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This content was published: May 22, 2017. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Don’t make me do group work!

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Picture of social loafing on a team project

“Don’t make me do group work!” How many of you have heard this comment from students, and why might that be? Indeed, there could be situations in which a student just prefers to learn independently, though interacting with peers on a group project or simply as a study technique can be a powerful learning tool. Small group interaction is ubiquitous as a technique used in the classroom to promote learning, yet we struggle to employ this teaching strategy online. One reason commonly heard is the fact that there are frequently one or two group members who don’t contribute their fair share of the work. Granted, it can be a little too easy to hide in the online world, and it’s not fair to have one or two key players doing the bulk of the work. How can we bring those perceived “slackers” into the mix to involve them as contributing members of the group?

John Orlando shares some effective strategies for this in a recent article in Online Classroom, “Tips for addressing loafing in group projects.” I was surprised to learn from research in this area that “social loafers do not actually know they are loafing.” (Kevin Synnott, 2016) Rather, they feel they are contributing in their own way. So part of the problem is an awareness issue, making students aware of their own level of contribution.

Research by Synnott suggests that it works better for the instructor to assign students to groups instead of having them self select. He also notes that it’s easier to hide in larger groups, so “groups of three or four are best for reducing social loafing.” Certainly role designations and responsibilities are more clearly assigned in smaller groups. There is greater value placed on the contribution of each individual team member.

One way to build awareness of individual contribution and a desire to accept equal responsibility is to use peer assessment. This also helps to inform instructors about individual contributions to the group and can be used as a portion of the grade. It can be most helpful to supply students with a rubric with specific criteria used to evaluate and provide feedback to other group members. Better yet, to inspire a vested interest, have students create their own peer evaluation rubric.

Here are some specific strategies related to organizing the group activities. The instructor can designate one group member as the lead organizer in order to help establish group member tasks, a task timeline, and a schedule of deliverables. The instructor can require scheduled progress reports posted by the team leader or someone designated by that person to a class discussion area. That will help keep the task flow on track and will also create an opportunity to solicit feedback from those in other groups. This lead role can be rotated throughout the term to give others a chance to take on that responsibility.

As for technologies used to support group work, Google Docs is a logical tool to use. Students make contributions to a shared document and can easily comment on the ideas of others. Optionally, the instructor can be given access as well in order to provide feedback and view individual contributions. Livebinders (livebinders.com) or Padlet (padlet.com) are suggested tools for groups to share photos. As for live meetings, virtual rooms in Collaborate can be set up directly in D2L for student groups to use. (If you’re not familiar with Collaborate, be sure to participate in one of the training workshops offered by our ITS. I see there’s one this Thursday, May 25th.)

For more specific information about structuring effective group work, I invite you to see the full article Tips for Addressing Loafing in Group Projects, John Orlando, in the January 2017 edition of Online Classroom. (Access information below) You’ll also find the original research in Synnott, K. (2016). Guides to reducing social loafing in group projects: Faculty development. Journal of Higher Education Management 31 (1), pp. 211-221.

How to access Online Classroom articles

Addressing Loafing in Group Projects is available through our PCC subscription to “Online Classroom.” Here’s how to access these articles. (Only the first time you access is cumbersome. After that it’s easy.) While you’re there, skim through some of the recent articles in the archives.

May 2017

  • Designing group-based learning activities
  • Online Videos that transform students into teachers
  • How to design online courses to enhance student engagement
  • Three ways to use Google Drive to improve teaching efficiency
  • Infographics assignments for better learning

April 2017

  • Unbundling the Learning Management System
  • Using technology to crate an interactive syllabus
  • How to motivate your online students
  • Academic integrity by design
  • Rinse and repeat teaching

March 2017

  • Blending MOOCs into your courses
  • Innovative ways to engage online learners
  • Easy digital content curation
  • Free lesson resources for your class
  • Creating a “Build your Grade” course
  • Add engagement to your class with multimedia timelines

About Greg Kaminski

Online Learning: online course design consultant, coordinator of Online Faculty Mentors, Quality Matters facilitator, interactive teaching practices enthusiast. more »