Now that the term is over I think I am ready to reflect on the criteria and process used to set up “good” student groups… I organized groups in three classes, including one freshman seminar.  I formed the groups in my upper level courses about 3 weeks into the term using three basic criteria — quality of work in weekly writings; their GPA (accessed through administrative records); participation in classes. In the First Year Seminar I also waited three weeks & used multiple criteria — grades in writings/quizzes; participation in classes; personal essays describing themselves. I had five groups in every class (five students in each)  At least one group failed in each class. The largest number of “poor” groups (3) was in the freshman class!

What constitutes a failing group? A group where students don’t seem to “gel” — a group that has frequent absences; where students seem relative quiet or disengaged a large percentage of the time.  In my Freshman class one group failed miserably; two others managed to function but had frequent absentees;  and two worked beautifully (either because no one ever missed class or because two students in the group were talkative & had great rapport). In my upper level classes, one group included several extremely quiet students; the other two that faced difficulties, I can’t see the root problem — plain old chemistry?

As I look back to the group discussions and reflect on their dynamics,  a few ideas come to mind: (1) it is very hard to grasp personalities early in the semester; perhaps it is better to wait a bit longer to form groups.  In the case of freshmen ,  (2) it is very hard to know how engaged/committed students are  early in the term — some whom I thought were engaged/committed to college education, disengaged from school mid-way through the term;. (3) a “clownish” student or “mature” student can make a big difference in the group dynamics of a freshmen class/group. (4) In the case of upper level students, GPA may not be the best measure to use; some of the best (GPA) missed discussions occasionally (bored/not-challenging enough?) & some of the poor GPA students clearly enjoyed/participated a lot in the groups!   

To be honest, the only way I see to organize good groups is to wait longer to know your students before you form groups! While this seems the ideal, in a short semester it is a luxury one can hardly afford. Perhaps one could offer a few IF “training” sessions initially to gain a better sense of how students behave in groups. A mix of high achievers and middle/low-achievers is vital if one wants to get anything done in the group! In all my classes I wondered if gender-distribution was an issue — my freshmen class had more males than females, and females tend to be more responsible/committed; among freshmen, the most recurrent absentees & “poor” participants were males!  In the upper-level classes, this was not always the case.