A More Strategic Approach to Arranging Students into Groups

arranging students into groups

What’s the best way to put students into groups? It’s the first task that confronts teachers who want students to work together. And the best reply is one of those “it depends” answers. Here are the questions on which it depends.

Teaching Professor Blog Should teachers let students form the groups? Students often prefer this approach. They tend to pick people they know, classmates who are friends, those in the same major, and those who share the same race. It’s more comfortable working with people who are known and similar. When groups are composed of friends, they sometimes struggle with the transition to a more professional relationship. They’re used to socializing, but now there are tasks to complete and that means functioning in different roles. If the group work is a project that requires extended collaboration and will benefit from a variety of opinions and perspectives, letting students form the groups may not be the best approach. On the other hand, for short, ad-hoc group work and for students who may be shy and not used to working with peers, knowing others in the group makes the experience less intimidating.

Should teachers form the groups? If one of the goals of the group work is getting students acquainted with others in the course or providing the experience of learning to work with peers they don’t know (which frequently occurs in professional contexts), then teachers should consider forming the groups. Teachers can form diverse groups and break up those cohorts who regularly cling to each other. A good bit of sensitivity is required when making diverse groups. If there’s a limited number of racially diverse students or international students, putting one in each group can be isolating and intimidating. A final benefit of teachers creating the groups is that it removes the awkward issue of some students not being invited to join a group. Check out the Chapman, et. al. (2006) reference for more on group selection methods.

What criteria should teachers use when forming groups? There’s a range of options. Here’s some of the more common criteria.

  • No criteria – Groups are formed randomly. It’s a quick and easy way to make groups: students count off, assemble by birth dates, first initials, or other random bits of information. Everyone has an equal chance of being in any group. However, random group creation is not fair if the group task requires different abilities, skills, and experiences. Some groups may have an abundance of what is needed and other groups may have none.
  • Ability – It’s probably the most widely used criteria with faculty generally forming groups that include a range of abilities, although some do put all the superstars together—which, not surprisingly, results in conflicts—and those not doing well in the course—who may flounder more or help each other out.
  • Personality traits – Mostly these are obvious characteristics, like balancing the number of introverts and extroverts in a group, and not putting too many leaders or strongly opinionated students together
  • Skills and experiences – What skills and experiences would be useful in completing the task? If those are identified first, then students can be surveyed to find out who has them and groups can be formed so that the relevant skills and experiences are spread between the groups. This approach shows students that groups have more resources than individuals and that what individuals contribute benefits the group in different ways. See Blowers (2003) for an example of how this works.

Students should not be left wondering about the rationale being used to create the groups. Even though the teacher might not want to say, “I’ve formed groups based on performance in the course,” he or she could say something like “I put a variety of different people in each group.” Using the skills and experiences criteria makes the group formation process transparent.

What about group size? Sometimes size doesn’t matter. If it’s a short in-class activity, let students form groups with 2-5 members. For more substantive tasks, the less experience students have working in groups, the smaller the group, the better, even down to pairs. If it’s a complicated task, completed across weeks and counting for a sizeable chunk of the grade, size the groups so there’s enough person power to get the job done. The larger the group, the more arduous the process. It’s also easier for some students to be silent.

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.

References: Blowers, P. “Using Student Skill Self-Assessment to Get Balanced Groups for Group Projects.” College Teaching, 2003, 51 (3), 106-110.

Chapman, K. J., Meuter, M., Toy, D., and Wright, L. “Can’t We Pick our Own Groups? The Influence of Group Selection Method on Group Dynamics and Outcomes.” Journal of Management Education, 2006, 30 (4), 357-569.