By David Griffin
Our use of virtual communication has increased dramatically in recent years. It has been facilitated through the development of reliable and versatile technologies which enable long-distance communication, often comparable to that offered face-to-face. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend within education, business and social settings. With this increase in virtual communication has come a rise in our dependence on Global Virtual Teams (GVTs); groups consisting of team members scattered across different countries and time-zones. In education settings, GVTs are frequently used during team-based activities, enabling students to interact and collaborate more easily with colleagues of different nationalities and cultures.
However, there are also disadvantages to GVTs. Distance working can hinder collaboration and negatively influence members’ desire and ability to effectively work together. In any team setting, there also are individuals who contribute less than their teammates in terms of time and effort. So called ‘freeriding’ is even more of an issue in GVTs, due to the perceived decrease in pressure which accompanies communicating at a distance (Taras et al, 2018). In these scenarios, the ‘freeriders’ often benefit from the work of others while investing minimal effort themselves.
With this in mind, researchers at a Columbian university recently sought to investigate how the contribution of peer-assessment to grades affects student effort in GVTs (Román-Calderón et al., 2021). They attempted to determine whether being consistently and continually graded by teammates during a project would motivate those prone to freeriding. The authors chose the X-Culture International Consulting Competition to test this theory. This international competition is incorporated into many university business courses globally. Rules stipulate that the competition score achieved by students must make up at least 30% of their final grade for that course. Students are placed in virtual teams of six and presented with challenges reflective of those encountered in the modern corporate environment. These are then tackled over a ten-week period. The score received by students on completion of the competition are made up of three parts:
Peer assessment (PA) scores (20%)
Weekly milestone submissions (20%)
Final team report (60%)
Each team member is asked to rate their teammates weekly on a scale from one (poor) to five (excellent) under the headings of Work Ethic, Helpfulness, Cooperation and Leadership. Failing on two consecutive weeks to achieve a satisfactory PA score of 2.0 results in exclusion from the rest of the competition and therefore an overall score of zero for this aspect of the university course.
The study presented some fascinating findings. Results indicated that students who achieved low PA scores over time demonstrated increased efforts in later weeks. This, the authors concluded, demonstrates the merits of PA scoring. The threat of team and competition expulsion based on peer opinion acted as an incentive for students to work harder. In fact, over the course of the competition only 1.6% of students were expelled from their team due to receiving sufficiently low PA scores on consecutive weeks. Students who experienced sharper decreases in their PA scores over time also demonstrated more abrupt increases in efforts in subsequent weeks.
However, despite the positive correlation observed between PA score and effort in this study, the authors stress that this effect on motivation may not persist over longer time periods. Further work would be needed to determine this. They also stress that continuous peer-evaluation may have negative effects. It is possible it could have detrimental effects on normal social dynamics within a team and, though increasing individual efforts, may actually negatively affect collaboration and teamwork. Therefore, the educational goal may be paramount to whether PA scoring is suitable for a particular project or not. The expulsion of consistently low-performing students (or ‘freeriders’) from this study also means it fails to observe their patterns of work and effort. Though all members of a team may not be consistent contributors, it is possible that the sporadic contributions from freeriders may at times outweigh those of their more dependable teammates.
Román-Calderón, JP., Robledo-Ardila, C., Velez-Calle, A. (2021). Global virtual teams in education: Do peer assessments motivate student effort? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 70 (2021) 101021.
Taras, V., Tullar, W. L., Liu, Y., Pierce, J. R. (2018). Straight from the horse’s mouth: Justifications and prevention strategies provided by free riders on global virtual teams. Journal of Management and Training for Industries, 5(3), 51–67.