Group Work and Social Loafing

The theory: group work should always be beneficial because, logically, students should be able to achieve more collectively than they would be able to do so alone.  Makes sense, right?  So why doesn’t it always work out that way?  Well, this is where the Ringelmann effect comes in…

The Ringelmann effect is the tendency for the overall productivity of a group to decrease as its size increases. Max Ringelmann demonstrated this effect in action through studying the work rate of competitors in a tug-of-war.  He observed that individual members of a team pulling the rope tended to put in less effort when they were part of a larger group, compared to when they were part of a smaller one.  Ringelmann largely attributed this reduction in productivity to a phenomenon that psychologists now define as social loafing.  In large groups, individuals are less conspicuous – this means that levels of input towards a common goal are harder to measure.  Where this is the case, it’s easier for members to contribute less (or to opt out all together) without drawing attention to themselves.

In schools, where groups are formed and tasks are set, social loafing occurs for a dizzyingly wide range of reasons.  Often, for example, some students in a mixed ability group will lack the subject knowledge necessary to engage fully with the tasks set – meaning that other students will contribute more than they should in order to compensate.  And, of course, some students – for reasons unbeknown to me – occasionally decide that the high drama of the weekend before is a more worthy topic of discussion than, say, the presentation of Arthur Birling in An Inspector Calls.  And let’s not forget that sometimes, just at that moment when you want students to keep talking, they go totally mute and a heavy silence falls because they just don’t have anything more to say.  I won’t go on, but you get the idea: group work is hard to do well.

In his post on cold calling, Doug Lemov writes about the importance of positive accountability.  He argues that students should always be ready to share their thoughts and participate.  This has clear implications for group work: it’s vital that all students are – Lemov’s words again – part of the conversation.  In terms of how to help ensure that this actually happens, my own view is that there needs to be a shift away from the generation of ideas in group work to the evaluation of them.  Clearly, for this to take place successfully, it’s necessary for students to first possess a reasonable amount of subject knowledge – as James Theobald highlights in his post here.  Evaluating literature is a tricky business.  Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the least successful group work that I’ve clumsily presided over as a teacher has usually involved uninformed, albeit it mostly well-intentioned, guesswork on a new or unfamiliar topic.  Conversely, the best has tended to involve the informed connection and refinement of ideas.  The point I’m trying to make is that group work should rarely be a starting point: it should be something kept in reserve for later on.  And before groups are constructed, students should be required to form their own views first.  Where this is the case, and each individual has something to bring to the table, the sense of greater collective involvement should result in a more equitable division of labour and, ultimately, better outcomes.  It’s no quick-fix to the problem of social loafing, but I guess it might be a start…

Thanks for reading –



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