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How does the structuring of group work impact the epistemic justice of group work?

Timothy smilingAuthors:

  • Tim Billo, he/him, Lecturer, Program on the Environment, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Peter Wallis




Project Question

How do assignment structures affect the epistemic justice of group work, both in terms of quality of product and experiences of equity among group members?


The study is based on 32 students in a course exploring justice issues in Seattle. Students worked in groups to produce public-facing writing about Seattle. Students were assigned to either high structured or low structured versions of this assignment. The purpose of this structure was to encourage equitable participation and division of labor based on a progression of intermediate checkpoints and assigned group roles. In the low structure condition students were free to proceed as they wished.


Students divided themselves into 9 groups of 3-4 students each. We used an experimental approach whereby half of the student groups were randomly assigned to a high structure condition and half to a low structure condition. These conditions were flip-flopped for a separate but similar assignment later in the quarter such that every group in the class eventually experienced both high and low structure conditions. Giving every student the opportunity to participate in high structure or low structure conditions controlled for the possibility that, due to self-assignment to project groups, some groups were naturally higher or lower functioning from the outset, regardless of condition. See “context” above for differences between conditions.


To gather data about students’ experiences in each condition, we asked students to complete modified versions of the “ASPECT” survey (Wiggins et al., 2017) twice, i.e. once after completing the assignment in each condition. The “ASPECT” survey is a validated survey instrument for evaluating the attitudinal impacts of different activities, including more-and-less structured forms of activity in the classroom. Our modified version of the “ASPECT” survey evaluated the following using a likert scale: 1) student’s prior comfort with other students in the group (friends vs. not friends), 2) student’s identity or background, 3) student’s feelings of whether identity or background might lead, or have led to, their contributions to the group being undervalued, 4) self-assessment of student’s contribution to group, and 5) assessment of group mates’ contributions to group. Using descriptive statistics, we assessed the impact of the two different experimental conditions on answers to the “ASPECT” survey and our assessment of submitted group work.


This project demonstrates 1) principles of experimental design in education research, 2) principles of assessment (e.g., application of the “ASPECT” survey) in education research, and 3) sheds light on the value of structure in group work, particularly as relates to factors of identity and equity in a group setting, and the production of high quality, public-facing work. While our study showed that increased structure neither improved students’ experience of epistemic justice in group work, nor the quality of their finished assignments, learners in both conditions generally reported that other students valued their contributions, and that other students made valuable contributions (both were μ = 5.39 on a 6 point scale, n = 33). Group work in both conditions produced enjoyable, educational, and accurate content that needed little editing to be shared publicly on a website. We suggest that while there is always nuance to be added to teaching practices, group assignments where undergraduates produce work for public consumption is readily adoptable, and may not be as dependent on the level of assignment structure as previously thought (e.g., Wallis & Rocha 2022). That said, we were testing these assignment designs in a small group of relatively equity-oriented students– and we only used each design twice. It is possible that across the course of a quarter, or in other contexts, differences in structure could create greater differences in student experience.

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