Managing Free Riders in Group Projects

Group work has its pros and cons.

Some students and parents may find group work a chore and a waste of time, especially if they have to contend with team members who are lazy, irresponsible, aggressive in their ideas (everyone must listen to his ideas) and those who practise NATO (no action, talk [a lot] only).

In the end, it is usually the responsible team member(s) who spend more time fire fighting and coordinating the work than producing quality work itself.

However, that is not to say that group work is not without its benefits and learning values. Here are some of my thoughts of group work.

Objectives of group work:

  1. Teaches the students about teamwork and team spirit.
  2. Teaches the students to express their ideas clearly and at the same time learn to listen to the ideas of their members too.
  3. Learns to respect the opinions of others. A group work is a team effort, and it is not about the ideas of one person.
  4. Learns to come to a compromise, especially if there are conflicting ideas and points. It is ok to disagree in opinions but do it in a nice and non aggressive manner. In other words, agree to disagree amicably.
  5. Prepares the students for the real, working world – where they have to learn to get along well others, and manage fellow colleagues who are free riders in the adult world too.
  6. Encourages peer learning – this is important as members learn from each other.
  7. Helps students to understand the application of theories and concepts to the project work or theme. It is a very enriching and rewarding experience when a group is able to successfully work well together.

Winning formula of a good project team:

  1. Appoint a team leader/ coordinator
    • This person makes sure that the group members adhere to the schedule/ project timeline.
    • Is usually the contact person that coordinates the meetings and groups activities.
    • Is usually the most organised person in the group.
  2. Prepare a project schedule
    • This will help to remind everyone to keep the project tasks on track.
  3. Team members who can work well together
    • The work is fairly distributed or divided and everyone does his or her part of the work.
  4. Appoint an Editor
    • This is someone who is competent in English.
    • He will be the one who compiles and edits the works of all members.
    • Deadline to submit work to editor must be strictly enforced. The editor needs the time to review and edit the draft work of members.
    • Submit final draft to all members for their review.
    • Once members are agreeable, the final draft becomes final report and it goes to print and binding.
  5. Agree on the formatting
    • It is hard work for the editor to compile and edit everyone’s work. One way is to agree on the format of the report. For example, agree on the font size, font type, page margins. This helps ease the workload of the editor who has the unenviable task to format and edit everyone’s work to be ready for final submission.

How to handle free riders, et al?

If the students are given free reign to choose their own team members, then the hardworking students will tend to group together, leaving the free riders to fend for themselves.

If the teacher/ lecturer pre-assigns the groups, then students have no choice but to work with members who have poor work attitude and study habits. So what can be done?

  1. Inform the teacher/ lecturer early
    • Let the teacher/ lecturer know that so-and-so is not pulling his weight mid-way through the project. DON’T wait till the last minute. It is too late for the lecturer to counsel the recalcitrant student.
    • Keep a log of meetings. This will provide "evidence" to show proof that some team members are not doing their part. Otherwise, it will be your word against theirs.
  2. Request for peer evaluation
    • Inform the lecturer that you would like to do a peer evaluation, assessing the other team members for their contribution, or lack of.
  3. Be fair and objective
    • Be objective when giving feedback to the lecturer or in the peer evaluation form. You don’t want to come across as whining and overly complaining. It may backfire and the lecturer thinks that you are the problematic one who lacks team spirit.
  4. Need to handle free riders firmly
    • Don’t threaten them (again, it may backfire and they may complain about you to the lecturer or see you as bossy). But need to firmly tell them the consequence if they do not put in effort.
  5. Don’t let the free rider do all the important work
    • If there is a "known" free rider in the group, avoid distributing major/ important work to this this person. It may help to strategise. For example, give them the easy bits, like get them to work on introduction or background information; or do the easy questions. The rationale being that since these free riders are doing "less important" work, the damage control is minimised if they don’t do their part at all.
    • However, if this is a new group and one is unable to determine if there are any free riders in the beginning, then the responsible group members have to be firm with the free rider when the issues emerge.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that this is a GROUP project, which means that the all the ideas/ answers in the report must flow in a logical manner. Too often, students treat group work as a collection of individual answers being compiled as a single group report. Hence, the role of the editor is important as he ties everyone’s points together.

Hope the above pointers help, and good luck! Very Happy

Does not like free rider

Had came across free rider in group projects b4 and it is very unfair to the team as he does not do the work and got plenty of excuses.

Realised that it is part and parcel of life as we will encounter such people in working life also… it depends on how we handle them… outwit or be outwitted.

that's very true. we often

that’s very true. we often meet these kinds of people during university year. thanks for your suggestion.

sorry! should be thanks to

sorry! should be thanks to schweppes (typed wrongly ;0)

yep, this is a very

yep, this is a very important life skill ;0 thanks tired mom for the guide!

fantastic article

Thanks for all the fantastic pointers! Amazingly it applies to both kids and adults alike

Ooooohh.. I shall not even

Ooooohh.. I shall not even start commenting about those group of people or I would have also digressed!!

Just thinking about it make my blood boil..

Free Riders at Work?

in this economic climate, is it possible to have free riders at work at all? grades are intangible rewards while in the real world, promotion/increments are strings controlling these used-to-riders.

in the real work world, ‘archers’ (as well as bosses’ ‘pets’) are those that one should be weary of instead of ‘riders’.

ooo…i digressed already…


Free Riders at work??

Hmmm, this article very relevant in today’s world. Well done.

Its sad to say that "Free Riders" not only exist in schools but also in the workplace.

Some of the steps in handling free riders at school can be also be applied to the workplace, but bottom line is that it eventually depends on the mindset of that individual whether he/she wants to contribute to the group.


Aching cheek muscles

Hey Autumnbronze, grinning so much that my cheek muscles are aching…

And speaking of cheeks… you are sooo c-h-e-e-k-y!!! 

Rider or not...

This article serves as a general practical guide regardless if one is indeed

the rider or the one ridden.. Be smart before you are out-smarted! 


Happy Schweppes



Wah Schweppes, you are literally grinning from ear to ear …. in your reply to hsmg

Sorry lah, having fun ‘pulling your leg’ … hope you don’t mind.


Glad you found the pointers useful. Thanks, hmsg, for the feedback 

Thanks for the pointers,

Thanks for the pointers, this is certainly a useful guide!

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