Vernon, J. (2008) Involuntary free riding - how status affects performance in a group project. Paper presented to: European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI)/Northumbria Assessment Conference, Berlin, Germany, 27-29 August 2008. Berlin, Germany: Breitfeld Vervielfältigungsservice,. 978-3-00-025471-0.
Many studies (Maguire and Edmondson 2001, Mills 2003, Gupta 2004, Greenan et al 1997), note the positive effects on learning which groupwork may engender, and others (Knight 2004, Hand 2001) discuss the existence of phenomena such as social loafing (Latané et al.,1979), free-riding (Albanese & Van Fleet, 1985) and the inequity of workload. The findings of Whyte (1943), Cottrell (1972), Webb (1992) and Ingleton (1995) show how the effects of group dynamics can have a positive or negative effect on the performance of group members. In this action research case study, we attempt to counter the negative effect that working in a group may have on the self-esteem and confidence of individuals, when they are teamed with students considerably more skilled than themselves. It focuses on a prolonged groupwork project, part of a Level 5 undergraduate course in Business Computing, which simulates a web development consultancy company, and involves team members taking on a variety of roles, in which they demonstrate different skills. As the project proceeds, it is noted that the status of individuals within the groups becomes polarised. The high status individuals have a strong sense of ownership, and a decreasing degree of trust in the work of others. Low-status members are inclined to defer to their team-mates and to draw back from expressing opinion in decision-making situations, or giving explanations of their own work. It is suggested in this paper that students who have every intention of contributing fully to the project, nevertheless, through these effects, find themselves in a position of being involuntary ‘free-riders’. In this research measures were introduced to support the groups and individuals, and to counter the negative effects noted. These actions took place around the middle of the period of the project, when in previous years there has been a lull in group activity, and problems have arisen. A facilitated session was arranged for the students, to bring issues of groupwork into the open, and develop strategies to improve group cohesion. Discussions followed from this and students were counselled individually to trace areas of difficulty. A formative assessment was introduced in the form of an individual presentation to the group, where each student explained their role and how they were carrying it out. Revisiting issues, after students have been able to experience them first-hand, resulted in a much more thoughtful response than when discussed early in the project. In addition the requirement to prove individual contribution brought about some task re-negotiation. Dominant members were seen to rein back in some aspects of the control they had exercised, while submissive members pushed themselves to take a lead on an important part of the project. Crucially, awareness of group dynamics had increased and was seen in less simplistic terms. The measures taken had the effect of alleviating the effects noted, supporting positive help-giving and knowledge transfer within the group, and allowing members to contribute more fully to the group task