Have you ever thought about what your students are worth? What would you pay them for the work they do on a project? It’s a sort of backwards question, as generally students pay us to learn. I’m asking this question because of a group work evaluation method I learned from Patrice Palmer in her wonderful book, Successful Group WorkInstead of asking students what grade they think they deserve (or how they’d grade their teammates in a group project), ask them:

How much would you pay yourself for the work you did?

or if you want them to evaluate each other, you can ask:

How much would you pay each member of your group?

There are a few reasons why I really like this kind of question for group work evaluation:

Group work evaluation is hard to do, and it’s particularly hard to take students’ self-reflections or evaluations at face value. Students know who worked hard and who slacked off. They know which parts of the project they feel best about and which parts they feel they could have done more. But getting a straightforward answer from them is difficult, and understandably so.

Some teachers ask students to grade themselves and/or the other members of their team. I don’t really like this approach. Grades have real-world consequences to a student, Asking them to tell a teacher what grade they deserve, even knowing you might not agree, is too much pressure. It’s hard not to see the exercise as a chance for them to demonstrate why they deserve an A, rather than engaging in sincere self-evaluation and reflection. You can’t expect them to be objective about it.

Students also don’t always appreciate the subtleties of the group work evaluation process. It isn’t always intuitive how to translate quality of work into a grade. Even experienced teachers agonize over decisions like how to grade an essay executed with excellent grammar and a broad vocabulary, but whose substance is lacking depth. Or whether a grade for a presentation should suffer if the student forgot one section, but shone in the other parts. We don’t expect students to appreciate these nuances, so it’s hard to imagine a grade they give would be of much use.

Finally, too many students think that everyone deserves an A, if they worked really hard. Or conversely, that an A represents unattainable perfection and no one truly should get one. And grades don’t mean the same thing in every culture. All too often, when asking students to give each other grades, I find they give everyone an A, and then one student an F. That’s useful as it’s a sign that one student may not have worked as hard as the others. However, it seems that it might be possible to get better information.

Living in a Material World

On the other hand, most of us have at least some idea of how work translates into money. For better or for worse, it’s the primary way our society values work. Even though you and your students may not know the exact salary or wage of every job in the world, we have general ideas of what jobs pay. And we certainly know what the things we buy cost. So using a monetary value to evaluate student work is more natural than a grade value.

Asking students to think about their work in terms of pay also gives the project a certain real-world immediacy. At some point, students will in fact be paid for doing work. Thinking in terms of money now reminds them of this, and it also shows that you take their work seriously. At the same time, since you aren’t actually paying them. So there’s no actual pressure.

Zero-Sum Group Work Evaluation

If you’re asking students to evaluate their whole team, you can even turn this self-evaluation method into a zero-sum situation, and this is the version Patrice uses in her book. Tell students a firm is going to buy their work and pay them a set amount (say, $5,000). How would they split the money between their teammates? Who gets more and who gets less? Of course, you’ll want to ask them to give specific reasons. A simple dollar amount isn’t a very insightful or helpful form of reflection if it’s not supported with reasons.

That being said, students can be as reluctant to criticize themselves or others as they are to hand out a low grade. A dollar amount is (seemingly) objective enough and important enough to require an honest response. And a first-step in a longer reflection.

Try it and see if your students’ insights into their ability . And check out Patrice’s book, Successful Group Workfor other insightful ideas to make group work go better.

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