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Assigning Students to Small Groups

zebrasI use small groups quite often in my teaching, primarily for in-class activities rather than for projects requiring collaboration among group members outside of class time. Most of my undergraduate courses are lecture/discussion courses, so I use small group activities either early in the class hour in order to prepare students for the day’s discussion, or as a way of changing pace midway through a class period.

Give the Groups Clear Instructions

Giving students clear, focused tasks to accomplish in a group of 3-4 people is an excellent way to prepare them for class discussion. For instance, I might have them discuss an open-ended question like “who is the protagonist in this novel” first in small groups, before the class as a whole tackles it—this always helps to engage a larger number of people in the discussion.

I sometimes assign each group a particular task, usually to practice a skill I’ve been modelling for them. For instance, I might assign each group a stanza of the poem, ask them to analyze the language in it, and then be ready to explain it to the larger class. Or I might ask each group to find three passages in the day’s reading that relate to a particular topic we’ve been discussing and be ready to present them to the class. For more complex tasks, it’s also helpful to ask each group to assign roles to its members: notetaker, reporter to the class, etc.

Assign and Rotate Group Membership

In order to facilitate this group work, I assign students to small groups using a rotation system and the alphabetical course roster. I change the groups three times during the semester, approximately every 4-5 weeks. I also ensure that students are never in groups with the same students again. I do this to avoid the social problems that can arise from having students choose their own groups, either on an ad-hoc basis (“find three people next to you”) or for permanent groups. By assigning the groups, and letting students know that I will be changing the groups three times during the semester, they know that if they don’t particularly like the group they’ve wound up in, it’s not forever. By rotating them with different students, they get to know more people in the class, which tends to help them feel more comfortable participating in discussion.

With assigned groups, I can say “go sit with your small groups” and that change can be made fairly quickly. I like the added benefit that most of my students will have to get up and move around a bit in the classroom (I always request classrooms with movable chairs for this reason, so that we can move out of rows and into clusters when needed). This helps raise the level of energy in the room.

An Easy Way to Assign Groups

I use a very simple, low-tech method of drawing up my group rotation. I assign students to groups of 4. I take the course roster and number each student name with a sequence of four letters: A1, B1, C1, D1, A2, B2, C2, D2, etc. I usually have 30-32 students in an undergraduate course so the list will run A1-A8, but for the purposes of this example I’m using a total of 16 students.

The first rotation is compiled by putting the numbers together:

  • Group 1 = A1, B1, C1, D1
  • Group 2 = A2, B2, C2, D2
  • Group 3 = A3, B3, C3, D3
  • Group 4 = A4, B4, C4, D4

The second rotation is compiled by putting the letters together:

  • Group 1 = A1, A2, A3, A4
  • Group 2 = B1, B2, B3, B4
  • Group 3 = C1, C2, C3, C4
  • Group 4 = D1, D2, D3, D4

The third rotation is compiled by staggering the numbers throughout the list to ensure they don’t repeat:

  • Group 1 = A1, B2, C3, D4
  • Group 2 = A2, B3, C4, D1
  • Group 3 = A3, B4, C1, D2
  • Group 4 = A4, B1, C2, D3

Because I’m a visual learner, I can see the patterns more easily by thinking about this with letters and numbers (and thus can work with more complicated combinations of total students or group sizes). When necessary, of course, you can convert these references to the consecutive numbers on the original roster of students.

Thus the first rotation would be:

  • Group 1 = 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Group 2 = 5, 6, 7, 8
  • Group 3 = 9, 10, 11, 12
  • Group 4 = 13, 14, 15, 16

The second rotation would be:

  • Group 1 = 1, 5, 9, 13
  • Group 2 = 2, 6, 10, 14
  • Group 3 = 3, 7, 11, 15
  • Group 4 = 4, 8, 12, 16

The third rotation would be:

  • Group 1 = 1, 6, 11, 16
  • Group 2 = 5, 10, 15, 4
  • Group 3 = 9, 14, 3, 8
  • Group 4 = 13, 2, 7, 12

I’ve set up a spreadsheet that I use as a template for calculating my group rotations each semester, using simple cell references. All I have to do is copy and paste the names from my alphabetical roster into the first column. It takes a bit of time to set up initially, but then it makes things much easier for each subsequent semester.

Obviously, if you needed to have more than three rotations, there are many more combinations you could use, even with removing all redundancies.

Do you have another way of assigning and rotating your students into small groups? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user amanderson2]

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