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How should I form the groups in my class?
What are the best ways to form the groups in your class? The answer is, of course, it depends!

What are the best ways to form the groups in your class? The answer is, of course, it depends! Deciding how to form the groups in your classroom depends on your specific goals for that class and on the characteristics of the students, the course, and the physical space. What follows are suggestions that come from my personal experience. If readers have other suggestions, please share them!

  • If the class is on the small side (say, 8-24 students), randomly assigning groups for each class meeting works. By randomly, I mean (1) figuring out how many groups you need (2-7 or so), (2) assigning students numbers 1-7, and (3) telling group 1, 2, …7 to sit together. Or get creative and use element names, colors, units, … instead of numerals 1-7. The key here is to assign new groups each week. For me this works only in smaller classes. It sucks up time because students need to move – the more students you have, the more time it takes.

This way of forming groups helps the whole class feel better connected. I’ve found it works well for lab courses and non-technical classes required for majors (such as a Professional Practices course).

  • In very large classes (150+) that are a mix of majors, you may decide  to let students choose their own groups. Then you will need to somehow collect the names of the students in each group and their seating in the classroom (row and seat number). It is possible to use clickers to get row and seat number; another good option would be to collect the names of group members using a google form. In my experience students in larger classes need to stick with the same group throughout the semester. They will tend to be more loyal to their group, which brings them to class. (I tried switching groups in a large class more than once – Fail!)

Of course the drawback is that some of the groups won’t function well. Remember: your point of comparison is not a class with perfect groups: It is a lecture class. Even students working in less than perfect groups are more engaged than they would be in lecture.

  • Another option is to assign groups based on some criteria. I also recommend this for large classes as it avoids groups made of up friends, putting all students on more equivalent footing in the course. In a course like physical chemistry that requires a strong math and physics background, assigning groups based on math and/or physics grades ensures that at least one student in the group can take a derivative or solve an integral.

Again, it is likely that a few of the groups won’t work well together. You may find that some students actually request (early on) to be put with their friends. I find that most of the groups end up forming strong bonds. When friends are in different groups, then the two groups will often end up studying together outside of class. A great outcome!

What has worked for your courses? What has not worked? Please share your experiences either as comments send me an email at sshunnic@vcu.edu.