Laziness and Apathy Are Not the Only Reasons Students Don’t Pull Their Weight in Groups

Faculty and students are equally concerned about and frustrated with students who don’t do their fair share of work in groups. For faculty, it’s a concern that prevents them from using group work. With five, 10, or maybe even 20 different groups working on a project, faculty can’t possibly know what’s going on in every group. And students often don’t report that somebody didn’t do the work until the project has been submitted. At that point it’s too late to do anything that might address the issue, which leaves the teacher to figure out if it’s fair to penalize the free rider based on secondhand information.

For students, this is one the most frustrating parts of group work, as indicated by comments made in response to open-ended survey questions, the results of which were published in the article referenced below. The cohort included students from a range of different disciplines, and the majority of them saw the problem of social loafers or free riders (as they are labeled in other research) as one of apathy and laziness. These are fellow group members who don’t want to do the work. They are happy to let others do it for them. Beyond the frustration of dealing with noncontributing members, when everyone in the group gets the same grade, it’s inherently unfair.

Some students are indeed lazy and don’t do the work they should in groups, but Hall and Buzwell (authors of the article referenced below) don’t believe that all noncontributors should be pegged as lazy and apathetic. They think there are other reasons why students might not be contributing in groups. In their particularly well-referenced article they draw some of these reasons from other articles and research on the topic. For example, some students may hold back in groups because they feel inadequate or incompetent to complete the task. That can be especially true of international students or students for whom English is not their first language.

In some groups it can be risky to show other members that you don’t know or aren’t very confident about what you are doing. Highly motivated, grade-oriented group members may be quick to judge the capabilities of others. They come to groups believing that most of their fellow classmates are not as competent as they are and can’t be depended on to deliver work that will merit the high grades they’re after. These very capable students further diminish the confidence of other members by not soliciting their input, by not listening or seriously considering their comments, and by redoing what work they do submit. When a group responds to a student’s efforts this way, the student may reasonably decide that he or she has nothing to contribute.

Groups need bright, capable members, but in any group—whether that’s a group of students working in a classroom or a group of professionals—members will have a range of skills and abilities. Ignoring what others can potentially contribute to the group effort robs the group of one of its main benefits; two, three, five, six heads can come up with more ideas, more information, and more answers than one head. Besides, when students graduate and are assigned tasks in professional situations, they will find themselves facing tasks that they cannot possibly complete on their own. They must learn how to encourage contributions from all members so that the group benefits from the different skills, abilities, and background experiences of all its members.

Teachers can help students learn this important lesson by devoting some time and energy to explaining that groups do better work than individuals because they can do more work and they have more resources at their disposal. Teachers can also help by designing tasks that can’t be done by one or two persons. That doesn’t necessarily mean making the tasks larger; it might be that the task is already partitioned and grades are determined by those individual contributions and by the whole group product.

Despite the best efforts of teachers and students, some students still won’t carry their weight in groups. It’s a fact of life—whether those are student, professional, or family groups. But teachers and group members have the obligation to encourage contributions from everyone. It isn’t fair to assume that members are lazy without giving them a chance to contribute and to have their contributions taken seriously.


Hall, D. and Buzwell, S. (2013). The problem of free-riding in group projects: Looking beyond social loafing as reason for non-contribution. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14 (1), 37-49.

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