September 10th, 2009

Dealing with Free Riders


What makes students hate group work? A 2003 study found that getting a poor grade on a group project and having a free-rider in the group were the two factors most highly predictive of negative attitudes toward group work. Students want to be in groups where the work is shared equally—don’t we all? So what can teachers and students do to handle the problem of group members who do not do their fair share of the work?

Teachers can

· Avoid giving group grades or if there is a group grade, let there also be an individual grade based on peer assessments or the piece of the project completed by the individual.

· Design group projects where the work can be divided so that every individual is responsible for a part and gets graded on their part.

· Discuss the problem and establish mechanisms that groups can use to report on who’s doing what in the group.

· Use formative peer assessments so that the group member not performing gets feedback when there’s still time to make changes.

· Empower groups to deal with the problem by sharing strategies (like those listed next) they can use to deal with the problem.

Groups can

· Partition the task early on, assigning various parts and tasks to individual group members. The group can generate a list of who’s doing what, distribute the list to all group members, and then include a copy with the final project indicating if and when group members delivered.

· Put intermediate deadlines on tasks, like when the research will be done or when the first drafts will be completed. Then if a member doesn’t deliver, the group discovers they’ve got a problem while there is still time to do something about it.

· Not confirm free-riding behaviors by accepting excuses offered by the group member who arrives unprepared. Group members should listen to the excuse but not respond by saying, “not a problem” or ‘it’s okay.” They should discuss as a group what needs to happen and give the member clear instructions as to what needs to be delivered and when.

· Group members can partner on tasks, especially if the tasks are related. They don’t do the work jointly; but they look out after each other, emailing about progress or problems, meeting to talk about how the work is progressing, or sharing early versions of the material. Peer pressure can be a potent motivator, and if it doesn’t work, again, the group finds out before the project is due.

Study reference: Pfaff, E., and Huddleston, P. (2003). Does it matter if I hate teamwork? What impacts student attitudes toward teamwork. Journal of Marketing Education, 25 (2), 37-45.

  • Hello Maryellen
    I stumbled on the website for The Teaching Professor, and already submitted a proposal for the 2010 conference.
    I clicked on the blog, and saw your posting about "Group Work". This provides some useful tools and tips. A couple of years ago, I stopped requiring group work because I became so frustrated with the problems and issues involved. I finally decided requiring group work is analogous to birds flying in perfect formation-they only have to exert half the individual effort ini to stay in the air.
    I think in the Spring I will give it another go after reading this, and will do some more research on the topic for support.
    Thanks, and I hope to see you at the conference in Cambridge!
    Thomas Cox, Ed.D.
    Assistant Professor
    University of Houson-Victoria
    School of Education and Human Development

  • Debra Ferdinand

    Some under-performing students in groups never acquired group skills. Sometimes, they think just being in a group is all it takes, especially if there are more knowledgeable or experienced members in the group. Probably, having an initial team building exercise will help to orient students to expected behaviors and avoid some of the non-performance issues.