Content Coverage and Free-Riders

Content Coverage

Introductory economics courses and their associated textbooks, are characterized by their breadth of content. Leading economic educators have argued that focusing on a limited number of key concepts would improve learning (Hansen, Salemi, and Siegfried, 2002). Cooperative learning exercises such as the think-pair-share technique can serve to actively engage students in the learning process while not significantly sacrificing content (Maier, McGoldrick, Simkins, 2009).

Others argue that the goals of a cooperative learning course are different from that of lecture based courses. Cooperative learning course goals include ensuring that all the students develop their social and cooperative skills as well as their analytical skills and critical thinking in order to work well together.


Unstructured group-based learning can lead some students to take advantage of the group output while providing little or no contribution. Cooperative learning structures, including individual accountability and positive interdependence, can be used to design exercises which do not suffer from the free-rider problem.

For example, positive interdependence motivates individuals to contribute to the group because their success is enhanced when the group achieves its goals. Ways to promote positive interdependence (Smith and Waller 1997, p 202) include:
  • Output goal interdependence- a single product is produced by the group
  • Learning goal interdependence- the group ensures that every member can explain the group's product
  • Resource interdependence- members are provided parts of the assignment or relevant information or the group is given only one copy of the assignment
  • Role interdependence- members are given distinct roles that are key to the functioning of the group

A classic economics example designed to overcome the free-rider problem uses a randomly chosen student from the group to complete a task such as providing an explanation or solving a problem. All members of the group are assigned the same performance grade as the single chosen student, providing incentives for all to participate in the group work (Bartlett, 1995).