Social loafing may not be a term that you are familiar with but it has been documented in more than 100 studies on college students. If you have ever participated in a group project in college, you have probably experienced it. Social loafing occurs when group members put in less effort on the project or goal then they would have if they had worked on it individually. For the last 20 years, educators have studied this social phenomenon and have looked for ways to encourage student participation in Group Projects.
Group projects help students learn to work together as a team and how to communicate with others on a professional level. As an instructor, I know that interpersonal communication skills are very important to employers and often use group projects to help build those skills. The challenge that professors currently have is preventing social loafing in these projects so that students stay engaged and projects get completed. How can students work on building those interpersonal skills so meaningful learning can take place? How do you prevent loafing?
Why Students Loaf
Students at all levels of education seem to dislike group work for a number of reasons, many of which are a direct result of social loafing. It has been found through a study at MIT that the more students involved in a group project, the less participation–per student–takes place. Groups of three are found to be participating at 85%, and that figure drops down to 49% per student in groups of eight.
Studies on group participation and social loafing have found many reasons why students choose to slack off on group projects. These studies use the term “free riding” to identify a student who wants to try to push their project responsibilities off on the other group members since they know that everyone will get the same grade. Some students loaf because they do not feel motivated to perform since they don’t think their individual contribution will be noticed.
These behaviors present many negative consequences. Good students can end up with a lower grade in the group project because they refused to let free riding students push off their responsibilities. Students who have been a part of toxic groups in the past could have a poor outlook on future group projects, allowing one bad experience to color their perception of group work.
How can you prevent loafing?
Designing Better Group Projects
Professors that are seeing a lot of social loafing in their group projects should work to improve the design of the project or the incentive for completion. Meaningful learning cannot take place if students don’t have the right incentive for participation. Here are some ways that you can change your group projects in your college classes:
- Consider how your group project is evaluated. I see instructors that are grading group projects only on the output and not the process of creation. Many students feel that they don’t have to work hard on group projects since their individual contributions are more difficult to identify. Try to find ways to evaluate the group’s work as it relates to both the final project (what was created) and the process (how it was created).
- Do not design a group-based project around technology. I have found that group projects that are designed around technology have a lot of ways to fail. Make sure that the technology provides opportunity but does not limit how the group can work together. One of the challenges that many college students have is their access to technology so be sure to design group work that allows multiple ways to participate inside and outside of class.
- Clarify roles and responsibilities. One of the primary ways to combat social loafing is to make sure that all group members have a clear idea of how they are expected to participate. Closely track individual contributions to the project and I’ve found that by making each person’s effort known that students get a sense of personal achievement and don’t feel they are being lost in the group.
- Make group work meaningful. If your students don’t see the point in the assignment or understand the objectives they are trying to achieve, you can’t expect them to work hard on it. My students respond best when there is a real-world component to the project. They also like being able to put their own touch on the project concept by changing or modifying the outcome towards a goal that interests them.
Setting Barriers to Social Loafers
There are many ways that you can set your students up for a good group project experience. Designing a good project is only the first step. Facilitating the group project work correctly can greatly help in keeping students on track and stop social loafing. It is recommended that you keep groups smaller than four members so that students feel that their individual contributions to the project will make a difference. I’ve found that talking to my students about their role on the project and how it is important to the success of the team can help curb loafing.
Allowing all students to get the same grade for a group project seems to be one of the driving culprits of social loafing. Instead, allow students to build a peer-evaluation system for teamwork which will be used to grade not only the final outcome of the project but the interaction and progression as the work is completed.
In my experience, when problem behavior does appear, it seems to be best to address it as a group. I always try to catch social loafing as early as I can and find out why it is happening so we can get the group back on track. Remember to keep the conversation professional without attacking or accusing to get the best response from your students.
Group projects have an important place in your classroom and students can get a lot of benefit from practicing interpersonal skills. However, since some students may have had a negative experience in group work, they may not often be as enthusiastic or may not be interested in getting involved. The ideas presented here can be used to help you design meaningful group work that your students will be able to perform without negativity. I would love to hear from other professors on how they are using group projects in their class and how they are keeping students motivated.
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