of schema, and students need to practise distributing tasks in order for them to transfer that skill into new contexts, which in this context, will be the immediate assessment task. Provide students with opportunities to develop and practise this skill by setting up analogies of weighting elements in a task. Start off with a simple example, such as the one below, and then increase the complexity so it nears the challenge students will face when trying to distribute elements in the assessment task. This is best done during tutorials. 

 Description of the component/sDishwasherVacuumingBathroomWindows
Weighting       10%       25%           40%        25% 
Student Name ……… ………  ……..  and …….. ……….. 

Help students identify the hidden group work components

As discussed in this page related to gender identity, when identifying parts of the task, groups tend to neglect to factor into their overall time organisational and managerial components of working in a group. It would be advisable for students to add this column as an extra component in the distribution table, as seen below. What percentage is arrived at is an excellent debate to be had among the group members, and then how this component is distributed evenly is also worth discussing. It may be that a single individual takes it on, but obviously then at the expense of having to do as much content work as others.

 Description of the component/sDishwasherVacuumingBathroomWindowsOrganisational
Weighting       10%       20%           35%        20%      15%
Student Name ……… ………  ……..  and …….. ………..  ..&..&…

Create a tutorial opportunity for breaking up the assessment task

This now involves the actual assessment task, and giving students time and opportunity to work on the distribution of the components. Especially in the early years of higher education, it would be advisable that the tutor is on hand to discuss each group’s outcome of this process, and question and offer advice if they see obvious inequity. When a group has to justify their choices, it potentially strengthens its understanding of the components, and it is then that the group charter can be created to represent the distribution. This is an integral part of reducing the chance of dysfunction caused by inequity.

Help students identify the sub-components of individual responsibility

As mentioned in the pedagogical overview, lots of group dysfunction is only identified when it’s too late, typically when it’s time to submit the assessment. A way to combat this is to ensure that students embed milestone check-ins into their charter so that what has been done up to a certain point is sufficient to indicate if there is an issue. This then provides the group with enough advanced notice so something can be done about it.

However, in order for this to be effective, each group member needs to break up their relevant component of the task into sub-components that can be project managed. This involves a similar skill that the group managed in the distribution of the overall components, but as this is more related to each individual member in the group, there may be varying skill levels in students doing this. Renkl’s (2014) advocacy for using models or worked examples could be drawn on here, with a tutor demonstrating how particular elements could be subdivided.

Help students be prepared to adapt if things change

Also necessary to be embedded in the group charter is the time and space needed for iteration if the milestones are not being met by particular group members. It is crucial at this point that students approach this meeting with an understanding and acceptance that the distribution may need to change. This is particularly important because some in the group may already feel overwhelmed despite the fact that it has been determined that they may need to do more. This makes it clear that the earlier the first milestone is set, the better.


Chapman, K. J., & van Auken, S. (2001). Creating Positive Group Project Experiences: An Examination of the Role of the Instructor on Students’ Perceptions of Group Projects. Journal of Marketing Education, 23(2), 117–127.

Hacker, D., Dunlosky, J., Graesser, A., Zimmerman, B. and Moylan, A. (2009). Handbook of Metacognition in Education PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR DOCUMENT. [online] Available at:

Renkl, A. (2014). Toward an Instructionally Oriented Theory of Example-Based Learning. Cognitive Science, 38(1), pp.1–37.

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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