5 facts about groupwork that everyone needs to know

Groupwork is tricky.

On the one hand, literature suggests that groupwork can be very valuable for students. It provides opportunities for deep learning, social support and practicing collaboration. On the other hand, you probably know someone for whom groupwork was potentially ‘the worst’ learning experience at university.

This contradiction made me wonder: why is it that the wonderful promise of ‘enriching collaboration’ just does not happen for many students?

So I decided to look at the current literature, and here are some key points that I thought you may find interesting. 

  1. ideaFreeloader’ and ‘a sucker’ effects are real and well-documented in the literature (and, yes, the academic papers actually use these terms).

A ‘freeloader‘ is someone who takes a back seat during groupwork and does not contribute much, while a ‘sucker‘ is that hard-working student who ends up doing most of the work. Interestingly, with time, many hard-working students start withdrawing their efforts as they do not want to be taken advantage of.

tick Implication:

Educators need to expect freeloading and take active steps to prevent it (see below).

  1. ideaThere are a couple of conditions that encourage freeloading
  • Assigning the same mark to all group members
  • Not providing students with clear instructions

Many studies demonstrate that giving students the same mark for groupwork breeds freeloading. It just does. Some researchers explained it in terms of a game theory, some used social dynamics,  but, regardless of the exact mechanism, the implication is clear: students should get different marks for their groupwork. This is why our new Assessment Policy requires giving at least 50% of groupmark as an individual mark.

Interestingly, research suggests that it may be ambiguity, rather than ill will or laziness, that lead to freeloading. Some students do not pull their weight in groupwork because they do not understand what is required of them. Thus, clear instructions from educators, such as I expect you to …/ or do this and do not do that/ or even group contracts can significantly reduce the ‘freeloader’ effect.

tick Implications:

(i) Groupwork needs to include indlvidual mark and (ii) educators need to scaffold and explain what is required of students in groupwork.

  1. ideaSelf-fulfilling prophecy

Studies also show that students’ attitudes can shape their groupwork experience. If a student has a negative attitude towards groupwork (for example, they had a bad experience in the past), they are more likely to have a negative experience. Remedial work may need to be done with some students if we want to help them to benefit from groupwork.


It is important to acknowledge that some students will bring negative attitudes towards groupwork, and have clear strategies to address these negative attitudes.

  1. ideaGroup composition matters

Literature also suggests that group composition, or in other words, who is a part of a group, influences how well a group does. For example, when a group is comprised of diverse students (e.g. local and international students), this group is likely to take more time compared to a homogenous group, as they need to negotiate across cultural differences, etc.

At the same time, a diverse group is likely to outperform a homogeneous group in the long-term (e.g. 4 months and more), as group members bring different perspectives. Similarly, larger groups (over 6 people) are likely to be less productive than smaller groups.


We as educators need to be aware of different ‘composition’ effects on group productivity, especially when we mark groups and draw comparisons between groups. Diverse and large groups are likely to need more time.

  1. ideaShould students be able to select their groups?

Not according to research.

Literature suggests that it is more equitable to randomly assign students to groups rather than let students select their group members, as the latter practice often creates unfairness. Good students stick with good students, while struggling students are left ‘unwanted’. As a result, the weakest students learn the least. Simply put, the ‘rich are getting richer’, while the ‘poor are getting poor’.


It may be best to use random group allocation. To avoid potential student resentment, it may be worthwhile to highlight to students that in the future they will have to work with a variety of different people and explain that it is the reason why they are assigned to groups randomly.

summary Summary:

  • Freeloading is likely to take place if (i) students get the same mark; (ii) do not have clear instructions;
  • Some students have negative attitude towards groupwork , which, unless addressed, are likely to have a negative impact;
  • Random allocation and diverse groups seem to be the most fair (compared to letting students pick their own teams).

Stay tuned – I am already writing a post with practical ideas on how one can assign individual marks for groupwork.

Would you like to find out more? You may find these studies useful: 

Bacon, D. R. & Stewart, K. A. (1999) Learning from the best and worst student team experiences: how a teacher can make the difference , Journal of Management Education, 23(5), 467–489.

