Like many matters regarding teaching and learning, there isn’t one best way to put students into groups. The best way is related to what you want students to learn from their group experience. Here’s a brief discussion of how that works for three common ways of forming groups.
Randomly formed groups – Students join with others sitting nearby or the teacher creates groups using some random method like birthdays, house numbers, last digit in a cell phone number, etc. The advantage of this approach is that it’s quick. The method is also a good one to use if you want students to meet more of their classmates. However, it’s not a good method if you want students working in groups where there is a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge. Indeed there’s research indicating that you shouldn’t use randomly formed groups when students are tasked with completing a project because there’s no guarantee that the group will have the necessary range of skills to do so.
Student-formed groups– Students form their own groups, selecting members from among their classmates. This is often the methods students prefer. If they know others in the class, they tend to select their “friends.” If they’ve taken classes together before, they select others they’ve worked with successfully and avoid those not as motivated as they perceive themselves to be. Students report higher levels of satisfaction with group experiences when they have selected their members. However, this may not be the best way to form groups when the goal is high-quality products. To work effectively with “friends,” students must transition from social relationships to task-oriented ones and that transition isn’t always easy. Furthermore, this method of forming groups doesn’t help students learn how to work with people they don’t know.
Teacher-formed groups – Teachers assign students to groups using any number of different criteria. The one usually mentioned first is ability and there are differing views as to the merits of putting the best students together, those performing less well together, or creating groups with a range of abilities. When the least able students work together, they learn the least about the content and group processes. They stand to lose the most. When the brightest students work together, you often end up with a group with lots of leaders and few followers.
There are other criteria teachers can use to form groups and they may be more important than ability. For example, what skills, previous experiences, and background knowledge are needed to successfully complete the project assignment? Some teachers use that question to generate a list of what would help the group do its work. For example, if the assignment is to construct a website, the group needs one or more members with web development experience and knowledge, somebody with good graphic design skills, and at least one person who writes well, for starters.
In addition to task criteria, groups also need members who can contribute those intangible things that help groups function effectively—groups needs leaders, members who can encourage others to participate and contribute, and members who aren’t afraid to challenge ideas and question the group’s decision-making processes. Some teachers transform this collection of experiences, skills, knowledge, and abilities into a survey which students complete. Teachers then use the data to form groups. If it’s an upper-division course and students have had previous experiences doing group projects, the teacher might involve them in creating this list of relevant background knowledge and experiences. When teachers are transparent about the criteria being used to form groups, groups are able to begin their work together by discussing who has these resources and how the group will use them.
When teachers use knowledge and skill criteria to form groups, students have a greater chance of experiencing a group that accomplishes more than they could as individuals. It’s also a good method if the goal is for students to learn how to work with others—others they don’t know well, possibly some they don’t even like. This mirrors what happens in professional situations. We don’t get to chair search committees and populate them with our favorite colleagues, nor should we.
Designing good group learning experiences involves thoughtful planning and that starts with how the groups should be formed.
Please share your favorite method for putting students into groups as well as other strategies that help ensure a positive group work experience for your students.