In a project-based class the submission is in teams of 2 (self-assigned teams). In most teams, the grade is the same for both members. However, in some teams, I suspect that most of the work was done by one member, while the other was a "free rider". The suspicions are based on GitHub commits and on interaction during the semester. However, I do not have clear-cut proofs since I do not know how they split the work among them at home. I can test them personally, but this is not sufficient since it is possible that the free-rider knows what the other person did.

I am not allowed to change the grade structure in retrospect, so I thought of an idea that is based on mutual agreement: if the grade that the team deserves is X, I will tell them that their total grade is 2 X, and ask them to agree on a fair division of the grade among them. If they do not agree, then the grade is just split equally between them as usual. Effectively, this gives the free riders a chance to behave fairly and give some points to their friends who did most of the work.

The advantage is that the team members know much more than me what work each of them did. The disadvantage is that this may cause quarrels among team members. Is this a good idea?

EDIT: Thanks for all the answers. I am now convinced that this scheme might create psychological and social problems that are better avoided.

  • Please do not post answers in the comments. This conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Oct 16 '20 at 22:21
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    Is it by any chance a negotiation class? – Emilio M Bumachar Oct 16 '20 at 23:27
  • I am not convinced that everyone participating equally is always a desired goal. If students are self-motivated they will have varying levels of motivation. The primary benefit of participation in the exercise should be the learning acquired and the grade should not be very important. – emory Oct 17 '20 at 13:53
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    "The primary benefit of participation in the exercise should be the learning acquired and the grade should not be very important" You live in an academic bubble. This might be a desirable education ideal, but has little to do with reality. – user117200 Oct 17 '20 at 16:02

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A problem I see here is that this scheme may motivate people to divide the points "tactically". Say our group project is worth 10 points and I only need 5 for my goal (which may be the least passing grade or the best grade or whatever). Then of course I would take only 5 points and give 15 to my collegue (which is more than the project is worth).

Also, it might motivate people to look for their partners tactically: If I am somebody who does not trust other people and wants to do everything themselves (something which should ideally be discouraged in group projects), I choose the person who cares least about their grades as a partner and get much more points than my project is worth.

Moreover, with this setting, you treat the grades as some currency. students will find it okay to do less/more work because they can themselves discuss and haggle about the grade they got. IMO this is also not something which should be encouraged.

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    I have seen students doing this tactical point division already for projects where there was only a small portion of their points for them to divide (the scheme was: the group grade is some number X. The group may decide to assign grades from X-1 to X+1 to the members, such that the average is still X.) So you should expect this especially when the points are dividable without further restrictions. Furthermore, if you trade grades as currency, students may try to use other forms of goods or currency to barter for a higher grade among group members. – Discrete lizard Oct 15 '20 at 22:04
  • All valid arguments. But the legal implications are far more important. – user117200 Oct 16 '20 at 9:37
  • @TheoreticalMinimum: of course. I am assuming OP has througly checked that. Also, the question unfortunately does not mention a country (although I asked about the student's culture in a comment) etc., so it is hard to talk about legal implications. – user111388 Oct 16 '20 at 10:35
  • Very important considerations. Indeed, there can be two students of equal ability, one of which does the work alone, and the other collaborates with a good-hearted free-rider. With my scheme, the other student will get a higher grade for the same work, which is clearly unfair. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 17 '20 at 16:51

I like this as an experiment in ethics, but not as an actual grading scheme.

If you allow team work, you will have a small number of people getting better grades than they might deserve. And...so what? It’s not intrinsically different from making homework part of the grade, where friends will help each other. Your job is to teach and assign grades you deem reasonably, not perfectly just.

That is to say, I’m no fan of any such scheme involving students “dividing the pie,” your self-declared research interest. I for one would have neither felt comfortable nor able to write meaningful evaluations for all my class members, as was suggested here too. Some people might stand out, and you might enjoy sharing that with your teacher; but I wouldn’t have enjoyed pointing fingers at those struggling. And for many I’d have no true opinion. That is not even to talk about personal feelings about peers almost inevitably shading a student-given grade.

