I am a Faculty Focus addict. (As well as a TED Talk addict, Twitter addict,….I have all kinds of professional ‘vices’). I love getting email alerts to weekly articles since I can quickly skim through and latch onto items relevant to me. I just received my recent Faculty Focus alert and noticed an article by Maryellen Weimer entitled,’ Better Group Work Experiences Begin with How the Groups Are Formed’. You can check it out at http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/better-group-work-experiences-begin-with-how-the-groups-are-formed/. While you are at it you might consider signing up for their email alerts.
This particular article is very timely since I was just in a classroom observation yesterday and made note of some group work experiences. When I arrived in class the groups had already been arranged in groups of 4. The students told me that they normally sit in groups of 4 but aren’t often called on to do group work. That was disappointing to hear since we know from the work of Vygotsky and his contemporaries that students learn by interacting with others. The planned group work for today’s lesson was likely for my benefit but hopefully it will build from there. The teacher numbered students heads in the group and regularly called on various ‘numbers’ to answer a question he had posed. The group worked briefly in their teams during an activity where they had to tap into their prior knowledge and write down what they recalled about a certain topic from their previous semester. As they did that the teacher circulated the room and was able to gather some good feedback about students current understandings and needs. As we reflected on this later, the teacher told me that it was the first time he had really done that and he was quite pleased with it. While it took a few ‘extra’ minutes to do this he felt it was certainly more engaging for the students and resolved to try it again soon. These are the little successes in a classroom that build big successes. What a delight to see! This teacher may not realize it yet but his beliefs and attitudes about how students learn are being challenged. It is these challenges and tensions that bring about the necessary changes in practice.
Two things we might want to consider when forming groups are the size of the group and the composition of the group.
Size of groupings: Teams of Four
I like to suggest that groupings of four work best since I think it is a manageable size. It is easy to pair students off in shoulder partners, face partners or even diagonal partners to have quick pair discussions. It is less likely that someone will opt out of conversation when there are only 4 people. Of course there may be times when there will be an occasional group of 3 or 5.
But back to the question of how to form groupings, the subject of Ms Weimer’s article today. She suggests that there are 3 types of groupings that a teacher can form. I have summarized them here and added some examples of my own.
1. Random- formed groups which are quick, but not always the best way to perform groups particularly when there is project work to be done and you want to create a group with a variety of skills.
I have tried various ways to randomize groups in classroom or workshop settings. My favorite is the use of coloured popsicle sticks. At the beginning of the class/workshop I hand out coloured popsicle sticks and ask students to write their names on them and then I collect them. I can then select groupings from the sticks at random. I might even ask all the red popsicle sticks to gather in one corner and I divide into groups of 2 or 4 from there. Or I could just pick 4 sticks at random and announce the groups. I like the use of the sticks since I can use them to randomly ask questions in class and even to draw for prizes. My friend uses chopsticks with the same effect. Another friend uses ice cream sticks. If you are using an iPad and Apps in the classroom you can use an electronic version called Popsicle Sticks or Pick Me!
Another method I have used is to have students line up by their birthdays (without saying a word). I designate a start place for January birthdays and end place for December birthdays and then have students place themselves where their birthday occurs in the year. We then share birthdays starting with January and people switch to get in the right position. After all of that (takes 5 minutes or less), I section off groupings of 4. There are so many ways to make Random groupings. Playing Cards, and Numbering off are two other typical methods. But you can make it much more fun than that.
2. Student-formed groups that provide students the choice of selecting their teammates. Again, this may not be the best method to use with certain outcomes. Students will be tempted to work with their friends, which may not be an effective combination to complete a specific task. They also lose out on the opportunity to work with others.
3. Teacher-formed groups are often formed by ability. Ms Weimer cautions teachers to consider the ways that we combine students according to ability. She suggests too that we consider occasionally forming groups based on skills, experiences, interests, attitudes, etc..
The article makes a case for the careful design of effective group learning experiences. I might add that designing group work is a little like planning a healthy diet for our families. The trick is to offer a variety of foods. While the occasional ice cream treat is okay we don’t want to over-indulge in this kind of food. Our regular diet must be one that sustains us and keeps us healthy. Our diet of group interactions in a classroom should offer varied groupings so that occasionally students have a choice of team members, occasionally it is random, and occasionally it is determined by the teacher. That would be a ‘healthy’ and effective learning environment.
Another resource you will want to check out is the Kagan Cooperative Learning resources available online at http://www.kaganonline.com I particularly like the Kagan Cooperative Learning book (Kagan, 2009).