There is abundant evidence that having students work in groups improves educational outcomes (R. E. Slavin, 1987; Springer, Donovan, and Stanne, 1999; R. Slavin, 1996; Strobel and Van Barneveld, 2009). The benefits include improved academic, cognitive, and social skills, as well as deeper learning. Group work has become accepted as beneficial to the point where many centers for teacher development include a page on using groups to improve learning (“Why Work in Groups?,” nd; “Benefits of Group Work,” nd). Working in groups allows students to give and receive feedback, challenge assumptions, encounter new perspectives, pool knowledge and skills, refine understanding through discussion and explanation, and more.
However, there is less agreement on the best ways to create groups of students. Generally there are four recognized ways to construct groups: randomly, self-selected, instructor-generated, or mixed (Baepler, 2016)—each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Perhaps the easiest way to assign random groups is to have students count off. The faculty member decides how many groups there should be and has the students count off by that number. Then, each number assembles at a specific area of the room. A classroom management software sometimes includes a student randomizer which can make forming groups easier. Gabriel describes a system in which she assigns three categories of groupings: a number, a color and a time to each student (Gabriel, 2018). She then has the students form groups based on one of those categories each time they get into groups. This allows for a wide diversity of working group composition over the course of the quarter.
Random groups can result in an inequitable distribution of student resources and abilities. A way to mitigate this risk is to arrange students based on a criteria, such as how comfortable they feel or how much experience they have with a topic, and then randomizing these students so each group has students of varying levels of experience. Randomized groups have the advantage of arranging people to work with others they may have never worked with before and may not consider working with. This helps students to: consider problems from a new perspective, develop group normalization skills, and improve their communication skills. Resistance may come from students feeling that the group formation is arbitrary or because they are uncomfortable working with unfamiliar classmates. Difficulties can also arise in long-term projects due to the lack of group cohesion.
Self-selected groups have advantages such as being easy for the instructor, making some students feel more comfortable, and often in higher level classes, students can take advantage of study groups they have already formed. The major disadvantages of this method can be a lack of diversity in viewpoints, an inequitable distribution of student resources, student uncomfortableness, and the need for group adhesion may outweigh the need for learning (Baepler, 2016).
This method is most effective when an activity takes place in the classroom and lasts for a relatively brief amount of time, and the teacher wants to avoid disruption of the class. For instance, when doing a Think-Pair-Share (TPS) activity, taking time to divide up the class randomly would be disruptive and would most likely not add much value to the activity. However, when using modifications of TPS such as Think-Pair-Square-Share, the squaring might improve the group discussion if larger groups are formed randomly (Cooper, 2018).
Instructor-generated groups require more resources and time from the instructor because the instructor must collect data about their students in order to decide which group each student will participate in. This is often done by having students fill out a questionnaire or based on criteria such as the student’s major or interests. This method may be supported by the university’s learning management software, or faculty can use other software to assess students’ strengths (“Free Strengths Test | Find Your Unique Talents and Character Traits,” nd). Foote describes how she uses an online quiz to assign students in Harry Potter “houses” and how sometimes the student’s behavior during group work reflects that of the fictional characters (Foote, 2020).
Faculty assigned groups can also be met with resistance from students who feel it is unfair or arbitrary. A major advantage of this method is that faculty can ensure a more varied distribution of students within each group (Baepler, 2016).
A mixed way
A method often used in classes is to have students self-select, but to require that each class session they work with a different partner. This method works best for relatively small class sizes (less than 30 students) where there is a repeated activity that the students must perform in pairs or groups of three. For instance, in my Tui Na course series (usually less than 20 students), the students participate in the lecture/discussion portion of class, and when it is time to spend an hour practicing orthopedic exams and treatment techniques, they pair up with a new partner every week. In didactic courses, this method could be applied to assignments such as short papers or lab reports, paired reflection pieces, case studies, or short discussions; this method could also be used when having students do peer evaluations and when students grade each other’s written assignments.
With this method of small classes and repeated activities, students will generally end up working with every student in the course over the semester, so the equitable distribution of student resources occurs naturally. This method works best when the repeated activity is low-stakes and any one performance won’t have a large impact on the student’s overall grade; this helps students overcome the fear that their grade will be impacted by working with someone they are unfamiliar with. This method works best when the activity has a relatively brief or instantaneous turn-around time for feedback, preferably immediate or by the next class period. Explaining to students why they are being asked to change partners regularly helps reduce the resistance. In my physical medicine courses, I explain to my students that they need to have the experience of working on many different body types and the experience of being worked on by different practitioners so they can feel what it is like to be worked on by different styles. In didactic courses, this emphasis could be on learning teamwork skills, communication, or the advantage of considering problems from new perspectives. Integrating this final aspect of new perspectives can be an excellent gateway to a brief discussion or explanation about metacognition.
This method of forming groups also works well to ensure that students are not left out because everyone is required to partner with a new person each time the activity is performed. This helps with group cohesion and creating a classroom climate suitable for learning. Allowing students to self-select their groups early on in the course helps students feel more comfortable.
A problem that may arise from this method is that, like with any group work, some students may be seen as more desirable as a partner than others, particularly for students with less developed social skills. I had the experience of having a student whom few others wanted to work with despite his excellent skills in the area being studied. However, over the course of teaching the same class for 20+ years, my experience is that this is the exception rather than the rule, and there are always ways to overcome this and offer guidance on inclusion when forming groups.
Another challenge with this method of group formation is that it is incumbent upon the faculty member to track who has and has not worked with which students. You can do this informally, though; in my class I don’t keep a tally of who has worked with whom, but I do pay attention to students who have and haven’t worked together over the last few weeks and often wind up asking a pair of students if they’ve worked together before. This can sometimes lead to defensiveness from the students or embarrassment on my part when I make a mistake and the pair of students has not worked together yet. In a didactic class, this could be easily tracked by names on the assignments when they are turned in. A further challenge with that, though, is the question of what to do if a pair turns in work and they’ve already worked together earlier in the quarter. Policies and alternatives should be planned out and made clear to students ahead of time.
A final caveat
The bulk of this article was written before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic, many classroom policies have altered and ask students to limit the number of people that they work with in close proximity, leading to students being asked to work with the same partner every class. But as we venture back into the classroom this fall, many of these recommendations for group work can be utilized for both in-person and online courses.
Dr. Forrest Cooper has taught and practiced acupuncture and oriental medicine for more than 20 years. His scholarship in recent years has focused on effective pedagogy in the education of medical professionals. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he enjoys the ideal climate for gardening and growing things.
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