The Importance of Group Work in Higher Education and the Problem with Free-Riding


Significance of group work in higher education

“Together Everyone Achieves More” –TEAM
The significance of group work in academia is well established and many universities incorporate group projects as a tool to improve student’s socio-cultural skills and cognitive abilities. The teaching excellence and educational innovation centre of Carnegie Mellon University and University of Leicester have found that group work enriches an individual’s thinking process with diverse perspectives and develops interpersonal, leadership, communication and time management skills. It endows an individual with the art of motivating others as well as listening to and accommodating other’s ideas. Apart from this, group work facilitates an in-depth understanding on the subject matter and enhances one’s self awareness on socio-cultural skills.

The free-rider walks away scot-free

While group projects impart numerous benefits, they are accompanied by the inherent disadvantage of free-riding or social loafing. In an academic context, it translates to students not equally contributing to the work within the groups. This behaviour by one or more members in the group is often extremely unpleasant and detrimental to the very objective of having group assignments in course curriculum. Moreover, the most frustrating part is the contributor receiving the same mark/scores/grades as that of the fellow non-contributors in the group. The underlying reason behind such free-riding behaviour could be many but research broadly categorises it into two types; intended and unintended free-riding.

Nature of free-riders

Intended free-riding involves individuals who are by nature indolent, indifferent towards studies and don’t produce any work. On the other hand, there are another category of students who are the quietest and least forceful members in the group and they get the task that they are ill-equipped to accomplish. Such students usually get dominated by the loud members in the group and keep their fingers crossed that they will be able to do the task. If they find themselves helpless or are not able to accomplish the task, then they tend to miss the group meetings, discussions and other activities. As a result, they are perceived as social loafers/free riders even without having any intention to do so.

Factors that determine free-riding

Analysing the above categories of free-riding behaviour, it is evident that there are certain boundary criteria such as the minimum amount of time to be devoted, the task to be accomplished and others to consider one’s effort towards the group activity judicious. Therefore, it is extremely essential for the evaluator to ascertain these boundary criteria before tagging someone as free-rider. However, irrespective of the category of free-riding behaviour, it is extremely crucial for academic practitioners to identify such behaviour as soon as possible and eliminate it to uphold the very purpose of group activity in academic assessment.

How to address free-riding

The very attempt to identify and eliminate free-riding in a group activity gives rise to the next question “how?” Research suggests the following approaches to address the issue.

· Teachers can adopt a marking scheme where the score that a student gets partly depends on the collective mark and partly on individual contributions. This approach would not only incentivise an individual to contribute to the group work, but also send a message that prioritizing one’s individual achievements and concentrating on one’s own work are not encouraged in a group assignment.
· Similarly, another effective way would be to allocate a proportion of marks to self- and peer-assessment. This would help the student understand what he/she perceives to have contributed to the group and what the group members perceive as his/her contribution. In addition, this approach would also highlight the student’s strength and weaknesses in a group activity.
· Prior to assigning the group projects, the teacher should ask the students to compose the preliminary ‘ground rules’ for group activity and adhere to that to work together. (Levin 2003)
· In order to avoid un-intended free-riding, the quietest and least forceful members should be given adequate attention and the group members should ensure that the quietest members get a task that they proficient in and put forth their opinion as equally as the loud members in the group.

What are limitations in the above approaches

However, each of the above approaches has their own disadvantages and could be futile to drive the result. Here is how the above approaches may fail to eliminate free-riding.

· When the individual is awarded a score partly based on the collective mark and partly on his/her contribution to the group, the problem of free riding persists. Because, the free riders are still getting the collective score component which is enough to encourage them to not contribute to the group work adequately and relinquish the individual component.
· Both the peer and self assessment approach can be biased. A participant may overrate/underrate himself/herself in the self assessment process and if the participant is the quietest person in the group, then he/she might be perceived as a free-rider by other group members.
· Considering the case of devising the ‘ground rules’ for a group activity, the group members may not stick to it because there is no inspection or monitoring happening from outside. Moreover, the teacher/faculty member can’t regularly keep track or inspect because it would hamper the autonomy of the group which is neither desired nor intended in a group activity.
· In case of un-intended free riding, again the power to provide adequate attention to the quietest members in the group lies with the group itself. The group members may not pay attention to it because there is no inspection/monitoring happening from the teacher’s side. The quietest members on the other hand, may not disclose the issue in front of the professor because of the unwillingness to create ‘tell-tales’ about the fellow group members.

