Preventing free-riding

By: Céline Heijnen and Riet Martens

After completing their education, students often get jobs in which the ability to cooperate effectively is an important skill. For this reason, we regularly give students the opportunity to cooperate on group assignments during their course of study. The aim of group assignments is for students to actively solve an issue (related to professional practice) while taking shared responsibility for the process. A major part of this involves exchanging and compiling knowledge to find solutions. “Free-riding” behaviour is occasionally detected in group assignments. This involves students who show little commitment, who do less work than others and who fail to fulfil agreements at the expense of the group product and of the group process. If the final product is subject to a group assessment, this gives free riders an undeserved “advantage”.

While free-riding behaviour among students is prohibited, individuals may occasionally lack intrinsic motivation, or it may be that extra-curricular activities are taking up too much of their time. In such cases, students will want to gain credits for purely “material” reasons. Free-riding behaviour can be viewed as a form of plagiarism. Accordingly, you should report any cases that you encounter to the examination board. A better course of action, however, is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. You can minimize the likelihood while the assignment is still in the design stage.

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Avoid large groups: the risk of free-riding in a group of eight students is greater than in a group of three individuals.

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Make sure that the amount of work required is adequate. If a project involving six participants can actually be completed by just two individuals then there is an increased risk of free-riding. Accordingly, ensure that an assignment can only be completed if all members of the group contribute.

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Ask the group to produce a clear plan and to document the division of labour. Get the students to prepare a professional plan, including a plan of action, intermediate results, deadlines, and an indication of who is responsible for what (the group is collectively responsible for the assignment as a whole, but individual students may be given primary responsibility for specific areas). In the first year, you can make suggestions about how tasks can be divided between group members, and indicate the interim results that you expect.

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Get the groups to use a virtual office for the purposes of the assignment. This can be done partly in Blackboard, or through Google docs. As a supervisor, you can monitor progress here, including details of who adds what contributions, and when.

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In the context of supervision, try to ask active questions. Rather than addressing every question to the group as a whole, switch to individuals from time to time. This will enable you, as a supervisor, to check that everyone understands the assignment.

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During the process, ask the students to assess one another on certain aspects, such as the contributions made by each individual to the process (peer review). Discuss the outcomes of the supervisory sessions. You can also discuss individual contributions on the basis of a schedule drawn up by the students themselves.

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Individual performances should also be tested. In parallel with a project assignment, you can also set a small test to check that the students have studied their subject matter.

Sources:

- Kinkhorst, G. (2001). Tien tips om meeliften te voorkomen (Ten tips to prevent free-riding). In: HBO-Journaal, November, 34-35

- Heijnen: Free riding

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