Forming effective groups
In this unit
This unit includes suggestions for forming student groups. It will cover issues such as:
- how many students should be in each group
- what formation methods are available
- what are the advantages and disadvantages of each method
How important is the group formation process?
For many students, being in the "right" group is extremely important. To most, the "right" group is determined by the people they will be working with. Most hope to be placed with compatible members (primarily people they get along with). All too often, this does not happen. The result is a very long and frustrating semester for everyone involved (the lecturer included). As the opening quotations highlight, students soon realise that a key determinant of group work will be their fellow members.
Most students dread the time when groups are formed in class. For first year students, it is the fear of the unknown. Many do not have extensive collaborative experience and have just come from the highly competitive and individualistic environment of high school. They know few people in their class and even less about how to operate in groups. For second year students up to postgraduates, it's usually the fear of the worst. Most have either been in, or known someone who has been in a dysfunctional group (typified by shirking, conflict, etc.). Their fear is that it will happen to them, perhaps for the first time, perhaps again.
Many of the problems (and fears) which arise from group work stem from the formation process. The formation process sets the foundations for effective group work in the future. If the foundations are weak, it will be difficult for students to develop into a cohesive and effective unit. If the process has been well planned and executed, the conditions have been set for high performance groups to develop.
How should I form my groups?
Group work varies greatly at UTS. It largely depends on the task that students are required to do. In some instances, the task is complex and thus requires a certain number of members. These tasks are usually found at the third year level and are often multidisciplinary (ie. involving students from a number of disciplines). On most other occasions, the group task has been designed to be performed by a small group of individuals (usually less than seven members per group). The assumption in these groups is that all members have about the same level of content specific knowledge (ie. knowledge of the subject matter) and the purpose of the group activity is for students to apply the knowledge learned throughout the semester whilst also learning how to work with other people.
Despite having different tasks, most group activities subscribe to the same basic model — groups are formed, they perform a task(s) and then disband. Unfortunately, many believe that the forming stage is a simple process that "has to be done". This belief all too often sets weak foundations. For strong foundations to occur, two important issues should be considered. These are: 1) the size of the groups and 2) the allocation of members into groups.
The size of groups
As discussed above, the size of each group depends on the group's task and the resources available for each group. However, as a general rule, groups of around four members tend to work well.
Four-member groups work well for a number of reasons. These include:
- students find it easier to organise meetings as there are less clashes with timetables.
- students get a larger piece of the work to do and feel they can make a meaningful contribution to the group assignment.
- students are more visible and accountable to each other. This often reduces the problems associated with the withdrawal of effort (eg. free-riding/shirking).
- there is less chance of fragmentation and the emergence of splinter groups.
- there is a greater chance that the group will become cohesive in a shorter amount of time.
- it is often easier for members to make collective decisions (eg. reach consensus).
However, four member groups do have a number of drawbacks. First, if a member leaves the group (eg. leaves the subject or transfers tutorials), this can create too much work for the three remaining members. It is therefore important not to establish the groups too early in the semester (eg. week one). It's best to wait a week or two until the class numbers settle. These weeks should be used to prepare students for group work (see Unit 2: Preparing Students for Group Work). Second, there will be more groups in the class (hence more management, marking, etc.). Although there will be more groups, the benefits of smaller sized groups far outweighs the costs.
The allocation of members into groups
There is no "one right way" to allocate students into groups. Rather, there are a number of practices you can use. Once again, these practices depend heavily on the task set for the group, the expertise of each student in the class and, most importantly, the learning objectives for the subject.
Most selection methods fall into four categories. These are:
- random appointment
- selective appointment
- task appointment
The first three methods are commonly used when groups are given the same group assignment (ie. a group essay or report on a pre-defined topic). The final assignment method is used when groups are able to choose from a number of pre-set topics. Rather than present a single method, all four of these methods will be discussed in order for you to weight up the options for each. A quick reference table outlining each method is included at the end of this unit.
