Individual and Group Accountability: Promoting equitable contribution and reducing free riding
  • The benefits of group work are increased when groups are structured to include task interdependence and individual accountability. Task interdependence refers to the degree to which group members must work together to complete the assigned task. For optimal group benefit, tasks should not be able to be completed by just one or two group members, but rather require contributions from all group members. This task interdependence requires the communication and coordination of group members. In addition, individual accountability, the understanding that group members will be responsible for the work they specifically contribute, reduces social free-riding in group settings and encourages members to contribute.
  • To promote both accountability and autonomy, instructors should create milestones and deadlines for groups but also provide time for the students to expressly assign duties and roles to meet those deadlines.

Gillies RM (2013). Structuring Cooperative Group Work in Classrooms. International Journal of Educational Research, 39, 35-49. The author provides an overview of five studies to demonstrate the importance of explicitly structuring small-group work in the classroom. The studies compared structured and unstructured groups, with the structured groups including included task interdependence, individual accountability, promoting others’ learning, and training students in small-group skills. Videotapes of group work were coded student behaviors, verbal interactions, and, in some cases, cognitive language strategies. Students in structured groups exhibited more cooperative behaviors, were less likely to work independently of the group, and demonstrated more instances of helping their peers.

Harkins SG, Jackson JM (1985). The role of evaluation in eliminating social loafing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 11, 457-465. Social loafing is thought to arise from the lack of distinguishability between each individual’s outputs in group work. The authors used microphones to capture individual outputs for group members during a brainstorming activity. They found that when participants knew there was potential for evaluation of individual outputs, not identification alone, students were more motivated. When participants thought their outputs were being evaluated against other participants, they  generated more outputs than those who did not believe they were being evaluated. The authors suggest that the potential for evaluation may dissuade social loafing in group work situations.

Strong JT, Anderson RE (1990). Free-riding in group projects: Control mechanisms and preliminary data. Journal of Marketing Education, 12, 61-67. The authors suggest that free-riding , or social loafing, is influenced by the task characteristics, identifiability of individual’s contributions, group size, and rewards and punishment. The authors review the literature to provide fifteen recommendations for reducing free-riding, including providing mechanisms for group members to evaluate each others’ performance. In addition, preliminary data on student perceptions suggests that group cohesiveness and group size are highly effective methods of reducing free-riding.

Slavin RE (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69. Slavin discusses his four theoretical perspectives that explain the achievement effects of cooperative learning. The four perspectives include motivation, social cohesion, cognitive, and developmental perspectives. Slavin also suggests that group goals and individual accountability are necessary for cooperative learning to result in achievement gains.

Reward Structure
  • Unstructured group work where students are expected to work together but are given few incentives to do so has been repeatedly shown to have little or no effect on learning.
  • Slavin (2014) has hypothesized that placing students in situations in which success on a task depends on success for all members of the group increases students’ motivation to learn and encourages students to help others learn. Motivation to succeed leads to greater learning directly and indirectly through change in behaviors so that students provide more elaborated explanations and modeling. Development of group cohesion then acts to reinforce and enhance task motivation.
  • Rewards can consist of shared grades where individual students earn a final grade that relies on scores earned by their team members on a test or assignment, to certificates of recognition that students can earn if their average team scores on quizzes or other individual assignments exceed a pre-established criterion.

O‘Donnell A M (1996). Effects of explicit incentives on scripted and unscripted cooperation. Journal of Educational Psychology 88, 74-86. This research study with 86 undergraduates occurred in a simulated laboratory setting in two phases. In the first phase, student pairs worked to learn a text, with no extra bonus available or with an extra bonus if both students in the pair performed well. Students with the opportunity to earn a bonus showed greater motivation and achievement. In the second phase that occurred one week later, rewards were not explicitly offered. However, participants who had been offered a reward in the first phase significantly outperformed the never-rewarded participants in the second phase. In addition to manipulating incentives as a way to structure outcome interdependence, the author manipulated means interdependence by providing some groups with cooperation scripts, which appeared to have little effect in these experiments.

Sears DA, Pai H-H (2012). Effects of cooperative versus individual study on learning and motivation after reward-removal. The Journal of Experimental Education, 80(3), 246-262. In this study with 40 undergraduates in a simulated laboratory setting, the authors assigned students to one of four conditions split by two factors: reward (yes or no) and grouping (individual vs. dyad.) They found that rewards were a crucial factors affecting recall and motivation. Their study showed that groups continued to work even after the reward was removed, whereas the efforts of students working individually decreased after the reward was removed.

Watson SB, Marshall JE (1995). Effects of cooperative incentives and heterogeneous arrangement on achievement and interaction of cooperative learning groups in a college life science course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 291-299. The authors investigated the role of heterogeneous grouping and cooperative incentives in determining student achievement and cooperative interactions in group work. They manipulated these variables for 109 students three introductory life science classes, measuring individual student achievement using a previously constructed multiple choice assessment and measuring cooperative interactions through observation. They found no significant difference in heterogeneous vs. homogenous groups. They also found no difference for groups with and without cooperative incentives.

Brewer S, Klein JD (2006). Type of positive interdependence and affiliation motive in an asynchronous, collaborative learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(4), 331-354. These authors examined 289 undergraduate business majors enrolled in 47 course sections. Students worked together in small, fully online discussion groups that lasted for seven days. Although they found no significant differences in achievement gains, students in groups with assigned roles and rewards interacted significantly more frequently than students in groups with just rewards or students in groups without structured interdependence factors. Students given rewards felt that they benefited from working with others and that they generated better ideas as a group than they could have done as individuals. These same students also felt a greater concern for their teammate’s success.

Serrano, J. M., & Pons, R. M. (2007). Cooperative learning: We can also do it without task structure. Intercultural Education, 18(3), 215-230. In this observational study, the authors examined learning approaches used and achievement for 5th year students taking a course in instructional psychology that utilized intra- and inter-group motivational rewards the students negotiated. In the intra-group reward block, groups had to develop their own work plan to master all content to prepare for the test in which their final grade depended only on 30% from their own individual score and 70% from the mean score obtained by their group. In another block, inter-group cooperation was encouraged, so that teams would receive a 10% bonus only if 10 groups achieved over 60%. Both groups exhibited high levels of positive interdependence, helping behavior, communication, and deep learning approaches.

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Cite this guide: Wilson KJ, Brickman P, Brame CJ. (2017) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Group Work. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from
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