How to Reduce Social Loafing in Your Online Course

Are you having trouble getting your online students to contribute equally to team projects? If so, perhaps you should try varying the membership of these teams because, according to a study by Brian Dineen (see reference below), doing so can reduce social loafing and improve online collaboration.

Dineen formed groups in a large, upper-division organizational behavior class and gave members the option of working face to face, by telephone, or online. He opted for this model because he felt it closely replicated conditions now common in professional contexts. Employees work with others in a virtual environment, and frequently, as tasks evolve, membership in groups changes.

In the article referenced below, Dineen provides complete details for the assignment, including the following important elements: groups were made up of three to five members; for each of eight weeks they analyzed short cases relevant to course material and answered two questions related to the case; and group work, which counted for one-fourth of their grade, included a peer evaluation component. Even though students had the option of meeting face-to-face or by phone, 70 percent reported that they completed the entire exercise without ever meeting face-to-face. Instead, they used private bulletin boards that the instructor set up for them within WebCT.
For comparative purposes, Dineen kept membership in half of the 26 groups stable. Those students worked together from start to finish on the project. In the other groups, Dineen changed group membership weekly; in the second week, groups gained and lost one member, and in the third and fourth weeks they gained and lost two members. Students did not know how long they would be in the group. They simply received an e-mail announcing that they had been reassigned to another group. They could no longer access their previous group’s bulletin board and were given access to a new one.

Dineen looked at the impact of this group work design across a number of different variables. He collected data from students before the experience, on weekly surveys and on the anonymous end-of-course evaluation. From the data gathered, Dineen discovered that most of those who responded to the surveys did not have previous group experience in a virtual environment. The inexperienced group reported significantly higher degrees of learning outcomes and confidence than those who had worked in virtual groups before.

Dineen explains the reduction of social loafing by citing other research documenting that when groups contain strangers, team members tend to be on their best behavior because they are somewhat inhibited by people they don’t know. Quantitative data indicated that social loafing was isolated to less than 5 percent of possible cases. However, levels of cohesion reported by group members were higher in those groups with stable membership. Interestingly, students in groups with fluid membership did not report lower levels of internal communication or decreases in their perceived abilities to influence group decision making.

Also of note were some findings related to extraverted and introverted team members. Results “show that introverts actually felt more influence than extraverts during this exercise and perceived a greater cohesiveness and better internal communication.” (p. 613) Dineen suspects that the virtual environment somehow “levels the playing field,” making it easier for introverts to contribute during group interactions.

Reference: Dineen, B. R. (2005). TeamXchange: A team project experience involving virtual teams and fluid team membership. Journal of Management Education, 29(4), 593–616.

Excerpted from Study: Changing Virtual Team Membership Improves Participation, Online Classroom, vol. 5, no. 10.