How to Avoid the Free Rider Problem in Teams

There’s always a team member that doesn’t pull their weight. In economics this is called a free rider problem—people who benefit from resources they don’t pay for.

Wharton professor and author of Originals Adam Grant (building on an old meta analysis by Karau and Williams) identified a series of factors that encourage people to contribute their fair share.

  1. Make the task more meaningful. People often slack off when they don’t feel that the task matters. When they recognize the importance of their efforts, they tend to work harder and smarter.
  2. Show them what their peers are doing. Sometimes people simply don’t realize that they’re doing less than the norm.
  3. Shrink the group. When working in a large team, it’s easy to question whether individual efforts really matter.
  4. Assign unique responsibilities. Many groups balloon in size because people are trying to be polite—they want to include everyone and offend no one.
  5. Make individual inputs visible. When it’s impossible to see who’s doing what, people can hide in the crowd.
  6. Build a stronger relationship. If it’s challenging to change the task or the results, it may be time to work on the relationship. People don’t worry much about letting down strangers and acquaintances, but they feel guilty about leaving their friends in the lurch.
  7. If all else fails, ask for advice. Sometimes it’s useful to go right to the source. What if you approached a slacker and said the following? “I’m trying to get some members of this team to contribute more, and I wanted to seek your guidance on how to do that.”
When thinking about building a team, the HR Council says it’s important to think about the team needs (building and maintaining of the team), the task needs (getting the project done), and individual needs. They suggest establishing group norms that everyone feels comfortable with, affirming the importance of keeping commitments made to the group, and holding group members accountable.
Free Riders at Schools
The free rider problem at school starts early—as soon as teachers assign group projects. It’s frequent enough that a national foundation executive said, “I don’t support project-based learning because of the free rider problem.”
When there is evidence of a free rider, it’s important to diagnose the problem. John Larmer, Buck Institute, said step one is to “find out why this is happening; don’t assume a student is being lazy or is at fault—maybe the team isn’t organized well, or one person is dominating and doing too much; perhaps the student has language issues or lacks necessary skills.” Lower than expected contribution could be a function of a lack of skill, a lack of interest, or a lack of psychological safety on the team. Understanding the nature of the contribution problem can help identify the right solution—academic intervention, updated team norms, or a pep talk.
Buck Institute suggests, “When creating project teams, four is often the best number. Groups of five may spread the work too thin. But groups of three can work also.” They suggest teachers should set up heterogeneous groups strategically so they have the support they need to be successful. For example, “you want to make sure that any students who are still learning English have someone who speaks their language in their group.”
Larmer also suggests when forming teams, do not put best friends together who may not be able to tell each other to step it up.

To ensure individual accountability while creating team-based products, the Buck PBL 101 Workshop suggests:

  • giving students organizers or forms for planning their tasks and dividing up the workload;
  • structuring tasks so each student contributes;
  • observing and collect reports on who did what work;
  • having students assess themselves and their peers on how much they did; and
  • giving more weight to individual work than team-created products.

To help ensure individual accountability in team presentations:

  • require shared presentation duties;
  • question each individual (about any part of presentation); and
  • if you want to get tough, tell them any student may be asked to do any part of presentation.

To help students work well in teams, Buck suggests teachers:

  • Discuss teamwork with students, drawing from their past experience, noting what can go wrong & what it looks like when it goes well;
  • Develop clear criteria for team work: use a collaboration rubric, contracts, set of expectations and norms;
  • Practice collaboration skills before and during a project (e.g., use role-plays, team-building activities, have them practice on short tasks);
  • Give students organizers (like those in the “Useful Stuff” section of the PBL Starter Kit and PBL in the Elementary Grades) so they can plan their time & tasks, divide the workload, and establish plans for communication and meetings;
  • Teach students conflict resolution skills and decision-making strategies;
  • Have students self-assess and reflect on collaboration skills at checkpoints; and
  • For secondary students make classroom culture like a workplace including hiring and firing policies (“fired” students must complete the project on their own) and entry and exit plans (if students come or go).
Tracking Progress
EL Education supports a national network of project based schools. CAO Ron Berger encourages continuous assessment in a project-based environment. He notes that many teachers consider the final product to be a sufficient form of assessment, but Berger says, “If the teacher isn’t assessing all along the way then the final product will not typically show the high quality of success.”
Waiting until the end of the project can also mean overlooking serious team dysfunction and a student that, for one of several reasons, isn’t making an adequate contribution.
Ron suggests building in smaller assessments, in some cases on demand assessments, at multiple times before the final project, “Don’t wait; check along the way.” Several checks give the teacher a sense of individual student levels of understanding throughout the project.
Larmer suggests requiring each student to do specific tasks when working on a team product and have checkpoints to be sure this is happening.
Next generation school models combine personalized and project-based learning yielding a frequent measures of growth and achievement—both automated and teacher observed—which can help spot problems that may detract from team contributions.
Sink or Swim
At the Katherine Smith School in San Jose a project called “Sink or Float” challenged fifth graders to design and sail a cardboard boat that would hold a three-person team. Students were asked to use concepts of area, perimeter, volume, mass, density, water displacement and buoyancy to engineer a boat, made out of only cardboard and packing tape, that would hold three student crew members.
Principal Aaron Brengard said, “It was project-based learning at its finest–a challenging problem, a public product, authentic application of knowledge and, of course, collaboration.”
Katherine Smith, a member of the project-based New Tech Network, has a mission to prepare students to think, learn, work, communicate, collaborate, and contribute. Of these six habits of success, “collaboration is one that drives our innovation and pushes work to a higher quality,” said Brengard.
Here is the Katherine Smith definition: “Collaborate constructively. Take responsibility for yourself and your team. Listen with empathy and understanding with a commitment to shared success. Give and receive feedback.”
Shared norms and tangible sink or swim experiences, like those at Katherine Smith, may be the best way to avoid the free rider problem.
This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


Top three required components: Execution execution execution followed by the next three components : buy-in/training of educator, honest assessments and feedback that clearly works to avoid confirmation bias and support.

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