Social loafing is the research jargon for group members who don’t carry their weight—the free riders, the ones that hard-working group members hate and the ones that make faculty wonder if it’s ethically responsible to use group work.
Research reported recently in the Journal of Marketing Education (using a robust empirical design) identified three features of group work that increase the incidence of social loafing. First, students are more likely to avoid their responsibilities in a group if the project is large. If it’s a course-long project with multiple parts, chances for social loafing increase. The researchers recommend dividing big projects into two parts or otherwise reducing the scope of the project.
Second, social loafing is a function of group size. The larger the group, the easier it is for a member or two to get lost in the crowd. There is less anonymity in smaller groups. When the group is smaller, individual contributions mean more which increases pressure on individuals to deliver what they’ve been assigned.
Third, in this study peer evaluations reduced social loafing. In fact, as the number of times peers evaluated each other went up, the amount of social loafing went down. Peer evaluations mean there are consequences if you don’t do the work, like maybe you don’t get the same grade as those who did the work. If peer evaluations happen early on, when group members first start delivering work, the social loafers get the message that there’s a problem and have the opportunity to change their ways.
Researchers had hypothesized that social loafing might also be affected by how the groups were formed. They assumed that when students formed their own groups, social loafing would be less than when the teacher assigned students to groups. Social loafing proved to be the same under both conditions.
Free riding is one of the most frequent reasons faculty give for not having students complete projects in groups. They don’t want students getting grades they don’t deserve. As this (and much other) research indicates, that’s not an inherent problem with groups but rather an issue of how group projects are designed.
Reference: Aggarwal, P., and O’Brien, C. L. (2008). Social loafing on group projects: Structural antecedents and effects on student satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, 30 (3) 255-264.