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Ask the ExpertScienceSpiegeloog 412: Happiness

Ask the Expert: Making group work fair

By July 13, 2021No Comments
Brenda Jansen
Hillie Aaldering
Brenda Jansen’s (Clinical Developmental Psychology) question

Dear Hillie,

Because collaboration is often an important part of the job, in many settings, and because working together can increase motivation, I would like to use group assignments in my courses. However, I also fear the risk of free-riding during group assignments. What is known in the scientific literature about the prevention of free-riding during group assignments and how is collaboration possible in online education?

Brenda

Hillie Aaldering’s (Work and Organizational Psychology) answer

Dear Brenda,

Thank you for your question, it’s a great one and I loved thinking about it. Group assignments have many benefits; learning to collaborate is important for students (an important skill for teamwork in later jobs) and they can potentially complement each others’ skills and reach better performance than they could by themselves. It also helps to form or increase cohesion and even motivation, since working together is often more fun than working alone. But, like you say, free-riding is a risk: The possibility that one or more students put much less effort than some others, potentially resulting in a too high grade for some of the members, and/or a too low grade for others. Of course, this can also cause frustration within the group of students and potentially lead to conflicts, which are not at all beneficial for the aforementioned motivation and overall performance. So, how do we reduce free-riding?

The available research on this topic suggests two categories of solutions; one is to change the structure of the assignment, and one is to affect the psychology of the students. The most obvious structural solution (and often a last resort for teachers) is to decrease the interdependence and give students individual grades for their part of the assignment. However, this is far from ideal as it takes away the synergy potential in the group assignment. Alternatives include rewards for high cooperation rates (e.g. let students indicate the percentage they contribute to the group assignment and give extra bonus points to the group who has the most equal distribution), punishment for free-riders (with the obvious downsides that it requires the students to go to the teachers and tell on the less-contributing student) or monitoring them more closely (check in regularly on each of the individual students on how the collaboration process is going, with the downside that it takes away from students’ highly valued autonomy).

My favorite solutions are therefore the psychological ones, which are about creating a common identity within the group and communicating clearly about expectations. Ideally, you’d want groups to form based on a similar approach in group work – put students together who like to make an early start and get finished on time as well as students who prefer to wait till the last moment until they start putting a lot of effort. This can be complemented with putting students who have high grade aspirations together, and those who are completely satisfied with a passing grade as well. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it is also important for students to learn how to work together and respect others with different strategies than their own. For such mixed groups, communication about expectations is crucial. So before any group assignment, teachers can explain the free-riding problem to students, encourage them to have clear starting meetings where they communicate about their expectations and divide responsibilities explicitly as well as set deadlines. Here they should be encouraged to communicate openly about a) what their strengths are to create the highest possible potential – for example, a student with dyslexia should not do the final spelling check but might be really good at nice lay-out, while someone else can then do an extra round of spelling checks for the dyslexia student, b) about their own pitfalls – for instance, generally starting too late can be solved by setting earlier deadlines, and c) about strategies that are effective for them and how group members can help them – e.g. check in regularly with each other, make buddy pairs on studying together, etc. And perhaps most importantly, teachers should definitely recommend the students who work on assignments together to not only study together, but also go to a bar together or have dinners together to create a positive group identity that is not only associated with the (sometimes difficult) process of studying. Additionally, I would recommend teachers to tell the students to come to them on time if the group process is not going as it should, to allow them to take punitive measures if necessary. In sum: Awareness of the potential of the problem and open communication, a skill that is practiced over and over again during the psychology study so it can even become an additional learning goal, are key in fulfilling the high potential of group assignments. Good luck and enjoy reading your prospective students’ assignments!

Hillie

Hillie Aaldering’s question is for Roeland Voskens (Social Psychology)

Dear Roeland,

As you know, I am very interested in maintaining and increasing the quality of education. I recently attended a seminar suggesting that large scale lectures are useless; students can learn better from books or knowledge clips, so knowledge transfer is not efficient using large lectures. And the potential of social cohesion which they can create is also very small, given decreased attendance to such lectures over time. I’m curious to hear your perspective: Do you think large scale lectures should have a future and what should it look like?

