Certainly, you could choose any number of ways to assign groups for group assignment: pull names out of a hat; have students select teammates; go by last name (a.k.a. the “potluck” method — all students A-L are in Group 1, M-S in Group 2, etc.). You could even have students count off in class to determine their group number.

However, if you want to encourage maximum participation, collaboration, and achievement for a significant group assignment, you may opt for a method that increases the likelihood of student success and satisfaction.

Though not an exact science, there are certainly steps you can take to lead in the direction of positive outcomes. In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Svinicki and McKeachie offer the following suggestions for designing groups that lead to effective, cooperative learning experiences:

Do form the groups yourself. Ask students how they prefer to work in a group; also consider asking if they have any preferences that relate to your specific assignment (e.g., interest in a particular topic, field, or course of study). Then, form the groups according to these areas of interest. The authors have found that structuring groups based on interests keeps students more focused on the task at hand, and also mitigates the complicated dynamics that arise when students self-select and form groups based on friendship ties.

Do encourage a discussion about students’ standards for successful group interactions. Then, ask students to agree and commit to those standards. Spell out the consequences for breaking that agreement: Will they have to find another group, or would they have to complete the project individually? If you are concerned about monitoring group interactions over the duration of a longer-term class assignment, consider conducting a survey at the term’s midpoint. Students can then assess their own contributions to the group to that point, and offer any feedback regarding group processes or other aspects of the experience. The information you receive will provide a window into the groups’ progress.

Do make sure students are clear on the requirements of the assignment. Before the class period ends, you may wish to ask students about their “next steps”: What is their plan for the assignment? Where will their group next meet, and when? Ensuring that students are confident about your expectations, as well as how they will proceed, will lay the groundwork for a strong start.

Do walk around and listen to group discussions if the work takes place during class time. Your presence can help the groups stay on track. It also gives students an opportunity to ask for clarification.

Do consider conducting peer evaluations at the end of the project. The authors find that students’ written feedback provides an aggregate picture of each individual’s contributions to the assignment. (pp. 198-200)

What are your strategies for designing effective groups? Share them with us in the comments.

Reference:Content adapted from Svinicki, Marilla and McKeachie, Wilbert J. 2011. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.