September 29th, 2014

Students Riding on Coattails during Group Work? Five Simple Ideas to Try


The idea for sharing this post came from a session I recently conducted at the annual teaching conference organized by my university. A pedagogical conundrum was raised by a colleague whose enthusiasm and question stayed with me and inspired me to write this post. The question posed by this colleague is relevant to all instructors who have ever used group work to assess their students: How should one deal with the issues that arise when members of a group are not picking up their share of the responsibilities during a group work project?

The benefits of group work are well recognized (e.g.,, as are the reasons students don’t like working in groups (Taylor, 2011). We have all had groups that operated magically, when group members brought out each other’s strengths and helped each member shine; but we have also had groups that failed miserably when members did not get along or did not pull equal weight in completing a group project.

Although much has been written about group work and its benefits and challenges, as well as variables, features, or components that can contribute to positive learning outcomes (Tomcho, & Foels, 2012), issues of implementation seem to pop up every time instructors get together to talk about their teaching challenges. In this post I focus on the persistent challenge of imbalance when not all group members contribute equally. What follows are a few simple ideas you might wish to consider that have worked well for me during years of trial and error in my teaching, as well as insights from my research.

1. Design a group project in which the students work in phases.

For instance, starting with a project idea, then moving to project development, followed by preliminary project outcomes – and requiring students to “check-in” at each phase before delivering the final project. Not only does this help ensure that the groups won’t wait until the final deadline is upon them to work on their project, but it also enables the instructor to touch base with every group and to offer guidance, support, or mediation, if needed, during the process.

2. Develop an element of the project that allows group members to make their own choices.

In my teaching, I usually give students the freedom to choose a topic area that interests them within the scope of the course or that is the most relevant or meaningful to the team members. This decision helps create a sense of ownership and enhances the students’ level of engagement, both of which are crucial for working on large group projects, and especially for those requiring students to carry out the work in phases throughout the term (see, for example, Enghag & Niedder, 2007, on the theoretical basis for student ownership of learning).

3. Within a group project, include a component requiring individual students to submit non-onerous individual work.

For example, the project could include a personal reflection piece (e.g., e.g., Huang, 2011a), in which each member individually reflects on the process and product of his or her own portion of the group work. Apart from the pedagogical benefits of learners engaging in individual reflection (Pavlovich, Collins, & Jones, 2009), this task or component will inevitably provide insights about the division-of-labor issue commonly raised by instructors and students alike. Both learners and the instructor can glean a great many insights from those individual reflection pieces, which instructors can take into account when assigning either project or final grades, depending on their individual approach to assessment. This process also enables students to gain greater understanding about what worked well and what could be improved.

One important matter to keep in mind when implementing the reflection component is the need to ensure that we, as instructors, clarify what we mean by “reflection” in order to minimize a potential mismatch between our expectations about reflective learning and our students’ understanding of what it entails. What we’d like our students to do is to engage in critical reflection – that is, thinking that involves different levels of reflection, rather than simply restating or describing what they did, or what I have called “non-transformative” reflection.

The goal is to encourage students to move beyond simply recalling what they did either individually or together within the group and instead to reflect on their personal discoveries about their own learning and the process of working collaboratively (i.e., understanding, analyzing, and evaluating the process and the product of their group efforts), and, importantly, to “verbalize” what they would do differently the next time around (i.e., pointing to the future).

This component is an example of what is called “writing/speaking to learn” (Manchón, 2011). For this task, it’s important that students not be required to follow any formatting or style guidelines. The reflection should be an informal piece of writing, much like a diary entry, and can be in any modality (e.g., writing, audio recording, video clip) that suits the characteristics or preferences of individual students to allow for their individual expression. For some additional simple guidelines about implementing learner reflection, refer to Huang (2011b).

4. Devote a segment (30 minutes or so) during class before all group projects begin to implement two important steps.

Step 1: Get to know each other. The first 10 minutes can be a period for all students to find and meet with the group members they have either been assigned or have self-selected. They should then spend some time exploring each other’s communication styles, which may arise from personal or culture-related differences (Lewis, 2006), to help them better anticipate different communication preferences and approaches to group work. This time can be spent sharing responses to guiding questions or statements, such as “I would describe my communication style/personality as …,” “I tend/prefer to deal with conflict by …,” and “I would appreciate my team members doing/not doing ….” (Huang, 2014). Guiding questions are especially helpful for groups that are culturally and linguistically diverse.