I don’t think the benefit of being marginally more just makes up for the hassle and risk for trouble such ideas involve.


This isn't the sort of thing you should introduce after the fact. If you make it part of the course design, known to students at the start, then it might work, though it might just cause more complaining from the students. Teams can "share" the work while doing very different things. Each can consider their own contribution to be essential, while their teammate(s) consider their own to be more important.

But changing the grading structure of the course midstream to the potential disadvantage of some students is questionable.

But, my answer to your earlier question also covers this sort of situation: Peer Evaluation. It lets you learn about some things, but retain control over outcomes.

But repeated questions on the same issue implies that you need to rethink your course design.

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    What would happen in your own department if the head took the entire salary budget and told the faculty to divide it up "equitably". How well would it work. What is the expected outcome? – Buffy Oct 15 '20 at 10:55
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    Also, you say that "They don't need to share there evaluation with the others". However, if one team member gets less than the other, he/she will certainly know that it is due to a bad evaluation. Isn't it better to just require that they discuss among them and come to an agreement? Why let them write evaluations "behind the back" of their peers? – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 15 '20 at 10:57
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    Actually, a student should only know the grade of another if that person reveals it. Don't get into a competitive grading game. It is destructive and immoral. Students, as learners, should be rewarded for their accomplishments. If the system is one of punishment for failings, you need to rethink it. – Buffy Oct 15 '20 at 11:02
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    Oh by the way: Here in Germany professors also try to make their lifes easy and just grade an entire group. But when asking them in an email about it, with an emphasis on the legal basis of this "group grading", suddenly, out of nowhere, alternative, individualised grading schemes are possible. Speaking from personal experience with horrible group members, that didn't even meet their deadline. I was not willing to accept to take the blame for this. In the end everyone got his own, significantly differing grade. – user117200 Oct 15 '20 at 22:24
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    The idea of peer evaluation is interesting and potentially useful for gaining information about my students, but I do not think I can use it for grading. At least in my culture, students expect an objective justification for every point deducted from their grade. This is why I thought of a scheme based on mutual agreement: you have your objective grade which is X, and you can agree to deduct some points from it in order to be fair towards your friend who did more work than you. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 17 '20 at 17:00

Given that the teams are self-assigned, most teams will consist of people that are friends/know they work well together. These teams will most likely divide the grade equally, even if the actual work done wasn't necessarily a 50/50 split. These teams probably don't contain the free-riders that you are worried about.

Now for the other teams, these will contain the free-riders. However, free-riders are not really known for, after riding freely, agreeing to a low grade. The goal of free-riding, after all, is to get a high-ish grade. What will you do then?

Like Buffy mentioned, peer-evaluation is an option. A professor during my Bachelor's actually had short 1-on-1 meetings with all students at the end of the course. It was mentioned that even if a student did not participate in a specific part of the assignment because the team mate did, they should understand what the others did. They first asked them which part they focussed on how they contributed. After that, students needed to explain the part that the others did. I discussed this with the professor later, during my Master's, and they said that they (practically) always, based on the peer evaluations and these five-minute meetings, could tell who actually contributed and understood what was going on. This will be a (very) time-consuming approach, depending on the size of your classes.

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    "The goal of free-riding is to get a free grade". I disagree. In my studies there were some free riders (also some who were free riders only for one course) with the primary goal to pass the course. (But in my country, grades are not seen to be very important -- thus the oP should disclose their student's cultural background). – user111388 Oct 15 '20 at 12:33
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    This is the approach we used in a course I TA'ed (the work of interviewing was split among the TAs and the professor.) The rule of thumb we used was: as long as both team members understand the work, we award them the same grade if we think the imbalance in effort was no worse than about 60/40. If we think it was worse than that, then it goes to the professor to handle. (This was rare.) – Glenn Willen Oct 16 '20 at 22:20

Short answer: In Germany this would be illegal. Here the grade of a student needs to be determined independently from the groups achievements and be purely based on a specific students own work. Objective criteria for grading of this work need to be given.

Of course it is questionable if this is always adhered to. But when reminded of it, the professors have to comply.

