4 The potential loss of autonomy

Within collaborative project we distinguish two levels of autonomy. The first deals with the conditions of the task; to what extent is the task autonomy supportive. Does the task offer choices and does it give sufficient responsibilities to the group. Students refer to this level as “self-control” (Scager et al., 2016). The second deals with group beliefs, to what extent is the group internal culture autonomy supportive? A key point in our argument is that the dysfunction of one member, for instance a free rider or a non-accepting dominant member, effectively removes control of group functioning from all members, even when the learning task is intended to provide students with a great deal of self-control. This perceived lack of control, as well as the possible anticipation of non-collaborative behavior, deprives members of perceived autonomy and thus has a negative effect on autonomous motivation and therefore may have negative consequences on how students operate in the group and how they experience the normally autonomy-supportive learning task (figure 1) (Aggarwal & O’Brien, 2008; described in “Relationship Motivation Theory”, Theorem VI, Chapter 12, p311, Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Figure 1. Perceived autonomy in collaborative projects depends on task conditions and the group internal culture.

A loss of autonomy can also lead to a loss of collective competence (Kramer & Kusurkar, 2017), students lack the need for sharing that is necessary to complete a complex task. In such a circumstance, group members will naturally also have difficulty relating to each other; it deprives them of the need for “relatedness”. If the group does not work well, the collaborative method loses its added value and it is better to allow students or employees the choice to work independently.

We hypothesized that when members are given the opportunity to evaluate their group, against criteria they have set themselves, it may not only reduce the risk of non-collaborative behavior (Williams et al., 1981) but it may also relieve some of the anxiety that it may cause. When students or employees feel they have some control over the way their contribution is recognized and if they have some control over the way the contribution of other members is recognized, they should feel more autonomous (experience a greater sense of agency). Both effects give the group more control over their functioning and should lead to a better working experience. In short, group self-evaluation may encourage greater deployment of adaptive interpersonal skills (stimulate a collaborative attitude) through the intermediate of perceived autonomy.


Aggarwal, P., & O’Brien. (2008). Social loafing on group projects: structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, 30(3), 255-264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475308322283

Kramer, I.M., & Kusurkar, R.A. (2017). Science-writing in the blogosphere as a tool to promote autonomous motivation in education. The Internet and Higher Education,35, 48-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.08.001

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2017). Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. The Guilford Press. ISBN 9781 4625 2876 9. https://doi.org/10.1521/978.14625/28806

Scager, K., Boonstra, J., Peeters, T., Vulperhorst, J., & Wiegant, F. (2016). Collaborative learning in higher education: Evoking positive interdependence.  CBE-Life Sciences Education, 15(ar69), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-07-0219  

Williams, K., Harkins, S.G., & Latané, B. (1981). Identifiability as a deterrent to social loafing: two cheering experiments. Journal of Personality and social Psychology 40(2), 303-311. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.40.2.303