Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer who teaches professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.
Nearly everyone who has ever worked on a team has a story about having to carry a low-participating member of the group. This is called social loafing. But as instructors, we know the value of teamwork, which is why we keep assigning it. As difficult as we know teamwork can be, we can help our students have more positive experiences by providing the support they need to encourage their classmates to pull their fair share, and by playing a more active role in the teamwork process.
My colleagues and I teach an assignment that requires groups of five students to create a business plan for a product or service. It comprises a major part of the students’ grade (35%) and is a quarter-long project. Needless to say, social loafing (the students call it “slacking”) is frequently a factor. Over the years, the group of instructors who taught this class and assignment came up with a variety of strategies to encourage full participation and discourage social loafing. See if any of these appeal to you.
Sell teamwork before students work on the assignment.
While we know why collaborating is important, students may not. Emphasize how many work situations require teamwork. Explain to the class that once the team has worked on the current project, they can talk about this experience when interviewing for jobs. Whatever takeaway students have will be valuable fodder for discussion with a potential employer.
Require all team members to sign a contract.
Many of my colleagues have used a contract that spelled out what would happen if a student failed to pony up. This included participating in meetings instead of remaining passive; attending all meetings outside of class; meeting deadlines set by the group; being a trustworthy teammate. Of course, students’ signatures alone were not enough to give teeth to the contract. We had another strategy we used in conjunction with the contract. See below.
Have members rate the other members of their team.
At the end of the project, we also had each team member complete a rating form that essentially forced the student to grade each of the teammates on the above criteria. Then, in a confidential letter to the instructor, the students wrote about any standout behavior, positive or negative, providing examples. The instructor used the letter to better understand the team dynamics and adjust any social loafers’ grades accordingly. We made this policy clear from the first day of class.
Allow a team to “fire” a non-producer.
One of the sticks my colleagues and I used was the potential of allowing a team to fire a loafer from the group. I had an alternative assignment the student would be required to complete to pass the course: a 10-page paper on the importance of collaboration in the workplace, with a minimum of ten cited sources. I never had to use it.
Consider grading the group project two ways.
When teaching the business plan, we assigned a portion of the project a group grade, but we also separately graded the portions of the plan each student wrote separately. If you can grade this way, at least the social loafer’s grade will suffer, a motivator for many students.
You can also offer students pointers about how to deal with low performers, such as:
- Find out why the student is not performing. It’s possible the problem team member feels inadequate for the job or is experiencing extenuating circumstances. In this case the team may be able reassign some tasks or rework deadlines.
- Remind the loafer(s) the team is depending on their work. Their behavior affects the whole group, not just the individual. This pressure can help push social loafers to put in some effort.
- Coach the non-performer. When a team experiences a poor performance from one of its members, one team member or group leader should prompt the weak link with non-accusatory criticism and specific directions for improvement.
- Keep communication flowing. Sometimes poor performance is a result of unclear expectations. Groups should make sure each member knows what must be done and by when.
- Elect a team leader. One person, chosen by the entire group, should keep track of the overall project and point out problems before it’s too late. This individual can be the go-between and deliverer of the non-producing news rather than having the entire team attack the social loafer.
- Bring in the professor. If all else fails, contact the professor and ask for assistance.
We know our students will face the problem of social loafing throughout their work and personal lives, which is why assigning team projects is so critical to their development. With a little finessing, student teams can learn valuable lessons about how to work with others that will last a lifetime.
For peer tips on reaching the unreachable student, check out Professor Sandy Keeter’s Fall 2020 Empowered Educator recording.
 Wolfe, J. (Dec. 2015). Strategies for dealing with slacker and underperforming teammates in class projects.