What’s the Best Method for Grouping Students?

In high school, when I was assigned a group project, I was always able to choose my group.  As one of the more motivated students in my classes, the weaker students tended to gravitate towards me so that I would do the work so that they could get the good grade.  Being the perfectionist I was, that outcome always happened.  The groups were almost always the same from class to class and grade to grade.  The athletic students grouped together, the outliers hooked up, and then there was my group.  I never had other group experiences.  Why not?  While allowing students choice and engagement, is working with your friends always the best option?

Today in STEM class, we began our mini unit on Geology.  The first activity involved working with a partner to research various geological processes that have shaped Earth over time.  The students then have to create a model of the three processes they researched using materials with which we provide them.  As we have tried various grouping techniques over the course of the year, we decided to make random partnerships.  So, we pulled popsicle sticks to assign partners.  While we had no control over which stick we pulled when, almost every group seemed to all work out well, which is interesting considering the students were paired with someone they didn’t normally work with.  The randomness in this instance helped.  Did the pairs work out so well because they weren’t assigned, necessarily?  Or was it that the students just happened to be working with a peer with whom they clicked?  What caused the positive result?

If we had assigned pairs or had the students choose pairs, would things have gone differently?  Would that one group that struggled to work well today, been different and thus more successful?  Would the students have had more buy in and engagement?  What might have happened?  While our students seem to really enjoy group work, we do wonder if there is a magical formula for organizing groups.  Is one way better than another?

We’ve tried small groups of four chosen at random and assigned.  The random groups seemed to be more productive and focused, perhaps, because they felt a bit of ownership due to the fact that they were not “assigned” by the teacher.  We’ve also done pair work before as well.  We’ve had students select their partners, which can be both good and bad depending on the relationship.  We’ve also given students the choice to work with a partner or independently.  This has made some students feel disrespected or not liked because the person they wanted to work with wanted to work alone.  Is that a bad thing?  We’ve also had larger groups of eight students.  Those seemed to work well even though they were assigned.  We’ve even tried grouping students based on leadership qualities, focus ability, work ethic, and diversity.  While we haven’t collected data to support our claims, one method of creating groups doesn’t seem to work better than another.  It depends on the project, day, and individual students.  Sixth graders tend to be very emotional creatures.  The slightest thing can set them off.  Varying the grouping structure does seem to help though.  It’s not so much about how the students are grouped, but that they have the option to work with their peers to socially solve problems and work collectively.


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