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© 1991, Adult Assessment Forum

Managing the Poor Performer in Cooperative Learning Groups: An Interview with Michael Scriven and John Sperling

Cooperative learning groups are growing in popularity as formal mechanisms of instruction in adult-centered higher education programs. The impetus for this change can be traced to several sources including increased empirical support for the efficacy of cooperative learning strategies, as well as the fact that adults often prefer to work and learn in groups. There are also philosophical shortcomings attendant with treating knowledge as an attribute of individuals rather than as an essentially social phenomenon.

The new popularity of study groups has also drawn attention to their problems. Most notable is the problem of managing the poor group performer. In the text below, Michael Scriven and John Sperling explore issues and solutions to the "poor performer problem." Michael Scriven is a distinguished philosopher, educator, and evaluation scientist to whom education owes, among many other contributions, the concepts of formative and summative evaluation. John Sperling, a visionary and pioneer in adult-centered higher education, is founder of the University of Phoenix, one of the nation's first and, now, one of the largest private adult-centered universities.

AAF: One of the criticisms of the study group concept is that it allows the marginally performing student to escape attention under the umbrella of the group.

Sperling: I think the poor performers in study groups provide a very essential function. I'm glad that they're there because they, more than anything else, illustrate to other members of the group problems they're going to face in the workplace with similar poor performers. The affective learning potential is tremendous. How does one deal with poor performers in the classroom or the workplace, and how does one go about changing performance? It's probably one of the most important lessons these students are going to learn.

Scriven: Agreed, but you don't want to finish up giving a degree to the poor performer. Ultimately you must have a way to distinguish the poor performer from the other members of the group.

Sperling: If students allow that poor performer to get a degree with the support of the group, and not on the merits of his or her own work, then that's precisely the way life is. That poor performer will in fact manage to limp along in life and in business--he may or may not be fired--but it replicates reality, and that's what the University of Phoenix is all about.

Scriven: Yes, but the University also has an integrity function--to defend the integrity of the credentials that you award because that's what the future employer expects. I think that when John Sperling signs-off on this credential, that means this individual has the basic talents that are required. Let me make a compromise suggestion and see what you think. Suppose everything you said is true and crucial. Therefore, the group experience, including the business of dealing with the poor performers, must be a very large part of what we do. It can be 50 percent or more of the grade. But the real lesson in life is that you are responsible for your own performance. In the end, you must walk away from the group experience and go back to your corner in your home to work. You must draw the lessons from that and go on to improve yourself in the light of that experience--whether you're the poor performer or the good one. You must then pass the final exam on your own.

Sperling: I would disagree because in any highly efficient institution there is no retreat to the individual. One cannot simply abdicate from the group. That's just not an option available in most well-run companies. One is not graded on one's own performance. One is graded, in the well-run company, on the performance of the group. In this University, I'm not looking for star individual performers; I'm looking for star group performers.

Scriven: And so you should. But star group performers have got to be separated out from the issue of having to share some people in the group because they won't pull away.

Sperling: And that's just what these students are going to do. They will either modify the behavior of the poor performers or they will get rid of them.

AAF : What about the responsibilities of the University to the student in terms of articulation and credit hours to other institutions?

Sperling: Remember, the student's performance in the study group is not the whole grade. In the typical group it is twenty-five or thirty percent of the grade, and it is probably never more than half of the grade. I get these Comments to the Chair constantly: "I am a brilliant student!" and "Why must I put up with these sluggards?" My response is, "because you're willing to put up with them." Now, the existence of sluggards in a study group certainly constitutes slippage of a sort, but there's nothing perfect in this world. The number of those who slide is a small cost to pay against the enormous benefit of learning to work effectively in those groups.

AAF : What about the role of assessment? Is there any way that groups can be assessed to minimize the problems with the poor performer?

Scriven: Yes, I can see how to do it. What is needed is a thorough effort to evaluate group performance across the curriculum. In addition to assigning a grade for content, and a second grade for writing across the curriculum, institutions that choose to invest significant educational resources in the group learning process must also assign a third grade for group performance. It is not that difficult to devise a system to secure the combined judgments of faculty and students to assess the quality of each individual's participation in group activities, assignments, and outcomes. This information must be translated into a grade. Then, the institution's process and outcomes assessment measures should mirror these dimensions of classroom assessment.

AAF : Would you suggest a portfolio-based approach to managing the process of assessment across the curriculum?

Scriven: No, the portfolio is too fancy because you can't read them and they are not very manageable by the secondary consumer. The employer is looking at 60 applications for a job. Generally they won't read the portfolio, and if they do, the internal unreliability of their interpretation of this mass of stuff is so high that you've lost what you've gained by having the information in there in the first place. The three grade approach is what I favor. You can't get faculty to take marks off chemistry because the guy's writing badly, especially since the faculty member may also write badly. But if you can get the professor to give three separate grades (because he can often recognize bad writing and he can be taught to evaluate group process) then he'll do it. Once this evaluation information gets to the job environment, employers can focus on whichever GPAs are most important to them.

AAF : What do you see as the basic elements in evaluating group performance?

Sperling: The University of Phoenix does it by training faculty to employ a three-part group performance looking at how well the group's papers and presentations are integrated and coordinated. Second, group members are asked to evaluate each other's contributions in all of the important dimensions such as attendance at group meetings, quality of contributions, cooperativeness, and the like. Third, they ask the group members to evaluate their own performance on each of these dimensions. When you put all of this together, you have a pretty fair picture of how well the group did its job. If group members conspire to hide the incompetence of one of their members then they must all suffer the consequences of the additional work necessary to do his or her part. In my experience, this will not go on for long. The truth will out.

Scriven: Yes, and by the way, this not only addresses the problems with the poor performer, it assists the high performer as well. Here is this brilliant guy stuck with the team of dummies and the team of dummies is going to zap his grade because he's not doing good teamwork--he's playing solo when he ought to be trying to maximize the performance of the team. This is all very realistic to the workplace and quite appropriate educationally. The University could take a giant step, then, if it were to formalize this process into a separate grade for group process and add it to the transcript system.

AAF : How does the value of teamwork and group learning play out when you're dealing with teachers and educators?

Scriven: The big new notion is site management and it's a very big push in a lot of states. It's part of President Bush's "choice" agenda. Site management means that if you as a principal can't get these teachers into a team for doing something for the site performance, it's no good blaming the district because it's you who will lose your job. That's future talk, right? But there are a lot of schools in transition, most of them private where the K-12 level has site management supervised by the Board of Trustees. The differences are remarkable. First of all, things do get done. Second, teachers and administrators are accountable for positive change to an extent unheard of in the typical K-12 environment.

AAF : Gentlemen. Thank you. You have each given us a great deal to think about with respect to the management of cooperative learning groups.

The Last Word regularly addresses issues of reform through invited commentary.

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