Everyone has experienced social loafing, even if you don’t know the term.
Social loafing is reduced individual effort on a group task. Classic studies of social loafing find that people pull less on a rope and clap more slowly and quietly when they are led to believe there are other people pulling or clapping, than when they believe they are alone in the task.
We’ve all been part of a group project where someone didn’t do their fair share of the work, whether we were the social loafer or the people who had to pick up the slack. And as classroom teachers, we have the opportunity to observe social loafing in group work on a daily basis.
I teach my psychology students about social loafing in a unit on social psychology, the theme of which is “the power of the situation.” With concepts like social loafing, conformity, and obedience, social psychology teaches us that the immediate social situation affects our behavior a lot more than we’d like to believe, especially in our individualistic culture.
After teaching about research in which people give an answer they know is wrong to conform to a group, or administer (secretly fake) electrical shocks to someone in obedience to an authority figure, I ask students to generate ways to resist conformity, obedience, and other forms of social influence.
The initial answers are always the same individualistic fantasies: “Just stick to my own beliefs,” or “Do what I know is right.”
The lesson of social psychology is that social loafing, conformity, and obedience aren’t individual moral failings, but natural responses to specific situations. Changing the behavior isn’t a matter of just deciding to do our own thing — instead, to change the behavior, we have to actually change the situation.
The underlying cause of social loafing is the diffusion of responsibility — the sense that responsibility for the task is spread out among everyone involved. So a necessary condition for social loafing is a task that is judged as a group, with no individual accountability.
To change the behavior of social loafing, we have to increase individual accountability.
I’m going to share four interactive, high-interest activities that do exactly that, and get every single student engaged. Each of these activities reduces social loafing by creating individual roles or tasks, changing the composition of groups, limiting group size, or limiting the time each group stays together.
These activities can be used with different grade levels and content areas, and I’ll share some tips for adapting each activity to your needs. Each activity is designed to be intrinsically fun AND reduce social loafing.
I call this activity Relay Review because I usually use it as a review before a test, but it can be used in other ways, especially as any kind of practice. I have to give a shout-out to my high school Spanish teacher Señora Knott because I stole this activity from her when I first started teaching. My classmates and I got obsessed with this game in Sra. Knott’s class. The basic activity is to have 8-12 tasks for students to do in small groups, and turn it into a race with the other groups.
1. Create a set of 8-12 tasks. For content review in my social studies classes, I write fairly straightforward factual questions, though the questions can be open-ended as well (see this example). One of the reasons I love this activity is that compared to other games (like Jeopardy or Kahoot), I don’t have to come up with as many questions, they don’t have to fit a specific format like multiple choice or have only one correct answer, and they can be more in-depth.
a. In Sra. Knott’s Spanish class, the tasks were scrambled Spanish words. We had to first unscramble the word, and then identify the meaning. Another option for a language class is to give scrambled sentences and ask students to arrange the words in the grammatically correct order. Or give them scrambled questions, which they have to arrange correctly AND answer.
b. In math, chemistry, or physics, the tasks could be different problems to solve. In English, the tasks could be examples in which to identify the type of figurative language or logical fallacy being used.
c. Depending on how involved each task is, I find 8-12 about the right number to complete the game in a 50-minute class period.
2. Make a copy (one-sided) of the tasks for each group you’ll have. I prefer the groups to be 2-3 students because with fewer students, social loafing is less likely. Once you get past 3 in a group, the odds of social loafing go way up. Be sure to run the copies off one-sided because they need to be cut apart. It’s best to color code each set in some way — either by copying each on a different color paper, or simply drawing a vertical line down each set in a different color.
3. Cut the tasks apart, so you can make a separate pile of the complete set of tasks for each group, and they can grab one task at a time. This is the step that does take some prep time but it’s mindless work, and it’s something I can have my student aide do if I’ve got the copies ready ahead of time.
1. You’ll want to be sitting in the front or center of the classroom, at a table or desk large enough to hold all the sets for your groups.
2. Each group should sit separately from the others, so they can confer without being overheard. Each group needs a paper and writing utensil to write their answers.
a. I have students write answers on a separate piece of paper, NOT the slips with the questions, so I can reuse the same sets of questions all day, and year to year.
3. Groups should designate someone as the writer (who writes the answers) and someone as the runner (who comes to you to get the questions — NOT actually at a run). Designating roles is another way to reduce social loafing. Other possible roles include question reader, and if you’re allowing notes or resources, note checker.
