By Jennifer Rita Nichols
Educators have learned much about the benefits of using projects for learning, and collaboration is easily recognized as an important skill for students to build. There are very few arguments against having students work together in class and on assignments.
However, the challenge facing many educators is not in wanting their students to work together, but in figuring out how to group students together in the most effective ways. We do not want to create groups that hinder the progress of any of our students!
This simple guide can help you the next time you are creating groups for an assignment or task in your classroom!
1) Do consider distance and access to online collaboration tools.
If you are assigning a larger project that requires teamwork outside of the classroom, it is important to group students in a manner that allows them to meet easily if needed. If all your students have access to one another online, then great! Usually, though, some may need to meet in person.
2) Do group students according to ability.
Depending on the assignment, you may really want to consider ability grouping. Studies have shown that in many cases, multi-level grouping of stronger and weaker students does not have the effects we would hope for. If the assignment doesn’t offer different ability levels the chance to equally participate, then allowing stronger students to work together can push them further.
Also, the ‘weaker’ group can benefit from the teacher’s support, and also can’t rely on the stronger students for answers and to lead the project.
3) Do vary between teacher and student chosen groups.
It’s an important learning experience for students to create their own working groups. You may want to start with smaller assignments and use them as teachable moments for what went right or wrong in each group. Will they choose to work with their friends? Yes. Should they be able to? Yes! We need to teach students to work effectively with friends, as friends can often offer the greatest distractions from productive work, but also the greatest fun in learning.
4) Do consider common interests.
As a teacher, we can often recognize common interests or skills in different students within our class. Often, those students don’t even realize how much they have in common as they are each busy with their own circle of peers. Teacher groupings can provide the chance to keep building your class community by helping students build new relationships. Pair students with similar interests on a project and the results may surprise you – and them!
5) Do group students according to a skill that needs development.
If you have several students that need to work on a certain skill, you may want to group them for an assignment and create a focus on using that skill. Various skills can be used in similar assignments, so it is possible to form groups that are each struggling with a different skill while working on the assigned task. Some may need to work on effective communication, problem solving, organization, or time management; others may need to focus on comprehension or following instructions.
In mixed groupings, a student who is strong in an area will tend to take the lead. If the group is more equal in regard to a skill, they will need to work it out together.
6) Do create completely random groups.
It leaves a lot up to chance, but explaining to the class that their group or team will be chosen by drawing names is a great way to take it out of both the teacher’s and students’ hands. Make sure to explain ahead of the draw what behaviour is expected of them, and especially that bullying comments will not be tolerated. There is no reason that you can’t acknowledge that we sometimes need to work with people we would not have chosen in life, and that it is a very important thing for them to learn how to do.
This method works best for smaller, more general assignments. It’s effectiveness varies depending on your class dynamic, but is worth incorporating with other grouping strategies. In fact, once they are used to this, you will find that they complain less with this method than when groups are chosen on purpose.
7) Don’t use the same grouping method every time.
Students need to learn to adapt to changes, and also have many different skills that they need to work on. If you always create student groups the same way, you are not considering your goals for the assignment or lesson. There are many ways to group students, and each way is effective for different reasons. Varying your methods will allow you and your students to get the most out of each group work assignment you present. Consider your goals first, then choose an appropriate grouping method to get the best results.
8) Don’t avoid using group work.
Your students will never learn to effectively work in groups if they rarely do it. Collaboration is very important, and although students working in groups can be more chaotic than when they are alone at their desks, it is definitely worth doing. Even difficult classes can learn to work together – just don’t give up! The more often they are exposed to collaboration, the easier it will become to manage. Your students will learn more from each other than they would ever learn by working on their own!
9) Don’t use group work to solve personal conflicts.
Class assignments are not the time to force students to get along. If you have students that clash often or are having trouble in their relationship, do not pair them for an assignment. Personal conflicts should not get in the way of their academic success, don’t set them up for failure! You also don’t want to compromise the safety of any of your students, and sometimes that means avoiding certain pairings in groups.
You must use your judgement as a teacher and know what is ultimately best for your students. Never put any of your students in a bullying situation for the sake of group work. It’s never worth it.
10) Don’t be rigid or overcommitted.
Sometimes a group just isn’t going to work. It happens. They may start off fine, but then break down and become ineffective. Occasionally, they even become too conflict-ridden to ‘fix’ in time to save the assignment. You need to be willing to accept this, and open to changing things. You may have spent a fair amount of time creating that perfect group for the project, but it’s best to understand that these situations don’t reflect on you as a teacher, but are a normal part of learning to work together.
Be open to modifying groups as needed. Split them up, merge them with others, or allow for individual work if the situation calls for it. If you do it right, you are even modelling something very important for your students–the ability to recognize when something needs to be changed and actively changing it.
Image attribution flickr user woodelywonderworks; 10 Dos & Don’ts For Group Work & Student Grouping