Following on from my last post about student aversion to group work and how to get them off to a good start by being more deliberate about group formation, this post will explore what I (anecdotally) assume is the reason why most students avoid and dislike this mode of working—those pesky free-riders.
There is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of published material on this—and not just in the general organizational-behavior/social-psychology/economics literature, but specifically as it relates to group projects in university classrooms. I won’t do an extensive literature review here of what I’ve now read on the topic, but this literature does contain some really interesting things for us to consider. Several articles offer great insight into specific strategies for dealing with free-riding (for a good list of strategies and other resources see Martin, 2009). For example, El Massah’s (2018) article focuses on the use of technology/mobile applications in facilitating and monitoring fair group work, whilst Swarary (2012) reflects on how to design projects that are built to reduce free-riding.
Renee Monson (2019) asks the provocative question of ‘Do they have to like it to learn from it?’. My gut reaction to this question was an admittedly adamant ‘No of course not!!’. In the same way my parents likely justified forcing me to eat all manner of healthy foods as a child, I initially thought ‘I don’t care if you like it or not, it’s good for you!!’. Ignoring my knee jerk reaction and with a bit of trepidation that I wouldn’t like what I was about to read, I pressed forward. The author’s findings were in fact mixed and should cause us all to more carefully consider our use of group work, if our goals are indeed to improve student learning.
‘The answer to the question, “Do students have to like small-group pedagogy in order to learn from it?” is both no and yes. Individual students who reported more negative experiences with the group project were not more likely to earn lower grades on their final papers … However, groups whose members reported more negative overall average experiences were more likely to earn lower grades on the research project …and (as noted above) an individual student’s grade on the final paper was influenced by the group’s grade on the project. In sum, students’ negative experiences indirectly affected their individual learning’ (Monson, 2019: 130)
Also concerning are some of the findings from another study (Davies, 2009) that linked debates around free-riding to a related phenomenon known as the ‘sucker effect’. This effect sees good students actually reducing their energy/efforts and related outputs when concerns about free-riding emerge. In other words, students don’t want to look like a ‘sucker’ – working hard, only to allow the free-riders to get the same grade as them. This potential effect of group work should concern us all and requires us to think carefully about group formation, project design and grading practices, if we really care about our learning objectives being furthered by group work.
Relationships vs Policing
At this point, I’ll admit—I’m no expert—unlike the authors of the above articles, I’ve not looked at things methodically, in a systematic way. What I explore below is how I’ve tried to address the problem of free-riding over the last ten years or so from my personal experiences of trial and error. And, since dealing with free-riding is a huge issue and there are dozens of directions one could go in terms of self-reflection and strategies one could use, I’ve decided to focus quite narrowly on one general tactic I’ve adopted.
Overall, my approach to dealing with potential free riding is relational, as opposed to one of policing. I have neither the time nor motivation to try and over-police individual contributions (though stay tuned for a future blog post on grading for a couple small interventions I’ve instigated in this regard). I also do firmly believe that students need to learn to work through inter-personal dynamics in group settings. So whilst I am cognizant of issues of equity, and also now concerned about some of the impacts on student learning from the studies noted above, I genuinely feel that part of guiding students through group work is teaching them how to navigate the realities of professional settings (whether they be in the academy or beyond). I do this not because I feel it is my job to provide career training—but because we are training junior scholars and part of being a *political scientist* [insert your discipline here] is working on collaborative projects, be they research, teaching or administrative. Group work is a way of teaching our students the realities of the discipline; it can teach them disciplinary knowledges and practices.
So what is this ‘relational approach’? First I work on creating a culture where students feel they can be honest and open with me about concerns regarding free-riding. In the syllabus and through regular in class check-ins, I try to make it clear to students that I do care about equity and that I am happy to talk through solutions to free-riding with them. Of course, some students don’t raise these until the very end of class in their end-of-term reflections on group work. But when students do come to me during the term, or even after, I try to engage them with one or more of the following types of questions
Why might this colleague be engaging in what you perceive to be free riding behavior?
Asking this question aligns with parts of Hall and Buzwell’s (2013) piece which asks us to challenge beliefs/discourses that free-riding students are simply bad/lazy individuals who are strategically manipulating group-work situations and the concomitant solution that these students therefore need to be monitored, controlled and/or punished. They note how a range of factors can lead to what we and other students might define as free-riding, including but not limited to feelings of inadequacy from a scholarly skills perspective, or a lack of confidence in participating from English Language Learners.
Whilst not wanting my students to make guesses or assumptions about personal circumstances of their peers, what I do want to encourage is both empathy and self-reflection in how they are labeling the behaviors of others. Are they taking time to notice cues that their colleagues are struggling academically or personally? Can they recognize that by reflecting on the situation of others, there are lessons to learn about effective, emphatic leadership? How does reflecting on the above lead to leadership/peer to peer learning opportunities that will also foster deeper learning of content and professional skills?
In having this discussion with students who are concerned about free riding group members, I suppose what I’m fundamentally trying to get them to recognize is this: You are not being a sucker. You are being a good person and a good scholar.
What professional/viable options are available for you to deal with the situation? What are your next steps?
