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.

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  • William Siebold

    I read with care this article regarding "social loafers" in small group learning situations. I believe this is a very complex topic, as the authors suggest. Small groups can be a "cauldron" of personalities. Let's not forget the dominant student in the group, who may assume "responsibility" (i.e. control) for all tasks and wishes to micromanage the (possibly very thoughtful) efforts of others in the group. There are also those students who, as developing adults, tend to be quieter and may adopt a more circumspect perspective of the problem at hand … the "thinker" versus the "do-er." Often I find the quiet student is very much on-task, but perhaps does not consider the academic consideration of a topic as a competition and would rather collaborate … lacking not the facility to move through the topic but instead the ability to engineer the collaboration.

    Clearly there is a volume of research, experience and opinion to call upon when discussing small group learning environments and certainly my comment here is incomplete, to say the least. I believe that small group learning, when appropriately and thoughtfully implemented & managed-well, presents a diversity of valuable, real-time teaching opportunities that extend beyond the content and strike directly at the interactions between individuals and resources. I also believe that small-group sessions work best (at least, for me) in context with other teaching methodologies – quiet people in the large group may well open-up or even become dominant in the small group.

    The observation that other members of a team might withdraw support from a student perceived to be a low-performer is very interesting to me. Truthfully, I can look back at specific situations and imagine that I inadvertently supported that withdrawal of support – so that observation is quite important to me moving forward as I monitor my own interactions with teams that exhibit some degree of dysfunction.

  • Virginia

    The seeds for ostracizing a group member who is expected to be a poor contributor are planted as soon as the groups are announced, and way before the teacher can make rounds to observe group work in action. I've observed "alpha" students roll their eyes when the group first meets and inform the "beta" student that nothing can be expected from her; and even if something is produced, it will be substandard and will have to be done over by the alpha student. Under these circumstances, the beta student has nothing to gain by putting effort into a task that will be judged harshly and derided. I've known this to be the background story when an alpha student complains, "I had to do all the work, and no one else did anything," a complaint that teachers are often sympathetic to from a student who is talented, competitive, and pursues good relationships with adults.

    I've long been concerned that teachers are pressed to assign more group work, but we never teach HOW to do group work. We expect the students to develop this on their own, with their grades at stake and often with no reward for good group behavior — just penalties for poor collaboration. I've tried to search for curricula for teaching skills for group work, but haven't found much — maybe I'm not using the right search terms. I'd be grateful for any resource suggestions!