Step 2: Establish group norms. During the next 20 minutes, encourage each group to negotiate its own group norms (derived from Step 1) and ground rules. During this time, members of each team should elucidate, negotiate, and establish roles, responsibilities, and expectations. This process makes explicit the specific contributions and ownership of responsibilities that each team member negotiates and agrees to.

Below is a sample checklist that instructors can modify and use to facilitate this process and help prepare each group project to succeed (Huang, 2014). You can revise the items to suit a project or provide the list as an example for each group to use in creating its own list. The list can also be revisited during each check-point mentioned earlier and adjustments made as needed. Upon completion of the project, instructors can request the checklist(s) to be submitted (but not graded), along with other deliverables that are due.

Group work responsibilities table

5. Prepare students to expect the unexpected.

Rather than directing their every concern to you, students should be encouraged to become problem solvers not only by identifying problems, but also by developing solutions and choosing and evaluating the best ones so as to balance personal learning with the group’s project goals. At the same time, you’ll want to create and maintain a culture of openness that lets your students know you are readily available to provide guidance when groups reach an impasse.

In any group work situation, it is always possible that compatibility issues will arise between or among team members, as well as conflicts or problems with unequal distribution of work. The pre-group-project considerations described above, however, can easily be implemented to help minimize the likelihood that conflicts will develop that could negatively affect learning and outcomes. They may also help instructors and students in dealing with the specific common challenge of students who are not pulling their own weight in group collaborations, while maximizing the benefits of a group project not only in terms of content, but more, if not most, importantly, in learning how to work with others – a valuable life lesson that’s best learned through experience.

Enghag, M., & Niedderer, H. (2008). Two dimensions of student ownership of learning during small-group work in physics. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 6(4), 629-653.

Huang, L.-S. (2011a). Language learners as language researchers: The acquisition of English grammar through a corpus-aided discovery learning approach mediated by intra and interpersonal dialogues. In J. Newman, S. Rice, & H. Baayen (Eds.), Corpus-based studies in language documentation, use, and learning (pp. 91-122). Amsterdam: Rodopi Press.

Huang, L.-S. (2011b, Fall). Key concepts and theories in TESL: Learner reflection. TEAL News: The Association of B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language, pp. 9-13.

Huang, L.-S. (2014). Lessons learned from team-facilitation in ELT: Strategies for navigating the challenges and making it work. IATEFL ES(O)L Newsletter, pp. 13-17.

Lewis, R. D. (2006). When cultures collide: Leading across cultures (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Manchón, R. M. (Ed.). (2011). Learning-to-write and writing-to-learn in an additional language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pavlovich, K., Collins, E., Jones, G. (2009). Developing students’ skills in reflective practice: Design and assessment. Journal of Management Education, 33(1), 37-58.

Taylor, A. (2011). Top 10 reasons students dislike working in groups…and why I do it anyway. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 39(2), 219-220.

Tomcho, T. J., & Foels, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 159-169.

Dr. Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, Learning and Teaching Scholar-in-Residence, Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria, BC, Canada.

  • perryshaw

    In the contemporary world it is crucial that we train men and women in working effectively in groups. These ideas are excellent ways to ensure that the group works effectively. Thank you.
    In addition to those suggested I have also found it helpful to include a strong formative component in which teams are required to bring progress reports, through which I am able to follow up with difficulties and address under-performance of members. Most of my class sizes are 20-30, and meeting with 6-8 groups is manageable. I would be interested to hear how faculty manage teaching through group work with large classes.

  • bill_goffe

    To really reduce free riding you might try "Team-Based Learning." It has a number of elements that really help minimize it. For instance, teams are permanent for the semester, selected by the instructor, and group work only takes place in the classroom so it is apparent to all when someone is loafing. I've actually seen students get upset with a peer when they've missed class when using TBL.

    TBL is most widely used in the health science (i.e. medical and pharmacy schools) where learning is critical and evaluated by outside authorities (i.e. licensing boards). See .