4. The runner for each group comes to your table, and you identify for them which pile of questions is theirs — i.e., Sally takes the red pile, Manuel takes the blue pile. The runner takes ONE QUESTION AT A TIME. For the first question, I make them all wait until I say go.
The Relay Review set-up at the beginning of the game — each group has question 1 on top.
And my table mid-game — different groups are on different questions, and I collect the questions they’re done within a parallel pile so they’re ready for the next class. The yellow group hasn’t finished question 1 yet.
5. The runner takes the question back to their group, and they have to answer on their separate sheet of paper. When they think they’ve got it, the runner brings BOTH their answer sheet and the question back to you at the front. I emphasize when giving directions that they must form a single file line in front of my table when coming up with answers, so there’s no debate about who got there first.
6. I check the answer. If it’s right, the runner leaves that question slip and takes the next one. If it’s wrong, they have to go back to their group and try again, until they get it right. Since the runner has to tell their group what I told them about what’s missing from their answer, even that role has to engage with the content.
a. This is the element that obsessed me and my classmates in high school and continues to engage students. It’s not just that it’s a competition, but that groups can get stuck on a difficult question, get way behind, but then catch up. In Sra. Knott’s version, she shuffled the order of the scrambled words for each group — so my group might get stuck on a difficult word on our 3rd one, while other groups surge ahead — until they hit that difficult word on their 7th one.
b. I give the questions to my groups in the same order because I like to call out the play-by-play — two groups are on number 3! Now another group has reached 3! Five groups are stuck on number 7, no one has gotten it right yet!
c. There are lots of options for how to handle it when a group gets truly stuck. You can decide whether groups can use class notes or assignments throughout the game, or only if they get behind by a certain number of questions, or are stuck on a question for a certain number of minutes. You can give a hint if a group has tried the question 3 or 4 times. You can give each group one chance to phone a friend and get help from another group during the game.
7. I usually count the first 3 groups to finish as having won (so that everyone doesn’t quit once one group finishes), and continue the activity until all groups finish (sometimes with help from the finished groups, if necessary). Sometimes the winning groups get a sticker or a treat, but usually, they just get bragging rights. When using this for review, I always post a copy of the questions to my LMS along with a key, for students who want to use it to study on their own.
8. Another good follow-up to the game is to go over the questions that most groups struggled with as a class.
Practice by Numbers
This is a stations activity I got from my wonderful colleague, English teacher Jenny Hussa. It can again be used for either review or practice.
This approach to stations reduces social loafing by changing the composition of the groups at every station and keeping the groups together for a short time, so students don’t have a chance to settle into patterns of loafing or taking over. A student might be able to social loaf at one station while other students take the lead, but at their next station with a different combination of students, they’re the one who has to step up.
1. Create your stations. This activity works well with 5-8 stations. With 3 or 4 stations, it works well with a small class (20 or fewer students); otherwise the groups will be quite large and the codes will be repeated (increasing social loafing).
a. I find 5 stations work well in a 50-minute class period, with a few minutes for directions at the beginning of class and going over items at the end.
b. The tasks at these stations can be quite similar to the tasks used in the Relay Review. You want something a small group of students can complete in a few minutes. Here are some examples from my psychology class: Learning and Personality.
c. Print your stations so they can be cut apart and distributed around the room (spaced out and one sided). You only need 1 set of stations.
2. Prepare the student codes. Each student gets one code, which tells them the order in which they go to the stations. The codes are designed so that every student goes to the stations in a different order, meaning every group at every station is different.
a. It’s easy to create codes for any number of stations, but I’ve included the codes for 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 stations in this spreadsheet (up to at least 30 students, except 4 stations which only goes up to 20 students).
b. Use the codes in order, starting with the top left code and going down each column, then starting at the top of the next column. So if you have 27 students and 30 codes, you won’t use codes 28, 29, and 30. This guarantees that the station groups are as different as possible (minimizing the times students are in the same group twice).
c. The top of each column of codes is the station numbers in a different order (ie: 12345, 54321, 13524, 53142). For each row in the column, the first number is moved to the end of the code (ie: 12345, 23451, 34512, 45123, 51234).
d. You can distribute codes to students a couple different ways. My colleague Jenny, who invented this system, will print out the codes and cut them apart, so each student gets a tiny slip of paper with their code on it. I got sick of that, so I used large notecards to write out each code individually, and added tiny numbers in the corner to keep track of the order. I’ve reused these sets for many years.
