Over the last couple of weeks, my PBL group members and I have been discussing the best ways to cultivate a collaborative learning environment. One concern that came up is how to deal with freeloaders. We discussed this from a teacher perspective, but thinking back on all my experiences with freeloaders (and my own failures to deal with it effectively), I’m left wondering what the internet recommends from a student perspective.

…and no surprises there. It’s the usual communicate, document, talk to the teacher combo. And no wonder students find group work so stressful, because this fails to acknowledge the complexity of the situations:

  • I don’t want my grade to suffer. One point that came up in the research, and in PBL conversation, is that collaborating within a competitive landscape is difficult by design. Sometimes well-intentioned group members can be made into freeloaders, if they are regularly steamrolled by their more ambitious partners.
  • If I complain to the teacher, it will only make me look bad. I have felt this as a student, and I’ve heard this from my own students. As an educator, I agree that students should work things out within their group whenever possible, but I also believe it’s my job to support them in this – through pedagogy, conversation, and intervention if necessary. As a student, when I’ve tried to approach teachers about this, more often than not I was met with annoyance. I felt that I lost esteem with the instructor, just by bringing it up. I think this is an effective (if lazy and irresponsible) strategy on their part.
  • I want to maintain a positive relationship with my classmates. Perhaps there is a cohort, or perhaps even short-term social tension will be more draining than a few extra hours of homework.
  • The teacher is only assigning group work so they have less marking to do. Cynical, perhaps, and probably true some of the time. In this case the student doesn’t believe that the teacher cares about their learning, and they don’t believe there is value in collaboration.
  • I don’t have the skills to confront my group member. Especially with younger students, we can’t assume they have the interpersonal skills required to navigate group conflict on their own.
  • I’d rather do it on my own anyways. If the learner is a lone wolf type, or if they have a string of negative group experiences behind them, there isn’t motivation to resolve the freeloading issue.

As I write, I’ve come to understand my teacher-identity better. My brain loves perspective shifts – sudden openings-up that make the world bigger, more complicated, and more interesting. They delight me like nothing else. As a teacher, I’m realizing I love to help students change perspective. I love to change their minds about their understandings of themselves and the world. I love to change their minds about group work, too! Here’s how I would start the work of building trust with a group-work-hating student.

  • I don’t want my grade to suffer. Dr Randy Garrison recommends grading individual learners, and I agree. Shifting assessment to be more-process-and-less-product works too.
  • If I complain to the teacher, it will only make me look bad. I am so mad at a few of my past instructors in hindsight. One way to address this is by incorporating collaborative learning outcomes into the course design. This way, the instructor is on the hook to support students as they learn how to muck through group dynamics – and it also acknowledges that students aren’t experts yet.
  • I want to maintain a positive relationship with my classmates. While it’s hard to completely address this, the instructor can work to normalize conflict, and can require accountability checks as part of the group process. New groups can have a group member identity conversation to help align expectations early on: What grade are you aiming for? Do you feel comfortable leading? Do you like direct feedback, or do you prefer a feedback sandwich? What was the best group experience you ever had, and why? What was the worst?
    Another idea is to put students in groups with people they haven’t worked with yet.
  • The teacher is only assigning group work so they have less marking to do. Again, this can be resolved with purposeful course design. If collaboration is represented in learning outcomes, it should address this cynicism. Better yet, a good instructor should introduce the course purpose and learning outcomes at the onset, and be prepared to justify the relevance of any course activity if needed.
  • I don’t have the skills to confront my group member. Acknowledging that students aren’t experts, and giving them tools to choose from, can alleviate a lot of the pressure a conflict-adverse student is feeling. A great practice is for the teacher to facilitate a conversation early on, addressing students’ greatest group work fears. What will we do if one of our group members isn’t doing their fair share? What could we try if other group members aren’t listening to our ideas? What if we feel we don’t have anything valuable to contribute?
  • I’d rather do it on my own anyways. This one is hard, because you can’t really address it other than providing a great experience that will hopefully change their mind for future. By including collaboration in learning outcomes, and by assessing process, at least you can make sure they don’t get out of it. 🙂
    One thing I do with my students in a particularly emotionally taxing course – where they address a rapid group design challenge for the first time in their program – is I get them to write love letters to future students. Think back to when you first started this course, and you were feeling overwhelmed about what was ahead. What would you say to the next students, who are in the same spot? I then share the kind notes, full of support and advice. I believe it helps the most anxious students trust that it won’t be so bad!
The trouble with working in groups