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Setting up student groups

Hi all,

Jeff asked us to provide some thoughts on how we got students into groups for our IF courses. So, here are some of my observations.

I have worked a lot with student groups and have put a lot of thought into how to design assignments for groups, etc. Usually I make group selection random.  Really random.  I mean, I get them to line up alphabetically by first name and then count off 1-5 (if there will be five groups) and then that determines their group members (all the ones together, twos together, etc.).  I have my arguments for that and in many classes I don’t offer the students any choice in the matter at all.  But, given the IF philosophy and the experience level of the students, I took a different approach.  I’m dealing with a class of senior-level communication studies majors, and I know that they have done a lot of group work.

So, I provided them with this issue (“how should we determine groups?”) and gave them what I see as some of the  pros and cons of randomly-selected, self-selected, and teacher-selected groups.  Self selected groups are good at finding times to work together outside of class if needed and good at using peer pressure to make people accountable, but they also get distracted and might avoid conflict because they don’t want to mess up their friendship.  Random selection avoids cliques and can be more like real-life work experiences, but it can also be hard for people to organize their schedules and/or hold each other accountable for equal levels of work.  It can also be hard to feel comfortable with strangers than with your friends.  Teacher selected groups fall  somewhere in between these two options, usually more like random, but can offer a strategic approach to getting diversity in the group.  We talked about each of these options as well as (their idea) the possibility that they might choose one other person they’d like to work with.

After discussing these options, we decided that instead of having a vote, we could allow for some individual choice.  So, each person wrote down on a piece of paper a few things that they think they are good at in groups, times they could and couldn’t meet outside of class, and whether they wanted to choose a/some groupmate(s) or be placed in a group randomly. They gave that to me and trusted me to make good choices about group selection based on their info. What was interesting to me is that about 2/3 of them wanted random assignment!  They wanted the diversity in the group and had been in situations in the past where they were in groups with their friends and got too carried away having fun and didn’t accomplish the tasks well (or ended up getting mad at a friend for not pulling his/her weight in the group).  The other third each listed one or two people they wanted to be in a group with.  And, these folks all somehow referenced each other.  And, these folks are all very high-performing, high-expectation (A+ getting) students.

So, to honor their requests, I put the 7 self-selected folks all in one group (which they will thrilled about) and divided the other 14 people into two groups.  I was a bit selective here in trying to get a gender balance and splitting up a couple of students who love to chat with each other and goof around.  But otherwise my choice making was relatively unstructured.  It ended up being a funny mix, and now I feel like I have two experimental conditions in my class.

That said, we had our first student-led discussion yesterday and it was totally awesome.  I loved hearing what they had to say, they were really into the conversation, and I just couldn’t be more psyched about their performance.  The self-selectors were probably the most high performing group in the sense of building off each others’ ideas and sharing participation equally, but all of the groups did well in responding to facilitator prompts and being engaged.  The faciliators were really into the role, too.  I make them turn in an agenda, topics, and questions to me a day before so I can get them feedback before they facilitate.  That seems to help.  Overall, though, it’s a smashing success.

I might never lecture in this class again. 😉