A new way of approaching the problem – Epistemic Games

Acknowledging the limitations in the above measures, here we discuss an innovative way of dealing with free-riding issue. We prompt the reader on “How about incorporating digital games as platform to assess the group projects”? Research has found that digital games such as computer, video games and simulation games are a critical part of the future of education and can be an effective tool to measure group projects.

Business simulations in classrooms

Many current business simulations have affirmed this effectiveness and have been found immensely potential in measuring group activities. However, the traditional business simulation games still don’t address the free-riding issue because here again the students are grouped and left to discuss among themselves to strategise and run the virtual enterprise. Though the real time aspect of the game eliminates a free-rider’s intention to miss group meetings or discussions, it doesn’t necessarily compel the free-rider to contribute or help the quietest members in the group to be uninhibited.

Epistemic games

However, good business simulation games not only bring the element of inspection to the student’s activity in real time but also incorporate the pedagogic element and well crafted research and analytics in it. These digital games are referred as epistemic games. These games provide a virtual environment to the player to participate in a range of real world experiences in real time as well as impart insight into the human thinking and learning process by adopting cognitive research. Most importantly, these games delineate the relationships among and between individuals and groups and the association between the cognitive elements (knowledge, skills identity and values) of an individual. Therefore, if these epistemic games are adopted as an assessment tool for group activities, then it would address the free-riding issue in following manner.

Solving the free-riding problem
1- The real time virtual platform would keep the track of time spent as well as the amount of tasks done by the student towards the group assignment. As a result, it would help to affix the boundary criteria for free-riding behaviour and decide who should be considered as free-rider.
2- Since, it is a digital platform, the quietest members would not be imposed a task that they are not proficient in. They can either choose a particular task or the professor can assign them a task based on the proficiency. In addition, they can communicate with other group members without any inhibition because the platform is a virtual environment.
3- Each student can log in to the respective virtual space using the individual credential and there is no room for any group member to delegate the task or avoid doing the task in real time.
4- Both the self- and peer-assessment processes can be incorporated into the digital game platform and the individual’s assessment as well as the peer assessment on a student can be collected in a non-intrusive manner.
Imagine a digital platform that captures the evidence of the students’ leadership, communication, interpersonal, critical thinking, decision making, problem solving and other skills in addition to the above benefits. Would not such a platform be plausible to foster 21st century skills and eliminate free-riding in academic assessment?

The Epistemic Game, STRATUP

STRATUP, a unique and innovative deliverable of Processbee, renders such a digital platform which not only helps eliminate free-riding but also incorporates evidence centred design to record evidence for an individual’s managerial skills such as leadership, interpersonal, communication, decision making, critical thinking and others. Apart from this, its sophisticated analytics module generates a cognitive profile of an individual taking the individual’s managerial skills, domain knowledge, values, identity and epistemology into account. We suggest that such a platform comprises a holistic assessment tool in academia and would be the critical part for future academic assessments. For a detailed experience, please explore “STRATUP”
We suggest that digital games such as epistemic games are efficient tools both to assess group activity and eliminate free riding in the group activity. However, the use of such platforms in academia is limited at present and should be promoted further. In the digital age, such platforms are the future of education and can be leveraged to a great extent for both academic and workplace assessment. Now, the decision rests with the academic practitioners to adopt and promote such sophisticated platforms and enrich the learning as well as the assessment process.


What are the benefits of group work? Eberly Center, Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from
The benefits of group work. Study skills, University of Leicester. Retrieved from
Hall, D., & 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.
Levin, P. (2003). Running group projects: dealing with the free-rider problem. Planet, 9(1), 7-8.
Shaffer, D. W. (2007). Epistemic games to improve professional skills and values. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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