Free riding

Preventing Free Riding

Within the Business Information Technology Programme

Céline M.M. Heijnen, BSc.

University of Twente

Recently we have received signals from students that due to the fact many courses use collaborative group work students still have a lot of opportunities to free ride on the efforts of other group members. Since collaborative group work forms an essential part of the educational concept underlying the programme it is not possible to abolish this type of work form. However, one can prevent free riding by drawing attention to the problem and applying certain methods. This memo tries to do so.

From the perspective of the programme free riding is very undesirable as certain students do not attain the defined exit characteristics. Solving free riding problems costs a lot of time and energy. Therefore does prevention or early detection of free riding reduce annoyances.

In the past memos have been written on possibilities to prevent free riding or make it discussable. These memos contained best practices applied within the (Spil, 1999; Huijs, 2004). This memo builds on these earlier memos to point teachers to the causes of free riding and show some best practices to prevent free riding.


Literature Review

Why do we make use of collaborative groups? Working in groups is thought to significantly increase learning perceptions, problem solving skills, and help students achieve a higher level of learning than individual learning alone (Hiltz, Coppola, Rotter & Turoff, 1999). However, group work is more popular with teachers than with students (Mason, 1998). Group work presents a set of problems for students that include, but are not limited to, non-contributing group members: unequal workload, scheduling, and personal/social conflicts between group members (Becker & Dwyer, 1998).


Defining Free Riding

Within the literature three different concepts of withdrawing from group efforts: shirking, social loafing and free riding. According to Kidwell and Bennett (1993, p. 430); “The shared characteristic of shirking, social loafing, and free riding describes a person who provides less than maximum possible participation or effort due to motivation and circumstances. The difference among the concepts is the reason for, or in context in which, a lack of participation or a drop in effort occurs.”

Shirking is the tendency to withhold effort for various reasons (Alchian, & Demsets, 1972 in Kidwell & Bennett, 1993, p.430).

Social loafing takes place as a person moves from individual performance to performing in groups of increasing sizes (Kidwell & Bennett, 1993, p.430). Social loafing is the tendency to reduce individual effort when working in groups compared to the individual effort expended when working alone (Williams & Karay, 1991 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). The Ringelmann Effect describes that when the size of the team increases, the overall performance decreases (Kravitz & Martin, 1986 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).

Free riding can be considered a more opportunistic form of social loafing (Ruël, Bastiaans & Nauta, ????). Free riding is related to social loafing. Free riding occurs when an individual does not bear a proportional amount of work and yet shares the benefits of the group (Williams & Karay, 1991 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). Spil (1999) and Huijs (2004) have a similar definition as they define free riding as “not fully committed participating in a project or case study group, thereby taking advantage from the effort made by group members and the associated granted reward.”

Spil and Huijs distinguish between two types of free riders; those who do not want to cooperate and those who are not able to cooperate due to other obligations or lacking competences.


Causes of Free Riding

Antecedents associated with social loafing are task interdependence, task visibility, distributive perceptions, procedural justice, group size, group cohesiveness, perceived co-worker loafing, and group domination (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005);


Task interdependence: as students their work becomes more interdependent with work of another individual or group it becomes difficult to determine a sense of personal achievement. As people are intrinsically involved with a task, e.g. they perceive their task as of significance and meaningful, social loafing is lower (George, Mar. 1992). Similar, Wagner (1995, p.166) found that low shared responsibility, for example for attaining the group mark, is associated with grater cooperation in groups.


Task visibility: students working on collective tasks have a decreased self-awareness, resulting in less self-regulation (Mullen, 1983 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).


Distributive perceptions: the perception of a fair distribution of rewards and compensations. According to Murphy, Wane, Liden, and Erdogan (2003, in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005) individuals will choose to withhold effort because they believe that the benefits of social loafing outweigh the cost of their lack of participation. According to Albanese and Van Vleet (1985) the distinction between “public” and “private” goods is central to the free rider theory. They define a good as “anything tangible or intangible that satisfies and individual’s needs or desires”. If a received share is perceived to be relatively too small to elicit public good contributions for a 50-member group even though the total amount of public good received is bigger than in a 5-member group.


Procedural justice: the perceived fairness of the procedures that surround distributive justice (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).


Group size: First of all, average productivity is correlated to group size (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005; Chidambaram & Tung, 2005; Albanese & Van Vleet, 1985, p.253; Wagner, 1995, p.166). Second, individuals believe they are not making much of a difference, are less effective and their contribution is less visible. Third, large groups make it difficult to assess individual contributions (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). According to Albanese and Van Vleet (1985, p.246) group size influences the antecedents task interdependence, task visibility, and distributive perceptions.


Group cohesiveness: the ability of a group to bond as a whole. Groups with a feeling of cohesiveness (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).


Perceived co-worker loafing: the extent that group members believe other group members are engaging in social loafing (Comer, 1995 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). According to Mulvey and Klein (1998 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005) group members will base their actions on perceived actions of fellow group members, regardless if these actions are actually occurring or not. As a result the other group members can be de-motivated as well, resulting in an overall lower team performance (Plaks & Higgins, 2000 in Piezon & Donaldson, 2005; Ruël et al., ????, p.3; Albanese & Van Vleet, 1985, p.252).

