Pushing the laziest student in class to work a little bit harder can be an infuriating task for lecturers.
However, where one-to-one mentoring and encouraging words have failed, peer pressure might just work, according to a study on how to motivate so-called “shirkers”.
Miguel Arevalillo-Herráez, lecturer at the University of Valencia’s computing department, set out to see if he could devise a method to target class slackers by focusing on students who contribute little to group-assessed projects, dubbed “free riders” because they gain decent marks thanks to the graft of other team members.
The issue needed to be tackled because “social loafing” can cause arguments among students as others are left feeling like “suckers” who do all the work, said Dr Arevalillo-Herráez, a former senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.
“Year after year, I observe a number of active students who push hard for their marks, and another group of more passive students who would try to get through on minimum effort,” he said.
“Academically ambitious students contribute to moving the average up – unenthusiastic students and shirkers do just the opposite,” he added.
Indeed, some hard-working students may even defect to “the dark side” of the slackers if they saw their classmates getting away with minimal effort, he continued. To combat this problem, students were offered the chance to gain a higher mark for their group assignment if they managed to raise the grade scored by the weakest student in individual tests on the same subject.
Those students who accepted the proposal did significantly better – both individually and collectively – than those not offered the deal because they worked as a team to improve the understanding of the weakest student, he writes in the latest edition of Innovations in Education and Teaching International.
When interviewed, weaker students said that they stopped slacking because they were afraid that their poor performance would damage their friendships with their team-mates if they brought down the team’s score, the paper says.
Students who gained the highest marks in individual tests said they also benefited from the scheme, tested on 18 groups of engineering undergraduates, because explaining concepts to team-mates helped to deepen their own understanding of a subject.
Social loafing needed to be acknowledged and tackled at university because many employers had been unimpressed by recent graduates who simply thought about “doing their hours at work”, Dr Arevalillo-Herráez said.