The first few of my notecards with codes for 5 stations and 4 stations.
3. If you want, you can also create an answer sheet for students, with space designated for each station. I usually just have students carry a notebook or piece of paper with them. I prefer to keep this activity totally on paper, rather than digital, to encourage actual interaction at the stations.
1. When I first use this activity with a class, I give the directions before passing out the codes. After that, I can pass out the codes as students walk into class because they know how it works.
2. I ask students to get out paper and pencil/pen that they can carry around with them, and otherwise clear their desks. I place the stations around the room, announcing where each one is (I have my desks arranged into numbered groups, so it’s easy to put Station 1 at group 1, etc.).
3. Next I explain the codes: “When you get your code, write it at the top of your paper. When you move, you will leave your card behind on your desk. DO NOT write on, bend, step on, crumple, or chew on your code.” Including “chew on” makes students pay attention and remember not to mark the notecards at all — in the 15 years I’ve used these notecards, I’ve only ever had to replace one.
a. I have students copy their code onto their paper and leave the notecard at their desks when they move so that as soon as they go to their first station, I can walk around and collect the codes in order, ready for the next class. This also prevents the cards from being lost or damaged.
4. I give specific directions for what to do at each station: “First, one person needs to read the directions and the questions aloud for the whole group to hear. Discuss each question together — don’t work ahead on your own. Put a star next to any items your group isn’t sure of, and we’ll go over those together at the end of class.”
5. Then students go to their first station. You can set a timer, but I usually just watch to see when each group is finished, and announce, “Go to your next station.” As groups finish the last station, I ask students to bring the paper to the front, and then return to their seats.
6. As a follow-up, I go over the items students have starred on their papers. Depending on the time, I might go over all the answers. I also post a digital copy of the stations with a key to my LMS.
A sort is a pretty common activity, but over the years I’ve developed and borrowed from other teachers some strategies to ensure complete participation. The shoutout for this activity goes to Catherine Holden, the instructor at an AP Summer Institute I attended years ago, who shared many of these strategies.
The basic activity is to engage the class in a discussion or debate about the best order of a number of items. In my history classes, we are usually sorting from most significant to least significant — such as the most to least significant causes of European exploration, the most to least significant causes for the fall of the Soviet Union, or the most to least significant economic changes of the 18th century. The strategies I’m sharing here reduce social loafing by giving each student an individual role in the class discussion.
1. I always give an assignment before a sort, so students have interacted with the content and the arguments before the class activity. This might involve reading about the content and ranking the items individually, or categorizing them by theme.
2. Create your set of items to be sorted, with one item per page in a document, and print it one-sided. I also include pages that say “Most significant” and “Least significant” (or whatever the two ends of the sort will be). Here are some examples: Economic changes and Fall of the Soviet Union.
a. In an English or language class, you could sort characters in a novel or short story on a spectrum from good to evil, most to least effective, or most to least relatable.
b. In biology, you could sort cell organelles or body systems from most to least significant in supporting life.
c. In a health class, you could sort behaviors from most to least healthy.
1. I post the most and least significant signs at each end of the board, and pass the other pages out to students, one to each student. There are fewer pages than students in the class, which is fine. The students who don’t get a page, I give a marker (or any other object to track their participation — thanks to Catherine for this idea!).
2. Each student with a page will bring it to the board and place it on the spectrum from most to least significant wherever they want. They need to give the class an explanation for why they placed it there. I usually start by having 3-4 students place pages on the board in a row.
3. Each student with a marker has to participate in the discussion by either proposing a change to the rankings or arguing for or against a change that another student proposes. I ask for proposed changes after every 3-5 papers added to the board.
4. Once a student proposes a change, they need to explain why. I then ask for any other arguments for or against the proposed change. I take the marker from any student who speaks to keep track of participation. Students without markers are also welcome to argue for or against a change, but I’ll call on anyone with a marker first.
Once arguments are exhausted, or we’ve just spent enough time on one change, I ask for a vote — either we change it or we don’t. Sometimes students try to slip another change into the proposed one – as in, instead of moving that item to the top, it should be second from the top — but I don’t allow that because it gets too complicated to vote. We vote on one change at a time.
a. In my experience, students can get super into these debates and oddly invested in their positions. I’ve had the debate about how significant technology was in European exploration erupt into a shouting match, and students come back a year later to reminisce about that debate with me. And even the students who don’t get super motivated by the debate still engage and participate verbally, because there’s the physical sign of whether they have or not, with the paper or the marker.