Long answer:

The legal representation of the student union of Frankfurt summarizes the relevant paragraphs concerning group grading on their facebook page:

„#Gruppennoten“ sind nicht erlaubt! Für schriftliche #Gruppenarbeiten gilt, es „müssen die individuellen Leistungen der oder des einzelnen Studierenden deutlich unterscheidbar und bewertbar sein.“ (vgl. §12, Abs. 4 ABPO) Für #Gruppenprojekte gilt, es „muss der Beitrag der oder des einzelnen Studierenden deutlich erkennbar und bewertbar sein (…)“ (vgl. §13, Abs. 4 ABPO). Das gilt für ALLE #Studiengänge mit den Abschlüssen Bachelor und Master!

Unofficial tranlsation:

#Group grading is not allowed! For written group work "the individual work of each student must be clearly distinguishable and evaluable." (cf. §12, Abs. 4 ABPO) For group projects "the work of the indicvidual student must be clearly visible and evaluable (...)" (cf. §13, Abs. 4 ABPO). This is binding for all bachelors and masters #courses.

Referring to the Allgemeine Bestimmungen für Prüfungsordnungen (ABPO) of the district of Hessen. the other 15 German districts have similar legislation.

You as a professor need to be able to give evidence, that you can (a) distinguish which work was done by which student and (b) be able to show that you used objective criteria to grade this work.

Splitting the grade equally is not legal, as it does not purely consider the students own work, violating (a). Letting the students decide is not objective, violating (b).

Legal subtleties and partial group grading:

It seems like some argument can be made, that a certain fraction of the grade is for "team work". Meaning that the ability of a student to work in a team is also his own work and gradable. But this is only allowed in very narrow boundaries, just giving one grade for both certainly is not ok. I can not comment on the legal details of this.

The university of Stuttgart in some instances evaluates 2/3 the students own work and gives 1/3 for the integration with the work of other students in a group project, this is outlined in Beurteilung von Hausarbeiten als Gruppenarbeiten und Gruppenpräsentationen, Universität Stuttgart

  • A possible solution is that the grade division should be agreed by both team members. If there is no agreement, the grade is just split equally. Effectively, this gives the free-riders a chance to behave fairly and give some points to their friends who did most of the work. What can be illegal in a mutually-agreed grade? – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 16 '20 at 3:17
  • Can you cite a precedent/court case to back up your claim that giving a group grade is illegal? And which jurisdiction are you talking about anyways? I see an argument for not liking it, but this is quite different from it being "illegal"; AFAIK group projects and grades are common, and I never heard of legal issues with them. – Kostya_I Oct 17 '20 at 12:40
  • I have never heard of this legal policy outside of Germany. But I must say it is very interesting. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 17 '20 at 16:58
  • @TheoreticalMinimum, I was one of the downvoters: your answer lacked sources, looked opinion-based, didn't really address the question as asked, and didn't even make sense without mentioning the jurisdiction. On Academia.SE, most answers are like that, even highly upvoted, but by general SE standards, that's bad. So, I downvoted. Now I think the answer is much better and adds an interesting perspective, so I reversed my downvote int oan upvote – Kostya_I Oct 17 '20 at 17:10
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    @TheoreticalMinimum, I would say that it's quite a German thing to have a law saying how universities should grade their students, in that amount of detail :). If you view grading as a pillar of meritocracy, your view is hard to argue with. But grading also serves other purposes; most importantly, it motivates students do what teacher wants them to do. If one of the goals is to develop soft interpersonal skills, teamwork, leadership etc., then a group grade might serve that better. Whether it's acceptable to trade a bit of meritocracy for that is another question. – Kostya_I Oct 17 '20 at 20:48

As someone who would 'carry' in group projects, here's what I figured would improve my experience: explicit minimal division of workload.

John does data tables, Steve writes analysis, etc. This way, everyone's incentivized to contribute something of substance, and John doesn't have to answer for Steve's horrible analytics. What's "minimal" is something the professor decides.

