July 10th, 2012

Noncontributing Members in Small Groups: An Important Distinction


One of the biggest concerns that faculty have about using small groups involves the contributions of individual members and whether some in the group are riding on the contributions of others. These freeloaders, who are mostly known in the literature as “social loafers,” are assumed not to be contributing because they are lazy and happy to have others doing the work. Students share this concern about nonproductive group members. They regularly list it as one of the main reasons they don’t like to participate in group work.

Lynne Freeman and Luke Greenacre think we’ve missed an important distinction in our consideration of this problem. Sometimes students don’t contribute in groups because they are struggling with the material. They aren’t lazy and aren’t purposefully jeopardizing the group’s success. Instead, they aren’t up to speed with the content or the task they’ve been assigned by the group.

Freeman and Greenacre found that this distinction has not been well addressed in the literature. More disturbing, their research revealed that students in groups do not differentiate reasons when a member is not contributing. That is a concern because students in the groups Freeman and Greenacre observed negatively pressured those students they perceived to be loafing. The groups assigned those students tasks they weren’t well-suited to complete, neglected to send them important email messages, scheduled meetings at times they couldn’t attend, set impossible deadlines for them, and withdrew peer support.

Members of groups who are taking advantage of the work done by others in the group deserve to be pressured. They should get clear messages that their lack of involvement is inappropriate and is not supported by the rest of the group. However, if a student who is struggling with the material or task gets the same kind of treatment by the group, that can be especially damaging to that student and ultimately to the group.

As for solutions to this problem, Freeman and Greenacre recommend “educating” students about this issue. They write that it is “critical” that students understand “that a group member who may be struggling initially can be a highly meaningful contributor when his or her particular skill set develops and/or becomes more critical later in the project.” (p. 14) They also suggest that when groups are deciding on roles and assigning tasks, they consider the skill set needed to successfully complete each and then make assignments based on who can best do what. And finally, they acknowledge that groups may still not be able to handle noncontributing members differentially and constructively, and in those cases teachers should be prepared to intervene. That intervention should focus on problematic behaviors, not necessarily individuals, and the discussion should revolve around what is needed to benefit the group as a whole.

Reference: Freeman, L., and Greenacre, L. (2011). An examination of socially destructive behaviors in group work. Journal of Marketing Education, 33 (1), 5-17.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.6 (2011): 5, 8.