The end of a hotly debated sort on the causes of European exploration (though I set this up to show my own opinions — many of my students would argue for technology to be higher!).
5. We continue this process until all pages have been posted, all students with markers have spoken, and all proposed changes have been voted on (or we run out of time). I usually plan one 50-minute class period for this activity, though it could easily be adjusted to take less time by including fewer items to sort, or more time by allowing for more discussion, or adding more formal requirements to the arguments students make (as in, they are required to back up their argument with a specific fact or primary source).
6. Sometimes I give a writing prompt as a follow-up to the activity, in which students have to make a final argument about the most significant item and support it with specific evidence.
Psych to Psych (or The Examples Game)
I call this activity Psych to Psych because 1) I created it to practice concepts in my social psychology unit and 2) it’s loosely inspired by the game Apples to Apples. When I use it in history classes, I just call it the examples game.
It can be used to review or practice anything where students need to remember or create examples of concepts, themes, or categories. Students can play it as a competitive game, or use it as a cooperative activity; I usually leave that choice up to each group of students. This game eliminates social loafing because every student in the group takes a turn.
1. Create two lists: one is a list of terms or concepts students need to know, and the other is a list of contexts to which those terms or concepts can be applied. Application is the main cognitive skill needed in psychology, as students need to not only understand definitions but actually be able to use the concepts to give real-world examples or predict behavior. That is the type of practice I designed this game for.
a. In my original Psych to Psych game, one list is all the vocabulary from the social psychology unit, and the other list is various situations, such as school, work, a dance, a birthday party, a sporting event, etc. (I would have attached the document here, but I cannot find it anywhere. It’s a complete mystery.)
b. In history classes, the vocabulary list can be concepts or categories like capitalism, socialism, communism, or scientists, philosophers, artists. The context list can be different centuries, historical periods (World War I, the Cold War, the age of globalization), or themes (political, economic, social, cultural).
c. In English or language classes, the vocabulary list could be applied to contexts like the ones I use in psychology, or different texts that the class has read.
2. Make a set of terms for each group, with each term on a small slip of paper. Group size is less important in this activity because every student takes a turn no matter what, but groups of 3-5 students work best. I copy the vocabulary list on one color and the context lists on a different color, so they’re easy to sort out and store each in different envelopes.
Context cards in green, vocabulary cards in purple.
- Each group needs a set of the vocabulary and the contexts.
- On a turn, a student draws one card from each pile or envelope. They have to give an example of the vocabulary word that fits the context.
a. In psychology, they have to give an example of social loafing in the context of a sporting event.
b. In history, they have to give an example of mercantilism from the 17th century, or an example of a philosopher related to the political theme.
3. If students are playing as a competitive game, the rest of the group gets to approve or disapprove the accuracy of the example given. If they approve, the student keeps the vocabulary card as a point they’ve won (this is the part I got from Apples to Apples), but puts the context card back in the pile so it can be used again. If the example they gave is inaccurate or too vague, they put the vocabulary card aside so it’s not used again, but don’t get to keep it.
4. Most of the time, my students choose to simply use this as a cooperative review activity. They take turns giving examples, and help each other out if someone doesn’t know the term or struggles to give an example.
5. I instruct the groups to set aside any vocabulary terms they don’t know, and go over those at the end of class.
6. A great aspect of this activity is that once the cards are made, it’s easy to do with any amount of time that I have. I can pull the terms out with just 10 minutes left in class, or I can set aside 30 minutes or more for a substantial review.
As I wrote this article, I decided to include photos of the materials for each activity, to make the preparation and set-up more obvious. Taking and inserting these photos just now made me realize these activities have a 3rd feature in common — they all involve physical manipulatives. I didn’t do that on purpose, but it isn’t a coincidence.
My favorite interactive activities all use physical manipulatives and NOT digital materials (though students can reference those during the activity) because looking at physical papers or cards together facilitates interaction, and so often, looking at individual screens hinders it. This is yet another example of the lesson of social psychology — the situation shapes behavior.
When students are less engaged in class activities or more distracted by technology than we would like, those behaviors are not always about poor student choices or individual weaknesses — they are responses to the situations we’ve created in our classrooms. It’s always worth asking if we can change the situation to change the behavior.
High School History/Social Studies
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