The freeloader problem in group work

A group of students sitting in Carrington Building at the University of ReadingFreeloading can be problematic when using group work and, not surprisingly, can be the cause of much student angst – particularly when freeloaders fail to complete their allocated tasks and yet then go onto receive marks that they don't deserve.

Top tip: Some of the ways in which you can help reduce the freeloader problem are to...

  • reduce the extent to which you rely on group marks;
  • ask groups to keep formal minutes of their meetings, which must then be signed off by a member of staff (see Monitoring groups);
  • assess group work outcomes on an individual basis (e.g. formative assessment of group product(s) with a separate individually-assessed component);
  • divide the group work into individually-assessed component tasks (though this may not always be practical);
  • moderate the group mark on the basis of knowledge about individuals' contributions (see Assessing individuals within groups: using peer and self-assessment);
  • make use of students' assessment of peers in the group work process (see What aspects of group work should I assess?);
  • agree a series of consequences for freeloading in advance of the group starting work, for example, if students fail to complete agreed tasks on time or don't turn up to group meetings etc. These can be imposed whilst the group is still working to allow the freeloaders an opportunity to change their ways and satisfactorily deliver their part of the task.

Dealing with freeloaders:

Lejk et al.1 discuss an example of freeloading in which a group can approach the tutor to request that a freeloading member of the group be given a 'yellow card', which is rescinded if that individual's performance improves by an agreed time. If the individual's performance fails to improve then that person is allocated a 20% reduction in the group mark. If there continues to be no improvement in performance a 'red card' is awarded, which leads to the expulsion of that team member from the group and a mark of zero being awarded. Any work allocated to that individual is then removed from the group's workload to avoid the group having to do the work of the excluded member.

  1. Lejk, M., Wyvill, M. & Farrow, S. (1996). A survey of methods for deriving individual grades from group assessments. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 21, 3, pp.267-280.

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