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The Group Rumbler

I frequently use small group activities in my teaching, and I’ve written before about my low-tech approach to assigning and rotating student groups within a particular class. As I explained in that earlier post, I assign letters and numbers to each student on the roster (A1, B1, C1, D1, A2, etc) and then use those codes to sort them into groups. I also have created a simple spreadsheet that does this sorting for me, once I input the roster of names. This method works quite well for me, since my undergraduate classes usually contain only 30 students and I typically divide them into groups of four.

But what if you teach a much larger course, say of 50 or 80 students? What if you are running a summer program and want to make sure that students who live in the same dorm aren’t assigned to the same workgroup? What if you have several factors, such as gender, major, or work experience that you want to use in sorting students into groups?

Enter the Group Rumbler, or GRumbler, a tool designed by Malcolm K. Sparrow, a Professor of the Practice of Public Management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It is available free of charge as an Excel workbook (.xls file) from his website, along with extensive documentation. (Note: because this workbook contains macros, you will need to set your security level within Excel to low in order to use the file.)

The GRumbler allows you to define up to five variables in addition to gender that can be used to map conflicts in sorting students into groups. It then calculates the best ways to sort the students according to number desired in each group; whether you want gender to be balanced, clustered, or random; and the additional variables you’ve defined. It creates a sorted list of students for each iteration you require. You can also identify conflicts at the individual level to prevent specific students from being grouped together.

The GRumbler comes preloaded with a sample set of student data that you can use to work through the tutorial outlined in the documentation. I highly recommend using the tutorial, as this tool has many features that may not be immediately apparent. For myself, I found that the hour I spent learning how to use the GRumbler was well worth it, as it showed me several ways I could use this tool for both teaching and administrative tasks.

If you only teach smaller classes or have very simple requirements for how you divide your students into groups, you may not need the advanced capabilities that the GRumbler offers. But for those teaching large courses or desiring more finely-tuned ways of sorting students, the Group Rumbler offers a very helpful solution.

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