Random Appointment. Many lecturers use some form of random appointment method to form groups. One of the most popular is the call-off system. This is when the lecturer walks around the room and assigns each student in the class a number or letter in a systematic call off (ie. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… etc. or A, B, C… A, B, C… etc.). Groups are then formed by putting all the 1's, 2's etc together. Other random appointment methods include students drawing numbers from a "hat" or the lecturer placing the students' names in the "hat" and then drawing them out.
Random appointment methods are often employed because they are seen as having a number of advantages. These include:
- They are relatively easy to administer as there is little preparation needed.
- They break up friendship groups (because most people sit with people they know and they are usually assigned into different groups).
- They allow people to work with people they ordinarily wouldn't. If a learning objective of the subject is for students to work with new people, this method increases the likelihood of this occurring.
- They are seen by some students as being relatively fair (because allocation is based on seat placement). This view is often voiced by students who do not know anyone else in the class.
The random appointment method does have some drawbacks, however. These include:
- Students feel they do not have any choice in the selection process (particularly those who know others in the class and would prefer to work with them).
- Students worry about the "pot luck" factor (ie. they have the chance to be assigned to a group with incompatible members).
- Students often view the random method as a "cop out" by lecturers. They consider that the lecturer has used the easiest formation option available. It can send the wrong message to students (that the lecturer doesn't care how the groups are formed).
Self Selection. In many instances, students are asked to form into groups themselves. Under these conditions, students usually know people in their class and choose to work with them. For those who do not know others in the class, these students tend to form groups with those they are sitting near or with others who may not know anyone either. At the postgraduate level, students often select to work with people who work in a similar field (from the typical introduce yourself session).
The main advantages of the self selection method are:
- It is easy to administer.
- Students like the opportunity to choose their fellow group members. For many, it's the safe option — "better the devil you know".
The main disadvantages of the self-selection method are:
- It can be difficult for students who do not know anyone else in the class. This is particularly the case for students who may be a minority in the class (eg. a mature aged or international student or a student with a disability). Many feel as though they are in the "unwanted" group and have had little, if any choice in the selection process.
- It is often seen as not being fair for all students in the class.
Selective appointment. An increasing number of lecturers are beginning to see the benefits of the selective appointment method. This method attempts to form groups based on a criteria. This can be a shared criteria (eg. mark aspirations, an available meeting time) or a specific criteria (eg. a skill or style).
The shared criteria method attempts to form homogeneous groups. It works on the assumption that groups work better when the members share something in common. One criteria lecturers are using is mark aspirations. Students are asked to think about what mark they aim to get for the subject. Students are then instructed to move to one of the four corners of the room (the HD, D, Credit and Pass corner). Groups are then formed from the students in each corner. Usually, there are only a few students in the HD, and D corners. Sometimes these two corners will have to merge to form one group. Often the Credit and Pass corners have a large number of students and need to be broken down further. This is achieved by separating the students into high credit and low credit and high pass and low pass. An alternative method is to break these corners on another criteria such as when students can meet up out of class (eg. before class or after class) or where they live (eg. North, South, East or West of UTS).
There are many advantages associated with the mark aspiration appointment system. These include:
- Students have some choice in the formation process.
- High achieving students do not feel as though their mark will be dragged down by students only aiming for a pass. This is particularly important to those students who need to attain particular marks to gain entry to an honours year or postgraduate studies.
- Students with lower mark aspirations do not feel the pressure to have to perform to someone's high standards. This is particularly the case if the student has made a decision that they only aim to pass the subject.
- It is relatively easy to administer with little preparation needed.
The mark aspiration system does have a few disadvantages. These include:
- Some consider the system disadvantages students with low aspirations. It is argued that these students do not have the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by high achievers. Proponents of the system usually address this concern by creating learning groups for tutorial activities. The formation of these groups are usually based on other allocation methods such as random allocation.