Hillie

Brenda Jansen’s (Clinical Developmental Psychology) question

Dear Hillie,

Because collaboration is often an important part of the job, in many settings, and because working together can increase motivation, I would like to use group assignments in my courses. However, I also fear the risk of free-riding during group assignments. What is known in the scientific literature about the prevention of free-riding during group assignments and how is collaboration possible in online education?

Brenda

Hillie Aaldering’s (Work and Organizational Psychology) answer

Dear Brenda,

Thank you for your question, it’s a great one and I loved thinking about it. Group assignments have many benefits; learning to collaborate is important for students (an important skill for teamwork in later jobs) and they can potentially complement each others’ skills and reach better performance than they could by themselves. It also helps to form or increase cohesion and even motivation, since working together is often more fun than working alone. But, like you say, free-riding is a risk: The possibility that one or more students put much less effort than some others, potentially resulting in a too high grade for some of the members, and/or a too low grade for others. Of course, this can also cause frustration within the group of students and potentially lead to conflicts, which are not at all beneficial for the aforementioned motivation and overall performance. So, how do we reduce free-riding?

The available research on this topic suggests two categories of solutions; one is to change the structure of the assignment, and one is to affect the psychology of the students. The most obvious structural solution (and often a last resort for teachers) is to decrease the interdependence and give students individual grades for their part of the assignment. However, this is far from ideal as it takes away the synergy potential in the group assignment. Alternatives include rewards for high cooperation rates (e.g. let students indicate the percentage they contribute to the group assignment and give extra bonus points to the group who has the most equal distribution), punishment for free-riders (with the obvious downsides that it requires the students to go to the teachers and tell on the less-contributing student) or monitoring them more closely (check in regularly on each of the individual students on how the collaboration process is going, with the downside that it takes away from students’ highly valued autonomy).

My favorite solutions are therefore the psychological ones, which are about creating a common identity within the group and communicating clearly about expectations. Ideally, you’d want groups to form based on a similar approach in group work – put students together who like to make an early start and get finished on time as well as students who prefer to wait till the last moment until they start putting a lot of effort. This can be complemented with putting students who have high grade aspirations together, and those who are completely satisfied with a passing grade as well. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it is also important for students to learn how to work together and respect others with different strategies than their own. For such mixed groups, communication about expectations is crucial. So before any group assignment, teachers can explain the free-riding problem to students, encourage them to have clear starting meetings where they communicate about their expectations and divide responsibilities explicitly as well as set deadlines. Here they should be encouraged to communicate openly about a) what their strengths are to create the highest possible potential – for example, a student with dyslexia should not do the final spelling check but might be really good at nice lay-out, while someone else can then do an extra round of spelling checks for the dyslexia student, b) about their own pitfalls – for instance, generally starting too late can be solved by setting earlier deadlines, and c) about strategies that are effective for them and how group members can help them – e.g. check in regularly with each other, make buddy pairs on studying together, etc. And perhaps most importantly, teachers should definitely recommend the students who work on assignments together to not only study together, but also go to a bar together or have dinners together to create a positive group identity that is not only associated with the (sometimes difficult) process of studying. Additionally, I would recommend teachers to tell the students to come to them on time if the group process is not going as it should, to allow them to take punitive measures if necessary. In sum: Awareness of the potential of the problem and open communication, a skill that is practiced over and over again during the psychology study so it can even become an additional learning goal, are key in fulfilling the high potential of group assignments. Good luck and enjoy reading your prospective students’ assignments!

Hillie

Hillie Aaldering’s question is for Roeland Voskens (Social Psychology)

Dear Roeland,

As you know, I am very interested in maintaining and increasing the quality of education. I recently attended a seminar suggesting that large scale lectures are useless; students can learn better from books or knowledge clips, so knowledge transfer is not efficient using large lectures. And the potential of social cohesion which they can create is also very small, given decreased attendance to such lectures over time. I’m curious to hear your perspective: Do you think large scale lectures should have a future and what should it look like?

Hillie

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