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Collaborative and cooperative learning, often commonly known as “group work,” is growing in favor among professors as an effective active learning tool. Aside from the benefits of getting students involved in the education process, another reason for the expanded role for group work in the classroom is the demand from students (and their future employers) for opportunities to develop teamwork and interpersonal communication skills. Others have highlighted the ways in which group work promotes critical thinking and cross-cultural competencies. While most are also familiar with common complaints about group work, when done well, activities like the think-pair-share, in-class debates, or group projects can all help students understand the content and develop the skills they need to be successful.

For group work to be effective, however, it requires careful planning: choosing an assessment that matches your lesson plan and goals, assigning a task at the correct challenge level, and deciding how you will select groups for the activity. For many, it is the formation of groups that receives the least amount of attention. And though group work can be sufficient with many different group arrangements, a group that is strategically designed with learning in mind can elevate group work to the next level. Here are just a few options for forming student groups, along with some brief advantages and disadvantages to each:

  • Proximity-based. This is perhaps the most common way to form groups: get into a group with one or two students sitting near you and discuss the question on the board. It is the least time-consuming method, requires little movement around the classroom, and allows students to (hopefully) get right down to business. However, since students tend to sit in the same position, near people they know, it limits the number of students one partners with for group work.
  • Student-selected. If proximity-based selection models are the most common, student-selected groups are a close second. Forming groups is simple when we ask students to take charge. Furthermore, this method gives students freedom to take ownership over the activity and work with people they feel comfortable with. As above, however, this may limit discussion to those individuals who students are already communicating with. It may also mean that all of the “talkers” or “hard-workers” are in a single group, or that some students may be left out when forming groups.
  • Student-selected with limitations. To limit the problems associated with student-formed groups, you may consider placing certain requirements on who students work with in group activities. For example, ask students to find a person they have not worked with yet during the semester, that one student majoring in the subject work with a non-major, or that they work with someone sitting in a different section of the classroom. Though this may open up the discussion more, it also reduces student choice in the matter and will likely take more time.
  • Assigned roles. If your project includes multiple roles for students, such as note-takers, presenters, or multiple sections that can be completed by one or more students, another way to divide students up is to first assign (or let them select) these roles and then ask them to form complete groups based on division of labor. This allows students to work on a particular skill and potentially with a potentially different group than they otherwise would have. If you use this method, be sure to give students a chance to perform most (if not all) of the roles throughout the semester.
  • Randomly assigned. Want your students to hear different perspectives and work with new people? Random assignment of groups might be the way to go. There are many ways you can do this, from entering names into a random number generator, drawing names out of a hat, or having students line up in order of their birthday. (Hint: try to avoid forming groups based on physical characteristics, like what a student is wearing or how tall they are; this may draw uncomfortable attention to students’ appearances.) Though it may be more time consuming and cause more commotion in the classroom, it is a fair way to form groups, ensures everyone is included, and breaks students out of the habit of talking to the same people. Plus, it raises opportunities for the formation of community (learning birthdays or favorite books) and can be good to get students moving around the classroom.
  • Assigned groups. Sometimes the best way to generate groups is to do it yourself! In particular, if you want to balance student personalities, abilities, or the sociodemographic characteristics of the group, assigning groups can be an effective, if somewhat time-consuming, method. If you assign groups for graded work, consider reducing the point value of the assessment, otherwise you need to be confident that your assigned groups will work out.

In choosing which method to use to form groups, consider the limitations of your classroom space, time, and the goals of the activity. For a quick think-pair-share, perhaps proximity-based groups are the way to go. For in-class debates, you may want students to prepare both sides of an argument before randomly assigning them a team in class. For longer group projects, students may feel more comfortable choosing their own groups. Try to match your selection method with your goals for the activity. Throughout the semester, mix it up and try a couple of these group formation options! Being thoughtful about your preparations should put you on the path towards an effective assignment or class activity.

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