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How do you prevent free-riding in group assignments?

Last updated on 21 February 2024
Would you like to encourage all students to make an active contribution to group assignments, and do you want to prevent free-riding? In this teaching tip we share how you can promote a successful group process!

Collaborative assignments are often used in education. An important argument for this is that professionals and scientists often have to work in teams in their professional practice. Courses therefore contain learning objectives that indicate which competencies students need to acquire with group assignments. In practice, however, this is often difficult. Group assignments are quickly perceived by students as a ballast and a frequently heard problem is that of the free-rider: students who seem to do little or nothing but still pass the course.

Tip 1: only give group assignments where it's useful
Only use group work when it has added value. It's best not to for assignments that students can just as well do individually. In those cases, students complain most often that the group process takes up too much time and has no direct added value. They don't see the function of group work and are dependent on others while it is not necessary for that course.

Tip 2: provide a phased approach to the assignment
Prior to the assignment, have the group first create a joint thesis with a schedule of tasks and duties. For successful collaboration, it is important that several tasks are well covered, such as: planning, making action lists and reports, fulfilling substantive tasks and making decisions. For example, have students draw up a group contract so that they are aware of their mutual responsibilities and can be held accountable for them. The action plan and group contract should be discussed with the teacher as soon as possible so that he or she can make adjustments. Repeat this process when submitting an interim report.

Tip 3: use learning goals on cooperation skills
If, as a teacher, you include collaborative assignments in your course, make sure that the learning objectives of the course also reflect this and that you assess students on them.

Tip 4: stimulate interdependence among students
Make sure that a form of interdependence is always built into collaborative assignments. This can be achieved easily by appointing the student to present a (sub) task during the class. This prevents free-riders from evading this important task, which requires the presenter to be thoroughly familiar with all sub-processes and developed content. Also make sure that during a presentation, the presenter cannot pass the word to the 'expert' of the group. Also rate the presentation with a (partial) mark.

Tip 5: use peer feedback
Have students give each other feedback on their group functioning one or more times, especially in project-based learning which has a longer duration. This can be done by discussing it in general terms during a meeting, but this is often less effective as it requires a high degree of social security where everyone can express themselves freely.

A low-threshold method is to enclose a (small) collaboration/process report at the same time the students hand in their (partial) assignment in which they indicate who has contributed to what. Refer to the project plan or group contract. Should this show that the efforts were unevenly distributed, you, as teacher, can call the group together to discuss what the consequences should be.

A somewhat more serious method of getting the conversation going is to have students from one team give each other anonymous feedback on their collaboration skills with the Group Member Evaluation functionality of FeedbackFruits. Have this done prior to a meeting, review it as a teacher and provide prompts for effective feedback. Ask students to receive the results of the feedback openly and guide the group discussion that follows to ensure that it is constructive and socially secure.

The result of a peer review can be factored into the final grade or used in the process to completion.

Tip 6: make sure students divide roles
Explicitly encourage students to seriously divide tasks at the beginning of the group assignment.

Tip 7: give partial grades for different parts of the product and the process
Do not give one final grade, but also grade parts of the final product and the process. The use of a rubric is very useful for this. 

Bonus tip: self-help kit Group Work
The Self-help kit Group Work webpage contains tips and helpful documents for students to help them learn to work together.

Digital support
With the Group Member Evaluation functionality of FeedbackFruits, it is possible for students to quickly give each other anonymous feedback. As a teacher, you can create criteria on which students should evaluate each other or you can use predefined feedback criteria.