Let’s get one thing out of the way, there is no such thing as perfect grouping strategies. There will be struggles in some groups in every project. This is because we teach humans, not widgets. The beauty of students is that they are imperfect beings who are learning social skills alongside of our content. And from my experience with the adults in my life, social skills is an area of lifelong learning!
Before we get into specific strategies you should consider certain factors for your groups such as the length of the project, complexity of the task, and student needs. You should also consider academic ability, English Learners, Special Education students, personalities, and behavior. For short term, simpler tasks, you may give students more freedom of choice or use random grouping strategies. For longer, complex tasks, it is better to be very intentional about your grouping strategies.
So here are 8 grouping strategies that I have found effective. Different ones work better with different students, situations, and age levels. I recommend that you experiment to see which ones fit your style and students.
Random grouping strategies are best for short term tasks such as an hour long design challenge or daily partner work. I don’t recommend random grouping strategies for long term projects.
Some fun ways to group students randomly are to hand each student a playing card as they enter and then create groups of 4 by finding matching numbers. Another way is to make cards of famous couples from pop culture, literature, or concepts from your content area. Again pass these out as students enter and have them find their match.
Sometimes teachers get into a pattern of thinking that PBL projects should always be in groups of 4. Instead I ask myself, what is the minimum number of students needed to successfully complete the task? Then I go with the smallest number possible. I actually prefer groups of 2 or 3 unless the task is complicated enough that it requires more. This prevents students from coasting along while others do all of the work.
Don’t be afraid to go SMALL with your groups. Younger students also thrive in smaller groups.
Depending on the project, sometimes it is important that each group contains students with specific skills. An example would be that for video projects I always like to make sure that each group has a good video editor.
I accomplish this by giving a survey ahead of time and asking students to identify their strengths such as writing, speaking, technology, art, etc. I pick the categories based on the skillsets needed for the final product. Then I create the groups making sure that every team has all of the skills represented.
Sometimes it makes sense to group like-minded students together. For the MyParty Election Project, students had to create their own political party. This project would not work if students were grouped together who had opposing values and ideas. So we took an assessment that sorted students into 4 major philosophies based on their political opinions. Then each philosophy went to a different corner of the room and they choose groups from among these like-minded students.
Putting students together by topic works great when students are doing passion projects or interested in researching similar problems or solutions.
5. Student Choice
At the end of every project, I survey my class for feedback on how to improve. The number one thing that they ask for, every single time, is “Can we choose our own groups.” I think that there are some advantages for students who are experienced in PBL choosing their own groups. They can be productive working with like minded people.
But I also find that letting students pick their own groups almost always leads to sorting kids by ability. The motivated, high achievers pick each other. The middle of the road students form other groups. And then the students who don’t fit in, have “labels,” or are behavior problems end up in a dysfunctional group of “leftovers.” So I recommend only letting students choose their own groups in a couple of situations.
I always let students pick their groups on the first day of class when I am doing team building or problem solving activities. First of all, it is a short-term task and most importantly they are identifying all of their friends to me and I can immediately see who should never work together again! They out themselves without even realizing it.
The second situation would be if you have established a true culture of caring and helpfulness in class. If your students can be trusted to be inclusive in picking their groups and make sure that everyones needs are met then I say go for it!
6. Your Partner / My Pairs
This is probably my favorite grouping strategy because it honors the students’ choice, yet still gives control to the teacher. I always explain the process ahead of time so that students know what I will be doing.
Near the end of a project, I give a survey asking who they want to partner with on the next project. Sometimes I add in criteria such as it can’t be someone you are currently working with or have worked with this quarter/semester/year. Then I match the pairs to form groups of four. Students like it because they know that they will have at least one person in their group that they can be successful with. I like it because it avoids some of the concerns of students picking groups that are stacked or leftovers. It is a great compromise.
7. Special Assignment
Often there are students in my class who have special needs. Sometimes they are officially identified for accommodations whether it is language based or academic. Other times they don’t have the “label” but really need similar support. Sometimes these are children who struggle to focus or to self manage their behavior. What I intentionally try to do with these students is find a buddy student that works well with them and complements their weaknesses. Often it is not the strongest academic student, but rather a strong leader who can work with them.
I don’t hang the supporting student out to dry. I meet with them ahead of time and acknowledge their strengths. I ask if they would be willing to help me out by working with a certain student. I explain that this student wants to be successful but may lack a certain skill or need some specific direction on what to do during a project. I then monitor these groups and coach the leaders on how to help the other students stay focused and be successful. All of the students grow in different skills throughout the project.
8. Supergroup & Slackers
Sometimes, usually towards the end of the year and especially if we have an important public audience, I make a Supergroup and a group of Slackers. The way I do this is allow students to pick their own groups! The motivated, high achievers choose each other; the quirky artsy kids choose each other; of course, no one chooses the kids who were the weak links all year.
I am honest with my students, so I tell the Slacker group, ” You haven’t been pulling your weight and no one else wants to work with you. So you are stuck with each other. You had better figure out how to get work done together or you are all going to fail this project.” They tend to find a way to get things done.
I have never done a project yet where every group functioned like a well oiled machine and I am ok with that. Throughout the year, the students grow and learn from each other. Figuring out how to get along and successfully completing work is one of the most important benefits students gain from PBL.