  • Charlie Baker

    I divide a Master's Level class into Teams of 4 to 7 members and allow them to choose a complex topic from my list. Each Team will have to submit a notebook, that I check periodically, with their Team minutes, Agendas and Policies & Procedures for problems that might occur – absence, failure to complete assignments, etc. I am committed to structuring the process – while giving them the maximum freedom to draw their own conclusions.

    The final presentation is in the form of a Fishbowl Discussion with the Team in the Center and two outer rings of classmates. The Team has a 45 minute discussion amongst themselves regarding what they have learned about the topic during the semester. All other class members listen to the discussion and evaluate it. Ring 1 uses a paper tool to score Communication between the Team members during discussion, and Ring 2 evaluates the content of the discussion using a tool that details the component parts of the original assignment from the syllabus.

    It is fairly typical for most students to rate this experience very high for learning the material and from each other.

  • howard doughty

    I have always found it amusing to watch contemporary corporate culture attempt to manage the cognitive dissonance involved in promoting "individual responsibility" and "team-work" at the same time.

    Personally, I have done plenty of valuable group work, but it was always a self-selected group and seldom had much to do with some syllabus.

    As with most pedagogical innovations, it is mainly an application of elementary school pedagogy to post-graduate courses. It can also be called the infantalization of the aspirant senior scholar.

    Incidentally, I am currently supervising some undergraduate group research projects (not by choice). I am almost ready to have some faith in them, but only because there are two people in each group and they chose themselves.

  • Pingback: Group Work: Practical Tips with Check List | My Educational Technology Blog: A Place of Resources and Tools for Educators()

  • Audrey Sloat

    These are great ideas, thank you. I also use a student team constructed 'contract' that requires students to consider expectations and ramifications. The greatest learning piece for me over the years has been 'teaching students how to be productive team members'. We expect them to know how to be effective team players (soft skills) and reality is they need a great deal of coaching in teamwork. This up-front work saves hours of headaches for both student and professor.

  • Chris Osborn

    Very good thoughts here. I have one other suggestion that I have used specifically for shorter, in class exercises in the context of law school, but which should translate well to other subject matter. Whenever I have my students conduct an analysis of a problem or other exercise in a group in class, I give them the following instruction: "Each member of your group must be prepared to report on the analysis and conclusion that you reached. In other words, your work as a group is not done, and you are not ready to present to the class, until each member of your group has a full understanding of the assignment and feels comfortable reporting on it." Then, after the time allotted for the exercise is up, I choose a group at random and then choose a member of the group at random to be the spokesperson. I will often choose the spokesperson for each group by means of an unmistakably random selector, such as "Which of you came from farthest away to attend our school?" or "Which of you had the most recent birthday?" or "Which of you has the most pets?" This process puts the onus on the group to function together as a group, and makes clear that free-riding on the "gunner" or the "ace" of the group will not suffice.

  • Pingback: OTR Links 10/01/2014 | doug — off the record()

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for these ideas. They came at the perfect time for me because I am about to introduce a group project in a couple days, and can implement several of these, especially #4. Thanks again!

  • Melody Vaught

    Do you have any suggestions for using group work for an online course?

