Social Loafing: why group lessons aren't that great after all

Social loafing: why group lessons aren’t that great after all


Social loafing: why group lessons aren’t that great after all

Learning English as a foreign language has never been so essential in many people’s daily lives and its importance only keeps growing. The British council estimates that around 1 billion people in the world learn English today and that this figure will probably double in the next 20 years[1]. Wow, that’s huge! Also, what about all those who are not learning English but really want to?

Of the masses of people learning English as a foreign language, most still do so in group classes. This is easy enough to understand because at first glance groups, especially large ones, seem to offer the best value for money in most countries around the world. Schooling systems don’t have enough teachers nor do they have the resources to teach students individually or in small groups of 4-6 people. For private language schools it’s a lot more profitable to offer group lessons and to maximise group size.

Are group lessons really good value for money then? Or are they just another example of how irrational human decisions can be, especially when it comes to buying? More on irrational decision making soon (I can’t wait to write about this!). Groups offer the following advantages: Social interaction, collaborative work, peer correction.  This sounds fantastic, but hang on a minute, does that apply to all the individuals within a group? Is it true for the weakest members who feel that the overall level is too high, and that the set goals are unattainable and therefore lose motivation? Is it true for the strongest members of the group who feel that the bar is not set high enough for them and therefore also lose their drive?

Motivation is a fascinating topic to explore, especially in language learners. Researchers have found that a lack of motivation can lead to something called social loafing. Social loafing or social laziness is when people put in less effort when a group gets larger. It’s when we think “why should I do all the hard work?” This was first demonstrated by a French scientist just over 100 years ago. He asked a group of men to pull a rope, first individually and then in a group. He found out that the larger the group the less each individual pulls on the rope[2].

To the best of our knowledge research on social loafing in the language classroom is very scarce. Our own teaching experience as a team of language trainers however seems to show that the phenomenon is very real. The more students we have in a group the less they seem to work as individuals. Maybe this is not just because their motivation slacks.

This leads us to dig a bit further in the possible causes of social laziness. When people are part of a group they feel less important as individuals. Working in a group can make us more compassionate human beings which is good, but it also means that we feel less accountable for our own thoughts and actions. When our sense of responsibility towards our own learning diminishes, the effectiveness of the learning process is inevitably impaired.

With weaker students the fear of ridicule in front of other group members can be very strong and undermine their ability to learn. In the world of private language training we have noticed that students of some nationalities fear ridicule more than others. This could be explained by cultural factors or specific approaches to basic education in those countries.

With the need to learn English becoming ever more prevalent, the question of the efficiency of methods and learning approaches is more relevant than ever. The choice between group learning and individual learning shouldn’t be made on the basis of its price per unit of time but should be made in terms of amount learnt per unit of time spent.

Social loafing: why group lessons aren’t that great after all

[1] Graddol, David. The Future of English? UK: British Council, 2000.

[2] Ringelmann, M. (1913) “Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l’homme”[Research on animate sources of power: The work of man], Annales de l’Institut National Agronomique, 2nd series, vol. 12.