The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Motivation is such an important element in student group work that it deserves specific attention. For example, Morgan (2002) reported that almost half the perceived problems of group work could be allocated to the 'poor motivation - general category'. We can identify types of motivation loss and concepts of students' motivation that should facilitate better design of task and process.

Initial motivation

A practical, generic strategy is to ensure that from the start the students' perceptions of what is required are realistic. Students should be given a breakdown of the marking standards that are applied to the group work and a clear explanation of performance expectations. Skok (2003) offers an example of an analogy presented to students to illustrate their various performance and standards options, together with a description of general marking standards that are given out to students at Kingston Business School.

Social loafing

Social loafing is a reduction in individual effort because of the presence of other people and is most likely to occur when students feel less likely to be identified. As such it is primarily task related. Tasks need to be designed so that students' contributions are more likely to be noticed. For example, divisible tasks will counter this problem more easily than unitary tasks. (In a divisible task, each student produces the answer to one question, while a unitary task could be a group decision on the appropriate answer.) This can also be related to size of groups, as the larger the group is, the less likely your reduced effort is to be noticed.

Free riding

While social loafing relates to not being noticed, free riding is the opportunity to get something for nothing. The group task is not seemingly affected by the student's reduced performance and/or the student does not suffer any penalty for this minimised effort. Can the group task be designed so that there are penalties for reduced involvement, and possibly rewards for above average participation? Students may be asked to rate the contribution that others have made to the group effort. Free riding and non-performance might be infringing certain norms or social rules - norms such as reciprocity and equity, where the ratios of effort to marks received should be fair between group members.

Inequity based motivation loss

If students see that a member of the group is free riding, they might try to avoid the 'sucker effect' by reducing their own input. This concept can be developed further by reference to the 'means rule'. Students are less likely to think of themselves as 'suckers' if they are covering for a member of the group who is not able to succeed. When assessing fairness with regard to inputs (effort) and outputs (marks), they take into account the abilities of their fellow students. It may be useful if the process is structured so that students get to know each other better. If students are able to make more accurate judgements about the abilities of fellow group members, this may reduce the free-rider 'sucker' effect.

Social dilemma

Students sometimes have the social dilemma of making a choice between behaviour that maximises their private benefit and behaviour that maximises social benefit to the group. For example, by attending all meetings or reading and responding to the minutes, students are giving up their own time. They are assisting in group activity, an action that could be classified as 'cooperation'. Alternatively, they could do the minimum necessary and keep most of the time for their own preferred activities. This action could be classified as 'defection'. If all group members choose 'defection' the total outcome will be inferior to the outcome where all group members choose 'co-operation'.

This is a classic game theory problem that could be addressed by increasing the pay-off when all members of a group choose a co-operative strategy. The Prisoner's Dilemma suggests that the imposition of a many-stage game, with its facility for a tit-for-tat strategy directs the selfinterested player to adopt a co-operative approach rather than maximise his or her initial selfinterest. A group task that is broken down into a number of stages could increase the likelihood of mutually beneficial behaviour and a better-performed task.

Motivations beyond Homo economicus - intrinsic motivation

Besides the motivational assumption about maximising our own self-interest, there are implications from the ideas about non-welfare-maximising motivations. Some concepts, such as sympathy, can be rationalised into self-interest models through the idea that by helping others we are making ourselves feel better. However, commitment-based behaviour, such as honesty and altruism, is demonstrably a different source of motivation. Some authors refer to the equivalent concepts of calculating and non-calculating motivations. Homo economicus will act in his or her own best interest in response to external incentives such as marks, while intrinsic motivation refers to examples such as:

  • regard for others - we may do certain activities because we enjoy working as a team and value our relationship with others;
  • desire to impress others, showing skill or pride;
  • ethical values;
  • acting in order to establish a form of identity, the action being a reflection of how we see ourselves;
  • desire to fit in with the norms and social structures of the community.

These sources of motivation are more likely to be present when students have a long-term commitment to a group.