  • Laura S

    Melody (and all), I have tried group work in an online course. The first version was a semester long project with a single product to be compiled by the group. Typically, group members would split up the tasks but inevitably, one or two members would not follow-up and others in the group would become very frustrated with the process and fear the end result would impact on their grade. Online or in the classroom, when I have groups working together on a collaborative project like this, I do always have them do a "peer evaluation" at the end. I give them a form with criteria and they are to rank each group member (including themselves) as to how well each performed the task or met the criteria. I would take the peer evaluation into consideration when assigning grades for the group project. I would first grade the product itself (the "base" grade) and then adjust individual grades up or down (from the "base") based on the peer evaluation results – individuals who did better than most others got their grade increased, individuals who did worse then others got their grade decreased. Ultimately, I did find such an intensive group effort in an online class to be overly challenging and frustrating for the students – being able to work together in person on occasion does help with the process. So I replaced this group project with something different….
    Now the group project in my online course is simply a small group discussion surrounding a specific question of debate. The group discussion takes place over one or two week period toward the end of the semester (after stragglers have been withdrawn from the course). Each student starts out working independently to identify pro and con arguments and come to their own initial conclusion on the question. After making this initial post, the students in the group are to respond to each other's posts with counter arguments and such. At the specified time for the end of the discussion/debate, each student is to write a summary of the group discussion and the group's final conclusion (consensus or majority opinion) and post that. The group members then "rate" each summary and the one they deem to be the best (most representative of the group's discussion) is then shared on the main class discussion board. There, students are to read the summaries from the other groups and reply to two others with their own thoughts on the issue that was under debate – based on the arguments presented by the groups in the summaries. Each part of the discussion (initial post, replies, summaries, ratings) has a specific due date within the one-two week process. Students who do not make an initial post are not able to see and respond to others (settings in the discussion board allow for this).
    I find this "group" work to work quite well in an online course. Any students who do not participate or do so to a limited degree do not negatively impact on the group work. I just make sure there are sufficient students in each group (five or six vs. three or four) to account for one or two not participating. Students are graded based on their own individual contributions and I see the entire process and everything they contribute to the group work because it is all done in the discussion board only (nothing done behind the scenes, out of my sight). In fact, such a group discussion/debate actually works better online than in the classroom because such a small group discussion in the classroom I cannot be present with each group all the time; in the classroom I would miss some of each conversation as I move from group to group.

  • Pingback: Student Participation in Group Work | The Faculty Reader()

  • Pingback: Group Work / Team Projects – Belhaven University()

  • Pingback: Effective Group Work Strategies for Your College Students()

  • ccarter333

    Spot-on, practical advise to address the issue of kids allowing others to carry the load in group projects. Why reinvent the wheel? Ride the wheel that works.

  • louilewis7

    Embracing networked learning approaches such as PBL is necessary to ready our learners for 21st Century workplaces. These are some sound strategies to ensure that the playing field is level. Thanks for sharing.

  • Felix O

    Sometimes, particularly in the design education projects can be fairly fluid and actually designers need to be adaptable and fluid in their approach to design so some – definitely not all the suggestions can be difficult to implement. Here are three additional options to consider – that I use in every class involving group work.

    1) In the first two weeks once groups have been formed students sign a contract that outlines their general responsibilities, including meeting times. Not as specific as the form in this article because the project hasn't yet been clearly defined and I also want students to discover their strengths within the group dynamic – usually they don't know this when they start.

    2) One of the duties mentioned in the contract is PEER ASSESSMENT of perfomance, which they complete half way through the term and at the end. It is made very clear that the assessment will influence the final grade. Peer Assessment serves two purposes, firstly it encourages potential freeloaders to contribute AND it reassures the dedicated that freeloaders can't get away with being slack. It also gives a formal mechanism for them to communicate this – in addition to the essential teacher student contact and discussion.

    3) Finally, in the rare instances that a student refuses to participate in group work and can give no justifiable/plausible reason for not doing so students should be able to be 'fired' from the group. As the teacher I am the only one who can do this. It is not something that can be done by group members without me. It only happens after exhaustive consultation with all members of the group both as a group and individually (it is a process the should and will take several weeks). Part of the deal is that the group hands over to the 'fired' member all work done to date and that student then completes the project on their own. I have had to do this only once and I can tell you group engagement for the whole class skyrocketed when it was completed. It is a very serious thing to do and the only person who didn't understand this was the person who was fired.

    Now, I know some of this sounds very harsh BUT these are undergraduate students who about to go into industry in under twelve months. We all know that contracts, performance reviews and being fired for failing to do ones job are part and parcel of our professional lives. My intention is to introduce them to the real professional world as much as possible (the subject I teach is about how design businesses operate).

    So to paraphrase Monty Python "It may be harsh but it is fair".

  • Pingback: » Worth reading — January 2015 Another Fine Mess()

  • Pingback: 6 Months of Education Related Tweets (A – G) | All Things Academic()

  • Pingback: What would you like to talk about on Thurs 5th Feb? | #AusELT()

  • Pingback: Blog Site Discussion Question | E-learning()