What is the best approach to arranging students in groups?

Students reading in a group. Group activities make the learning experience richer and more enjoyable.

The boggling question in the mind of every teacher who believes in collaborative learning is how to strategically group students. Should we let them form their own groups?  Should we intentionally group them? Should we leave everything to chance and random play? What would be the best way to go about it?

Of course students prefer to form their own groups. They tend to pick people they know, classmates who are friends, those in the same major, and those who share the same race. The fact is that when groups are composed of friends, they sometimes struggle with the transition to a more professional relationship in their new 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. 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.

This being said, what criteria should teachers use when forming groups? Ironically, the first criterion is no criteria! Random grouping is a quick and easy way to make groups: students count off, assemble by birth dates, first initials, or other random bits of information. In this way, 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. So, this really depends on the task.

You can also consider ability when grouping. 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. Depending on the task at hand, you may use the tiered grouping so you can have enough time to help the weak students, or you can mix them up so that the strong students can give support to the rest.

Alternatively, you can group according to personality traits. To allow the quiet students ample talking time, I usually group them together and give specific roles to ensure completion of tasks. The challenge, though, is with the extroverts. If you group them alone, they become too competitive and nothing happens, but if you group them with the quiet ones, they dominate and very little is achieved. A step by step training of the extroverts on how to coordinate group activities and solicit ideas from the introverts may help with this problem.

Skills and experiences is another criterion to try out.  Students can be surveyed to find out who has what skills 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. Students should not be left wondering about the rationale being used to create the groups. Using the skills and experiences criteria makes the group formation process transparent.

Clearly, grouping is a function of subject. Once you have established what you really want to achieve with the learners, it becomes easier as to what criterion will work best. There is simply no such a thing as the best approach.