If an individual lacks a mandated part, and isn't graded for respective part, then the 'carrier' is burdened further to clean up others' mess. In one of my labs, a professor actually did and did not take this exact approach for two separate projects but same teams - and in one which he did, at least in my team, everyone's contribution greatly increased (and mine became reasonable).

Not suitable for all forms of work, has caveats, but is an option.

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    This sounds like a good idea, though it requires more micro-management, since this minimal workload may be different for each individual project. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 16 '20 at 3:16
  • I really like the idea. I generally was enough of a carrier that unless I knew someone else in the class I trusted to be a decent partner I simply went it alone--doing the task was easier than doing the task and wasting time on coordination. Projects that can't be divvied up decently should be nuked from orbit. – Loren Pechtel Oct 18 '20 at 0:47
  • @LorenPechtel The worst part is if it matters for more than grade reasons (e.g. jobs), you won't get due credit. I solo'd my final project (which I believe everyone else did in groups), which was very challenging, but I could say without dispute "It was my work". The "but" factor's undue for the 5% of work others did. – OverLordGoldDragon Oct 18 '20 at 0:57

I think you need to ask yourself what your learning goal of the group assignment is. For example is it to (a) learn or reinforce some specific content, (b) learn to work as part of a team, (c) learn project management, (d) to produce something that will then be used for further learning, or (e) something else.

Once you clarify that, it will be more clear how you should approach grading. Very rarely is it that you want to actually grade the individual student work by directly grading the project. (Do you really expect this game this group is currently creating to be marketable? No. Do you expect this video to go viral? No. ) What you need to grade on in the above scenarios is (a) whether the student knows the content, (b) whether the student learned about how to work as part of a team, (c) whether the student knows principles of project management, (d) was a usable product produced (but the main assessment in this case will be on what they learn in subsequent use) or (e) whatever else it is that you want the individual students to have gotten out of this work.

So what does this mean about grading. First, most of the time in regular classes (I'm not talking about senior projects or something like that) the direct grade on the project itself should not count for very much. Instead each individual should be assessed on the learning outcomes (and they should be defined in a way that you can actually do this). For example, you could (a) assess the students on the content knowledge using a test, (b) have each student write up a short essay on what they learned about working in a team, (c) write up a document where they relate their experiences in the group to what they have been learning about project management in the lectures and readings for the course, (d) assess if they master the subsequent material, (e) something else.

In other words, you have to design your curriculum in a way that achieves your outcomes and lets you assess this at the individual level since your learning outcomes are at the individual level.


People in my department have used some variations on this, but not quite as blunt as the scheme suggested. Firstly we are generally working with teams of more than 2. Secondly the majority of the grade is given to the team overall. We then give the team the option to share a small number of extra marks amongst themselves as they see fit. They might share them equally, or they might give a particular share to the team member that they feel has worked the hardest.

A second possibility that say been used is to award 80% of the grade to the team, but then ask each team member to write a (very) short reflective piece on their experience of the exercise, that is the final 20% of the grade.

Of course, this must all be prearranged and not announced post-facto. In my university it would all have to be in the module description form, submitted for approval by the faculty board a minimum of six months in advance.


However, in some teams, I suspect that most of the work was done by one member, while the other was a "free rider".

This is very common - in academia and in real life. You can't make this go away, and in fact, it's useless to try penalizing this through your suggested grading policy change. It is unrealistic to the extent that you'll not only get backlash, you'll be overruled by your department etc. Just learn to live with the fact that a group project means a group grade.

If you want to reduce the extent of "free-riding" - I doubt you really have any other recourse than individual projects.


My experience of this is that it is helpful to survey the group members asking each of them who contributed what to the project and whether they felt that the other members had done their share of the work. When I do these surveys I nearly always find that all groups report that there was a fair division of work. I also make a point of asking questions of the various team members when they present their work. After those two steps, I can feel fairly confident in giving everyone on the team the same grade.

Sometimes I do find a problem, either in the responses to the survey or in responses to questions during the presentation. In those situations, I meet with all of the students in the group and try to clarify who did what. If there's a free rider, I will lower that student's grade. I don't raise the grade of other students in the group.

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