There are several courses our Educational Science and Technology programmes where group work is common practice. One of the negative side effects of group work, is that some students contribute less to the group work than others. This embodies the possibility that a student passes a course, thanks to the knowledge, skills and attitude of the other group member(s). The student abuses in this way the other student(s). This is not desired. This text clarifies what this kind of study abuse is, and how you, as a student, can deal with such situations. In other words: How to prevent this kind of study abuse.

Definition of academic free riding

The side effect of group work is negative when a student – at the expense of group members – does not (sufficiently or very little) contribute to the group work while the student does profit from the positive grade of the group product or the group evaluation (‘contribution’ can be considered in this case as: time effort, knowledge and/or skills).

How to prevent this?

The teacher can prevent this kind of study abuse throughout the course in several ways, for example by:

  • providing clear assignments, which are sufficiently complex and attractive for the students
  • providing assignments with a clear defined project execution (including an explicit task division)
  • adding an individual assessment component, for example peer assessment in which students evaluate each other on certain aspects
  • warning students, in advance, that they may receive a lower grade than the group grade
  • planning several group meetings during the project to discuss about the group process

As a student, you can prevent this kind of study abuse for example by:

  • having clear division of tasks in a project group (and explicitly accounting this)
  • scheduling regular project meetings, in which this division of tasks is topic of discussion and in which you can call your group members to account

What are the possible consequences in case of this kind of study abuse?

  • You may develop insufficient skills to pass individual assignments during your further studies
  • The teacher may give you a new or additional assignment
  • Your grade may be lower than the grade of your group members.

In case you observe this kind of study abuse in your project group, what can you do?

  1. Make the academic free riding subject of discussion in your group.
    Use your own knowledge and skills in providing and receiving feedback.
  2. Confront each other with the agreements you had made
  3. In case of no improvement: contact the teacher timely

Note: this kind of abuse may also occur in other (non-study related) situations. It is important that you confront each other with this kind of behaviour. It is not easy to do so, but it is a very important skill which you also need during your professional career.