Fair Play

Grouping students to ensure success


How many times have you heard a boss announce,  “Johnson and Jensen… your names start with the same letter, so I’m teaming you up to work on this presentation”?  Or what about, “Hey, you’re a real go-getter with a record of success.  We’ll put you with that guy who never shows up on time and forwards inappropriate comic strips to everyone.  Don’t worry though.  After three months of carrying the majority of the work load in order to keep up your high standards, you’ll be able to tell us in a survey that he did a bad job”?

These would be unwise ways for a business to build productive teams, so why would we do this to students?  The short answer is that it’s easy, and it might be the least-bad option for splitting a class into groups.


1) Students choose to work with their friends.  Sorry non-traditional students.  We’ll throw you left-over people together in groups that will have a more difficult time because of your probable differences in culture.  But the good news is that the groups comprised of friends can avoid learning from different viewpoints.

2) Instructors choose groups based on skills, personalities, and/or schedules.  The logistics of this are tough, depending on how conscientious you are about creating fair groupings.  What type of skill/personality survey will you conduct?  How do you organize and rank the student data?  How many late nights do you plan on spending as you move color-coded Post-it ™ notes with students’ names over an elaborate diagram of possibilities?  Is the benefit worth the time?  (To move past the Post-it ™ note method, try this free online tool.)

3) Random or alphabetical assignment.  Research shows that nothing positive is created by this method.   The group is rarely greater than the sum of its parts. Hopefully, some of the groups will randomly have members whose skills, personalities, and schedules work together well, but there is no way to ensure this.  But it is technically “fair,” since everyone has an equal probability of being in a dysfunctional group.

So what’s the answer?  Well, here is an answer, from a 2003 study of university students, entitled Using Student Skill Self-Assessments to get Balanced Groups for Group Projects.  It combines the benefit of choosing groups based on desired skills, with the “fairness” and efficiency of the randomly-chosen method.

The Process:

  1. Determine what skills and roles are necessary to successfully complete the team project.  (Word processing skills, public speaking experience, prowess with statistics, mechanical ability…)
  2. Have students rank these according to how they would most like to contribute to their groups.
  3. In a face-to-face class, simply have students raise their hands to show which role they want to play in the project, and randomly split them into your desired number of groups.  Actually have them get up and move around the room to their groups.  It will be the most exciting class they have all day.  Rotate through the roles until all students are grouped, and check that all groups have the necessary members to complete the project.

The bonus is that group work will start faster, since roles are pre-assigned.  The study reported that this strategy took only 10 minutes to complete in a lecture class of over 50 students, and it led to a 0% complaint rate in student-teacher interactions and in end-of-term evaluations regarding group work.    Students saw the value in the grouping method and appreciated its benefits.

Like any recommendations for teaching strategies, you should individualize this to meet your needs.  Here are some variations that might be necessary:

  • For an online class you can’t use the hand-raising method, so it will be a bit more like the Post-it ™ note shuffle, but focusing on roles rather than a on a complex personality test will make the process a bit easier.
  • You can still base your groups off of something like a personality test if you want to.  It’s your rodeo.  The hand-raising, whole-class-moving method of group division might be a more efficient way for you to do this than what you currently do.
  • The study that investigated this method also had a “Jack of All Trades” role for students who felt confident in multiple roles.  Using this option might break down the effectiveness of having pre-assigned roles, since this person doesn’t have an explicit job.  Unmotivated students might opt for this, thinking that this will keep them from being in charge of any one part of the project.  But students who genuinely want to help in any and all ways possible might like this option.
  • Preferred work schedules might be another criterion to consider in either online or face-to-face classes, especially big ones.  Having students first decide whether they prefer to get together with their groups on M/W/F or on T/Th evenings might split a large group in half, making a less daunting sorting challenge when it’s time to assign roles to teams.  For online classes the options might be between between days of the week, times of the day, or week days vs. weekends.
  • Worried about students hunkering down in a comfort zone and not developing other skills throughout your course?  The next time you group students, ask them to choose a different role than they chose the first time.
  • If students will be working toward an end-of-term goal then you can keep them together through multiple projects, but if the group activities are not specifically connected to each other, many sources recommend changing group members throughout the semester.  Students get a chance to get a new team and experience working with a greater variety of ideas shared by team members.  And in the hopefully rare instance that a team isn’t working well together, they know that they are not doomed for the rest of the term.

One final variation, particularly appropriate for large capstone projects at the end of your course.

  • Have them apply for jobs.  When I taught high school Chemistry the year-end project was to form soap companies and research, manufacture, and market their own brands of soap.  I gave out instructions for the project that included job descriptions, and students filled out realistic job applications.  Rather than choosing teams myself, I chose the top applicants for CEO positions in the desired number of soap companies, and the CEOs reviewed the students’ applications and negotiated together to choose their teams from the applicants.  Keep in mind that this project came after teaching these students for 8 months, so I had a good idea of who was best suited to be in charge of a company, but this may be something that you would like to try for your big projects.  Students knew their roles and responsibilities, they had an established hierarchy to limit confusion about who was supposed to turn in which document, and they could each use their own skills, many of which were developed in other disciplines, to shine a spotlight on different aspects of the chemistry of their company’s soap.  (If you want more information about how this project worked and how you might tweak it for your course, email me.)

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