- Another concern relates to the Pygmalion effect — HD students will get HD's and pass students will get passes because this is the lecturer's expectation of the groups. Although the Pygmalion effect is acknowledged by the users of the system, some argue the pass groups benefit most. Lecturers know which groups may lack motivation, confidence, or knowledge and can work more closely with them.
- There is often some selection bias. Friends often go to the same "aspiration corner" and self select each other into a group. This can cause difficulties if there is one member in the group who is not known by the others. Lecturers tend to manage this concern by dividing friends up at the sub-division phase. This division may be necessary if working with new people is a key learning objective for the subject. If not, it is important to make sure that everyone is satisfied and comfortable with their group appointment.
The specific criteria method attempts to form heterogeneous groups. It works on the assumption that groups work better when the members are balanced. There are many criteria used to form groups. Some of the more popular methods use functional roles or learning styles. These systems involve students completing a questionnaire which is scored to determine a student's preference. Students with different styles are then appointed to each group so as to achieve the desired balance. There are a number of advantages to the specific criteria method. These include:
- Students feel the method of selection is fair.
- Students see themselves as "experts" and are motivated to demonstrate and apply their skills.
- Students learn about individual differences and how diversity can create synergy.
While effective, these methods do have drawbacks. These include:
- They can be time consuming. Questionnaires need to be administered and scored.
- It can be expensive. Licenses are usually required to administer the questionnaires.
- Most students have similar skills/styles. This usually creates an over-representation of some styles and an under-representation of others. This can cause problems when members are assigned to groups (ie. not all styles or preferences are covered in the group).
- Students may not want to exercise their style or preference. For example, they may want to try to develop skills or a style which they don't have.
Task appointment. Another popular method to form groups is the task appointment method. Here, the lecturer offers the students a number of topics and lets them select. Groups are generated from the topics nominated. Nomination for the task may involve submitting a preference sheet (students are usually required to rank order the topics from most to least preferred) or the students writing their name on a topic sign-up sheet.
The advantages of this approach are:
- Students are more motivated for group work when they choose their own topic.
- Students feel that the selection process of the group is fair.
- Students know they will be working with people who are also interested in the topic and have confidence there will be less shirking.
The disadvantages of the approach are:
- Occasionally, there are too many students wanting to do a particular topic and not enough members selecting others. Usually this problem is managed by the rank order system. If there are too many nominations for a particular topic, names are drawn (for the most popular topic) with the others getting their second preference. An alternative arrangement is to form a second group to work on the same topic. Another possible problem is when there are too few nominations for a particular topic. Under these circumstances, the student's second choice may need to be exercised.
- There can be a selection bias. Friends tend to sign up for the same topic in the hope of working together. This can create difficulties if "working with new people" is a key learning objective for the subject.
Options to consider
- Groups made up of local and international students can be problematic. Local students often complain they are like a defacto tutor and have to do all the writing up and editing. International students often feel intimidated by the local students and prefer work with other international students. If you want international students to work with the local students, you need to make sure that your learning objectives address this issue ( eg. the assignment may need to have an international perspective).
- Groups made up of full and part-time students often find it difficult to arrange meeting times.
- Watch out for spill overs from other classes. Sometimes, students are in the same group in another subject. If something goes wrong in that class, your groups can be affected.
Description of Method
Students are randomly appointed to groups (eg. via a call off system, drawing names from hat, etc.)
Students form their own groups
Students are appointed to groups based on criteria (eg. mark aspirations, specific skills, etc.)
Students are appointed to groups based on a preference for a particular assignment topic (offered from a range of choices)
Advantages of Method
- Easy to administer
- Easy to administer
- Students have some choice
- Students have choice
Disadvantages of Method
- No choice by students
- Difficult for students who don’t know others in the class (particularly minority students)
- Can disadvantage some students (particularly those with low mark aspirations)
- Often an over or under subscription for some topics (thus affecting the size of the groups)