The act of group members carrying a free rider or social loafer has been termed playing “the sucker role”. Avoiding playing the sucker role by reducing one’s individual effort has been termed “the sucker effect”


Group domination: less assertive group member might feel intimidated and are more likely to engage in social loafing.

According to Spil and Huijs (2004) a lack of prerequisite knowledge can be a cause of free riding as well. This antecedent can be considered to be of influence on the group of students who are “not able” to participate. The remainder of this paper will solely focus on the group of students who “do not want” to participate.


How to Prevent or Mitigate Free Riding

In the past years the free riding problem has received quite some attention. Within the Business Information Technology programme several interventions have been implemented; participation in fixed project groups in a combination of courses is abolished, further students cannot longer compensate a weak individual mark with the mark the groups received as a whole (Huijs, 2004). Other possible methods for preventing free-riding can be categorised under assessment, culture, group size, peer review, self-evaluation and supervision. Appendix I portrays several general teaching methods that can be applied to mitigate the factors mentioned by Piezon and Donaldson (2005) and others;

Task interdependence, task visibility and group domination can be improved by assigning and clarifying roles and responsibilities. This way the student’s individual contribution becomes clear and the student becomes more self-aware and gets a sense of personal contribution to the project (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). Instead of differentiating roles Spil (1999) proposes to develop parallel assignments for each member of the group. However, the cohesiveness of the group might be lowered by this method. The two best practices described in section 1.2 give examples of how students can evaluate each other and give each other opportunities to improve ones performance.

Task visibility can be further improved by implementing multiple evaluation points (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005) which can include peer review and self-evaluation (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005; Spil, 1999). Appendix II contains a form from Delhoofden (1996) that can be used for peer review and self-evaluation of students. Group members that are found out to be free riding can be given opportunities to increase their performance (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). Second, supervision can further improve task visibility by letting groups maintain a weekly log (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). Within this log, for example a lab journal, students can report about their individual contributions (Spil, 1999).

The distributive perceptions and fairness of procedural justice can be improved by adding individual milestones that constitute a portion of an individual’s grade (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005) and assigning individual grades to group members. The individual grade can be arrived at by a combination of the group grade, a grade for individual contribution, a grade for group meetings attendance and participation, and a grade for the ability to meet scheduled individual submission requirements (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005; Spil, 1999).

Smaller group sizes can mitigate social loafing as well. However opinions differ about the optimum size of a group. According to Piezon and Donaldson (2005) the optimal size is five to six students. According to Spill (1999) two to three. Small groups make contributions of individual students more visible and identifiable, giving them a grater sense of the importance of their contribution. Student assistants, student councillors or tutors can help to observe attendance and behaviour of individual students.

Group cohesiveness can be improved by establishing a culture in which group discussions about topics like free riding are possible (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). According to Huijs (2004) students carry a big responsibility in preventing or mitigating free riding by making it discussable. However, teachers need to control and respond to signals of free riding as well. Further, group cohesiveness can be further strengthened by rotating group roles, requiring high levels of individual accountability, ensuring that individuals receive meaningful and immediate feedback, providing performance data for comparison with other groups, and providing rewards for group performance (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).


Best Practices

Next to these general methods several methods have been developed that specifically aim at preventing free riding.


The Card System

For the course Human-Computer Interaction Design a card system has been developed. Teams get a yellow, red and green card which they can hand out to their team members.

The yellow card can be handed out to students who do not sufficiently contribute to the work of the team. This card can be handed out if the majority of the team members feel a team member is not contributing sufficiently. Possible reasons to hand out a yellow card are;


The students is absent at meetings without a reason;


The student produces low quality output;


The student does not keep to the schedule.

The yellow card can be handed out three times to the same student. The consequence of the first yellow card is that a student is deducted 1 grade from the group grade. For the second time another grade is deducted from the group grade. The third yellow card is turned into a red card which means the student is excluded from the project. A yellow card has to be reported to the teacher. A yellow card can also be withdrawn in case a student has put extra effort into the project. Also withdrawing a yellow card has to be reported to the teacher. Students who feel they have been wrongfully handed out a yellow card can turn to the teacher.

When handing in the final report the team can decide to hand out a green card to maximal one student who has put extra effort into the project. The green card awards this student with 1 extra grade upon the group grade (unless the group has received the maximum grade of a 10) (De Jong, 2004).


World Series Shares

A similar method to the card system is the Knickrehm Method, suggested by the political science professor Kay Knickrehm. Students are asked to evaluate each member of their group (not themselves) and distribute a set number of points (shares) to group members in confidential balloting. They are asked not to discuss their evaluations. The share awards are described as follows (Maranto & Gresham, Dec. 1998, p.789):


Contributed little or nothing.


Contributed some, but significantly less than their share.


Did a good, solid job, a fair share.


Contributed significantly more than their fair share.


Did most of the work on this project.

Any additional shares awarded above the normal two-per-member must come at the expense of other group members. Additionally students are told that, in determining the group’s division of labour, they should consider the differences in abilities and skills of their team members (pp. 789-790).

