Ok, the title was a bit clickbaity; I have never had all perfect groups and never will because students are unique humans, not widgets. So there will always be personality differences and challenges between members along the way. But that is our opportunity to teach students Relationship Skills! This doesn’t mean that you should just randomly throw all of your students together. Based on experience, here are my eight suggestions for forming student groups.
1. Just Right Sized
Every project has an optimum size based on the complexity of the final product. Is it fairly simple? Make small groups. Is it complicated such as a video production? Increase the size. My favorite size is three, enough to share the work but small enough that no one can coast by on the coattails of others. Sometimes I have small groups during the research phase and combine groups later when it comes time to develop the final product.
2. A Pair is a Group
Many teachers automatically create groups of four and forget that pairs are an option. If you teach younger students or your students are new to PBL, then pairs are a good choice. For classes that are challenging to manage, pairs can help hold everyone accountable to complete the task. If you have any concerns about how your students will work together, start with pairs.
3. By Academic Achievement
A common way to group students is by ability: high, medium, and low. I think this is a dangerous mindset that in the teacher’s mind locks students into categories. I prefer to look at achievement in school. Achievement does not equal ability, but rather buy in to the schooling “system” and caring about grades. Achievement usually corresponds to work ethic. We don’t want to lower expectations for any students.
Low achievers are not a homogeneous group. Are they low achievers because of cognitive struggles (whether or not they are labeled SPED), language struggles (whether or not they are labeled EL), or effort struggles (unmotivated or disengaged for any reason)? Different types of “low” students require different kinds of intervention and scaffolding.
After deciding how large groups will be (see point 1) then choose a leader for each group. They will usually be high achievers academically, but not always. Try to match highs and mediums and mediums with lows. Avoid highs and lows together as this can lead to more frustration then success for both students (there are always exceptions to this, see point 8).
4. By Skillsets
Certain projects require specific skillsets in every group. A good example is creating a podcast. Each group needs a strong writer, speaker, and sound editor. I give students a survey a week ahead of time and ask them to identify their skills. Then I group them by skillset before we launch the project, balancing achievement level and skills.
This is a great opportunity to honor students’ skills that fall outside of the normal range of what we measure in schools, building self-confidence in them. A student who loves tech might not be that excited about the content of the project, but is geeked to edit audio or video. This becomes the hook to get them to engage in your class.
5. Not by Student Choice
When my students reflect and give me feedback after a project they always say, “I wonder if we can choose our own groups next time.” I mean always. They literally ask this every single time. I get it. They want to work with their friends. So do I most of the time. But the danger of letting students choose their own groups is that they end up divided by achievement. High achievers all together in one corner, mediums over here, and then a group of “leftover” kids who aren’t seen as cool or have a reputation of being difficult or lazy.
I find this to be unjust, so I came up with a compromise. They get to pick a partner and then I match the pairs to make groups of four. Students are happy because they know that they have at least one friend in their group. I am happy because I can mix up groups in any way that makes sense for fairness, balance, skillset, and personalities.
6. By Student Choice
There are a few situations where I do let students choose their own groups. I always let students choose their groups for team builders at the beginning of the year. I am allowing them to identify their friends in the class and in a short, one hour activity, I quickly learn of any students who should not be teamed up together for a full scale project.
Sometimes at the end of the year, I have a great project planned with an important public audience. I want a supergroup that will create something amazing to show off. This is easy to create: I let them all choose their own groups. The supergroup forms automatically and I sometimes end up with a group of duds-kids who have a reputation of trying to coast through everything and no one else wants to work with them.
By this time of year I have coached the duds many times so I lay it on the line for them: “No one wants to work with you because you have a reputation of not working hard. Now you are stuck with each other and are going to have to figure out how to get this done because no one will bail you out.” This group usually responds out of necessity and creates something worth sharing.
7. The Impossible Child
“He can’t work with anyone, so I always have him work alone” is unacceptable. Would a teacher say, “He can’t read” or “She can’t add” and refuse to instruct them in those areas? When it comes to content we are mandated to teach the skills to every child. SEL skills like collaboration are no different.
We shouldn’t be surprised when students lack the skills to communicate clearly, negotiate differences of opinion, give or receive feedback, and collaborate effectively. They are kids who are learning these skills alongside of the content in our classrooms. We should intentionally teach, practice, and assess SEL skills, just like our other content.
As far as the student who really struggles to get along with others? Assign them to a group with a patient student leader and ask that student to help them get along. Give the socially struggling student a specific role and task within the group. Clear structure will help this student immensely. Coach this student with sentence stems and ways to appropriately communicate with others. It is ok to let them work alone sometimes, especially if they are frustrated or having a rough day, but we should never declare that it is impossible for them to ever work with other students in groups.
8. Know your Students
It is important to note that none of these are “rules” or “mandates” but things to consider with your students. The most important aspect is knowing your students and what they can and can’t handle. Do they work best when you provide more structure? Is there such an inclusive culture in your class that everyone gets along and easily works together? Are students cliquey and often exclude others?
Reflect on your students’ strengths, the culture of your classroom, and areas for growth. Develop a plan based on your kids and explain the rationale behind it to them. Mix it up throughout the year and have students reflect on how their groups are functioning during and after the project. All students benefit from collaborative learning when we teach the skills and provide the structure for their success.