Of course, even if being reflective and empathetic about group members’ participation, I do not expect students to just turn a blind eye to unequal work distribution and supposed free riding. But, I also don’t feel it is my role to police things or intervene unless things have become totally out of control and one or more of the group members is just clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have to say that in my ten years of teaching and probably a couple hundred group projects, I’ve probably only seen truly terrible situations that required my intervention about half-a-dozen times.
Thus, when students come to me with concerns about potential free riders during the semester I try to ask them a series of questions that eventually leads them to come up with their own solutions to the problem. These questions will depend on the specific context/situation of the assignment/class.
In relation to students who don’t come to me early enough in the semester (or at all) to talk to me about free-riding concerns, I also pose the following question in the final end of term (individual) reflection assignment: ‘If you did not feel group work was fair—what did YOU do to try and improve the situation’. My goal in both of these scenarios is to help students develop more self-efficacy, professional responsibility, and a stronger sense of agency. One thing I have thought about doing is having students do this kind of reflection part way through a project to try and be more pro-active rather than re-active to concerns over free-riding and to create more opportunities for students to try and resolve the situations on their own earlier and in the project cycle.
I of course always ask if there is anything they would like me to do. I would estimate that 95% of the time students do not want me to intervene. Being heard and helping them strategize regarding what they can do is often what they want or need.
Why does free riding bother you so much? In this instance what is your most pressing concern?
At times, I’ve had students for whom the problem of free-riding is more than just a mild inconvenience or a pet peeve that they know they will sometimes have to manage/work to overcome. I’ve had several students in my office in or near tears over the situation and some who have even used strong words such as ‘being traumatized’ over group work.
I’ve no patience for colleagues who are now rolling their eyes or thinking ‘snowflakes!’ We do not know what is going on with our students and what we might perceive to be an over-reaction to group dynamics could be masking something else. On several occasions, more general issues related to a student’s health issues (both physical and mental) have been uncovered through my discussions with them. Serious anxiety about group work can often be concealing something that students need or want to talk about, and only through careful conversations does this come through and allow me to connect them to proper supports. I have also had students talk about feeling discriminated against in previous group projects because of their political opinions or identity.
Of course, on occasion, serious and legitimate concerns about grades come into play, and again, I can have discussions about this with students and advise them to come see me once grades are in if there are still concerns. These concerns have sometimes been linked to needing to maintain a certain average to secure an ongoing financial scholarship. Not something to be brushed aside.
Yet in other cases what is really bothering students is not an actual concern about unequal distribution of tangible work load or the quality of other students’ work. Through my discussions with some students, it is often revealed that their colleagues are actually putting in a decent amount of work and producing quality outputs. Instead, what I have sometimes uncovered is that a student’s frustration actually stems from a sense that their colleagues don’t seem to care as much about the topic or project as they do. This has come through in cases where students either begin the project with, or over time develop a very deep and often very personal connection with the subject matter or case. What is actually bothering them is a sense that their colleagues are treating things simply as an assignment as opposed to an important issue of peace, social justice, human rights etc.
Again, in these conversations, I’m able to talk through this with students, explore things such as the concept of compassion fatigue, what we know about political will and how/why some issues make it onto political agendas or become a dominant issue in the public consciousness (or not). I would say that these conversations have been the most unexpected and transformative for me. The first time I finally was able to trace back that is was this factor that was bothering some of my students, my own opinions around ‘complaining students’ and the hatred of group work were really transformed.
Of course, even having gone through all of the above with students, some students remain adamant that free-riding is a serious problem, that there are no viable solutions to free-riding, and that profs should simply not assign group work. And trust me, in the few times that I’ve had group work go terribly wrong, I’ve been tempted towards this opinion myself. Having to intervene when you yourself see group dynamics going astray (I often have check ins with student groups that allows me to get a sense of this myself—without student’s raising the alarm at all!) or when a student raises serious concerns is not easy. It can create a lot of stress and extra work. Things can quickly deteriorate with individuals blaming each other, and ganging up or one person in the group. Sometimes it is impossible to recover the situation, and the chances of a good group dynamic and project completely disappear. So yes, sometimes (very rarely in my opinion), things will just go terribly wrong and require much more serious interventions than what I’ve described above– but from each of these occasions I’ve also learned and have created much more successful group projects overall. I am hoping that this series of blog posts will help others do the same.
Davies, WM (2009) ‘Groupwork as a form of assessment: Common problems and recommended solutions’ Higher Education, 58(4), 563-584.
El Massah, SS (2018) ‘Addressing free riders in collaborative group work: The use of mobile application in higher education’ International Journal of Higher Education Managementi, 32(7), 1223-1244.
Hall, D and Buzwell, S (2013) ‘The problem of free-riding in group projects: Looking beyond social loafing as reason for non-contribution’ Active Learning in Higher Education 14(1): 37-49.
Monson, RA (2019) ‘Do They have to Like It to Learn from It: Students’ Experiences, Group Dynamics and Learning Outcomes in Group Research Projects’ Teaching Sociology 47(2), 116-134.
Swaray, R (2012) ‘An evaluation of a group project designed to reduce free-riding and promote active learning’ Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(3), 285-292.