Who doesn’t remember the trepidation they felt when they were asked to form a group in one class or another. Whether it was high school or college, the process was usually not much fun when we had to choose our own groups, especially when we did not have friends in the class. Occasionally the group dynamic would be, well, dynamic, but often the group fell apart somewhere after the first experiment or project.

Little did we know that our teachers were nervous about the group outcomes as well.

One of the hardest things to do when you are a teacher of a course that needs to have students work in groups is creating groups that will be cohesive and work together to finish a project and learn a lesson. It is easy to teach to individual students because their success is much less dependent on other students. Teaching a lecture involves you and the individual student. Teaching to groups and expecting them to learn from each other and depend on each other for a final grade of a project or experiment can be costly for one or more students.

There are a number of ways that a teacher can divide students into groups. Allowing student to choose their own groups is one way and it has the benefit of students knowing each other within the group beforehand. It also has the pitfall of students not taking the work seriously and not having the opportunity to network within the classroom.

Random grouping has been the most common way that students are assigned to groups but it only works some of the time. Alphabetical is almost like random assignment only it has more order during homework hand-back time. Sorting groups to balance for gender and ethnicity can work well so that there is some diversity within the group but identifying people based on their name alone can be tricky and digging into their files to get exact information is time-consuming.

Another common way to form groups is based on grades. A teacher will assign students randomly at the beginning and then reassign groups based on their first exam grades. This ensures that not all the smart kids are in one group, with slower kids being in another group. The group dynamics are a little more balanced but this approach is time-consuming and doesn’t start to see results until part of the way through the semester.

One of the up and coming ways of assigning students to their groups is through a diagnostic test. There are a number of diagnostic tests available and most of them try to get at the student’s ability to problem-solve. The test can be taken the first day of class and the teacher is able to sort the students based on the grades they received on this test by the next class period. There is some indication that these tests also help predict the students that might be at risk for D’s or F’s in the class and often helps teachers keep students from withdrawing from the course if they can help them a little bit more from the beginning.