Those with fewer skills need not contribute less; instead they can master new skills or take on data coding and other simple but time-consuming tasks required for the project.

The following letter grades are gained or lost for the following average shares;

Average share Gain/Loss in letter grade

<1.00 - 1.5

1.00 - 1.49 - 0.8

1.5 - 0.4

2.0 0

2.5 + 0.4

2.50 - 3.00 + 0.8

>3.00 + 1.5

It is suggested the method works better in small than large classes. The method is most easily used in a setting characterised by trust. If trust is lacking the method can be particularly important in building group interaction skills which students need after graduation (p.791).



From the recommended interventions one can conclude visibility and distinguishability of individual performance, and establishing a culture of openness and cooperation are central to preventing and mitigating free rider tendencies. First, making contributions of individual students to group work more visible and distinguished from the contributions of team members to students themselves and their group members is central to preventing or mitigating free riding as students become aware of the value of their contribution. Interventions that can lead to visibility and distinguished individual’s performance are;


Assigning and clarifying roles and responsibilities;


Smaller group sizes;


Adding individual milestones, accountability and grading as portion of the individual grading;


Implementing multiple evaluation and feedback points, including self-evaluation;


Notice and reinforce desirable behaviour within evaluations and feedback.

Also a culture has to be established in which students address each other about their free riding behaviour. Teachers emphasising the importance of such a culture and offering tools;


Emphasise that team work is a prerequisite to accomplishing goals;


Encourage discussions;


Including peer review as a type of evaluation;


Offering free riding group members several opportunities to increase their performance throughout the project;


Provide performance data for comparison with other groups;


Notice and reinforce desirable behaviour within evaluations, feedback and by rewarding: e.g. reward group performance.



Albanese, R., & Van Fleet, D.D. (Apr. 1985). Rational Behavior in Groups: The Free-Riding Tendency. The Academy of Management Review, 10(2), pp.244-255. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from JSTOR.

Chidambaram, L., & Tung, L.L. (June 2005). Is Out of Sight, Out of Mind? An Emperical Study of Social Loafing in Technology-Supported Groups. Information Systems Research, 16(2), 149-168. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from Informs.

Deelhoofden, P. (1996). De student centraal. Groningen: Wolters Noordhof.

De Jong, F. (2004). Gele, rode en groene kaarten. Enschede, Universiteit Twente.

George, J.M. (Mar. 1992). Extrinsic and Intrinsic Origins of Perceived Social Loafing in Organization. The Academy of Management Journal, 35(1), pp. 191-202. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from JSTOR.

Huijs, C., & Spill, A. (April 2004). Notitie meeliften: versie 3. Enschede: University of Twente.

Kidwell, R.E. Jr., & Bennett, N. (1993). Employee Propensity to Withhold Effort: A Conceptual Model to Intersect Three Avenues of Research. Academy of Management Review, 18(3), pp. 429-456. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from JSTOR.

Maranto, R., & Gresham, A. (Dec. 1998). Using “World Series Shares” to fight Free Riding in Group Projects. Political Science and Politics, 31(4), pp. 789-791. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from JSTOR.

Piezon, L.S., & Donaldson, R.L. (2005). Online Groups and Social Loafing: Understanding Student-Group Interactions. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(5). Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from JSTOR.

Ruël, G.C., Bastiaans, N., & Nauta, A. (????). Free-riding and team performance in project education. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from

Wagner III, J.A. (Feb. 1995). Studies of Individualism-Collectivism: Effects on Cooperation in Groups. The Academy of Management Journal, 38(1), pp. 152-172. Retrieved on June 23rd 2008, from JSTOR.

Appendix I

Methods to Mitigate Free Riding


Task interdependence

Task visibility

distributive perceptions

procedural justice

group size

group cohesiveness

Perceived co-worker Loafing

group domination


Clarifying roles and responsibilities

Clarifying roles and responsibilities



Making tasks more identifiable

Rotate group roles


Assigning group roles


Emphasise that group members must share and understanding that teamwork is a prerequisite for accomplishing the end goals of the team.





Encourage group discussions



Group size





Smaller group sizes; optimal size is 5





Task interdependence

Task visibility

distributive perceptions

procedural justice

group size

group cohesiveness

Perceived co-worker Loafing

group domination



Multiple evaluation points and specific evaluation criteria.


Peer review


Self evaluation

Noticing and reinforcing desirable behaviour is more effective than deterring social loafing (George, 1995).



Require high levels of individual accountability.





Group members who are performing poorly are given several opportunities to increase their performance throughout the group

Adding individual milestones that constitute a portion of an individual’s grade



Provide performance data for comparison with other groups




Task interdependence

Task visibility

distributive perceptions

procedural justice

group size

group cohesiveness

Perceived co-worker Loafing

group domination



Process supervision: Let groups maintain a weekly log

Including group participation as a portion of an individual’s grade



Ensure individuals receive meaningful and immediate feedback






Utilising a combined grading system of group, peer assessment and individual grades.

Assigning individual grades to group members. Combination of:


Group grade


Individual contribution


Group meetings attendance


The ability to meet scheduled individual submission requirements


Provide rewards for group performance