Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students cover for each other?

U.S. faculty member, CMU-Qatar

I typically assign at least one group project each semester. When I was teaching in the U.S., I asked each student to evaluate the members of his or her team. This helped me distribute points more fairly according to each team member’s contribution. When I began teaching outside the U.S., I expected similar strategies to work but was proven wrong. The first time I assigned a group project, a student came to my office to discuss a group member who wasn’t contributing. Although she was clearly distraught by her teammate’s behavior, she refused to name the student in question. When I mentioned the peer evaluations, she recoiled and said she could never expose another student like that. It was clear that she found the idea very distasteful. I went ahead and used peer evaluations that semester, but my students either left them blank or gave bland, unrevealing assessments of one another.

Reflecting on why this is the case, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for my students, it’s more important to preserve social relationships than to gain an academic advantage. I have to say, I admire them for this, but it makes monitoring and grading group work difficult. I’m going to try a new approach next semester, though. I’m going to pose several group conflict scenarios at the beginning of class and ask students to discuss how they would handle each situation. This will give students the opportunity to think through some possible responses before they actually encounter problems. And it may help me understand what sorts of responses are consistent with their cultural mores. I’m eager to hear what they say.

Other strategies

  • Have student groups create a set of ground rules or team contract before undertaking a project. These ground rules should specify the responsibilities of all group members and the consequences for failing to meet these responsibilities, and should comprise a set of rules or expectations that all team members can agree to. Encourage students to design ground rules that suit their own understanding of social norms and obligations.
  • Assign both individual and group grades on group projects. In other words, base part of the overall project grade on what the group produces (e.g., a report or presentation) and base part on an individual component, for example, a test or quiz on relevant content or a short report in which each student synthesizes what s/he learned and contributed to the project. This gives students a sense of control over their grade, increases motivation, and helps to mitigate the “free rider” problem.
  • If student groups are asked to do a presentation, require every student to present part of it. This makes it difficult for individual team members to engage in “free-riding.” See other challenges of group work.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.