Barfield, R.L. (2003). Students’ perceptions of and satisfaction with group grades and the group experience in the college classroom. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28, 355 – 369.

Boud, D. & Falchikov, N. (1989) Quantitative studies of student self-assessment in higher education: a critical analysis of findings. Higher Education, 18, 5, 529-549.

Cheng, W. & Warren, M. (2000) Making a difference: using peers to assess individual students’ contributions to a group project. Teaching in Higher Education, 5, 2, 243-255.

Conway, R., Kember, D., Sivan, A. & Wu, M. (1993) Peer assessment of an individual’s contribution to a group project, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 19, 45–56.

Dennis, I., Newstead, S.E. & Wright, D.E. (1996) A new approach to exploring biases in educational assessment. British Journal of Psychology. 87,4, 515-534.

De Vita, G. (2002) Does assessed multi-cultural group work really pull UK students’ average down? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 27, 2, 153-161

Earl, S. E. (1986) Staff and peer assessment – measuring an individual’s contribution to group performance, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 11, 60–69.

Falchikov, N. (1986) Product comparisons and process benefits of collaborative peer group and self assessments. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. 11, 146-166.

Falchikov, N. (1988) Self and peer assessment of a group project designed to promote the skills of capability, Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, 25, 327–339.

Falchikov, N. (1995) Peer feedback marking: developing peer assessment. Innovations in Education & Training International, 32, 2, 175-187.

Falchokov, N. & Boud, D. (1989) Student self-assessment in higher education: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 59, 395-430.

Falchikov, N. & Goldfinch, J. (2000) Student peer-assessment in higher education: a meta-analysis comparing peer and teacher marks. Review of Educational Research, 70,3, 287-322.

Gatfield, T (1999). Examining student satisfaction with group projects and peer assessment. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 2, 365 – 377.

Goldfinch, J. (1994) Further developments in peer assessment of group projects, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 19, 29–35.

Goldfinch, J. & Raeside, R. (1990) Development of peer assessment technique for obtaining individual marks on a group project, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 15, 210– 225.

Houldsworth, C. & Matthews, P.B. (2000) Group composition, performance and educational attainment. Education and Training, 42, 1, 40-53.

Kerr, N. L., Bruun, S. E. (1983) Dispensability of member effort and group motivation losses: Freerider effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 44,1, 78-94.

Kirchmeyer, C. (1993) Multicultural task groups, Small Group Research, 24,1, 127-148.

Knight, J. (2004) Comparison of Student Perception and Performance in Individual and Group Assessments in Practical Classes. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 28,1, 63–81.

Lejk, M. & Wyvill, M. (2002) Peer assessment of contributions to a group project: student attitudes to holistic and category-based approaches. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 27,6, 569-577.

Lejk, M., Wyvill, M. & Farrow, S. (1996) A survey of methods for deriving individual grades from group assessments. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 21, 3, 267-280.

Li, L. K. Y. (2001) Some Refinements on Peer Assessment of Group Projects. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 26,1, 5-18.

Magin, D. (2001) Reciprocity as a source of bias in multiple peer assessment of group work. Studies in Higher Education, 26,1, 53 – 63.

Pitt, M.J. (2000) The application of game theory to group project assessment. Teaching in Higher Education, 5,2, 233-241.

Sharp, S. (2006) Deriving individual student marks from a tutor’s assessment of group work. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 31, 3, 329-3433.

Sherrard, W.R. & Raafat, F. (1994) An empirical study of peer bias in evaluations: students rating students. Journal of Education for Business, 70, 1, 43-48.





6 thoughts on “5 facts about groupwork that everyone needs to know”

  1. Thanks for a great article, Olga!

    If anyone is looking for Group Work resources for students, you can refer them to the StudyWISE section ‘Working in Groups’. FBE’s ‘BE Successful’ also has a good section on Team Work that includes a wide range of student resources.

  2. Thanks Olga, that’s very useful! I will direct the TIP and FiLT participants to this article – we were talking about group work in tutorials today at the L&T Induction session 🙂

    1. Thanks, Cathy. There will be a sequel with 4 practical approaches on how educators can assign individual marks for groupwork. Watch this space)

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