Setting Up Groups

Do your students have prior experience
of group work?

Many students come to university with very little experience of group work. They don't necessarily have the social skills necessary for collaborating with peers. This can make group work activities very intimidating for them. If they don't receive adequate support and preparation time for group tasks, their learning experience in the group context may be a negative one.

Find out about students’ prior experience and approach to group work, so that you can design appropriate group work activities. Before they participate in group activities, introduce your students to skills such as handling group dynamics, recognising what makes an effective group, working in multicultural teams, developing good team presentation skills and peer assessment strategies.

Begin by asking them to share their prior experience of group work. You may find that some students, particularly International students, have never worked in groups before, or participated in any kind of learning activity that involves interaction with peers. For the students who have worked in groups before, ask them how they found the experience. What did they like? What didn't they?

The following discussion or written exercise may help students reflect on how they operate when in groups. Even students who have not experienced group learning activities in the classroom will have had some experience of group or team activities, e.g. in a sports team, a music or drama group.

Student exercise

What am I like when I'm in a group?

Complete the following sentences:

  • In groups I tend to…
  • In groups I tend to avoid…
  • I like groups where…
  • I don’t like groups where…
  • In this group I would like to be…
  • How I’d like this group to be for me…

(Adapted from G. Gibbs (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 20.)

What is the optimal size for groups?

The size of student groups should be appropriate for the specific learning outcome, project or task. For example, if you would like your students to experience an authentic group task or project (e.g. a collaborative design project in Engineering, a group exhibition in Fine Arts, or a group research project in Science), create group sizes that are comparable with those that would be used in the real world. This will give students the chance to address the types of issues that might occur in a professional context, and help them build the skills necessary to perform effectively in a group of a realistic size.

If students have limited prior experience of group work, groups of between 3 or 4 people are likely to work best. For students with more experience, groups of 4 to 6 might be more appropriate. It is important that group size allows for some diversity within groups and is appropriate in terms of project management. Groups with larger numbers can make it difficult for students to arrange meeting times outside class, and to keep track of individual contributions.

If you want to allow students to form their own groups, you can use the following handout to guide the process.

Student handout 1

Deciding on group size

The size of your group may have been fixed by your tutor. If it has not been, keep the following things in mind as you decide how many members to include:

  • Small groups tend to work faster and be easier to manage and coordinate . If the project is relatively small and of short duration, consider choosing a smaller group of 3 or 4.
  • A small group may lack the full range of expertise or team skills, including the creativity to produce good ideas. It can be vulnerable if one member drops out, falls ill or doesn't pull their weight.
  • Large groups (e.g. of 6–8) can generally cope with larger projects. For example, they can generate more ideas, get more work done, collect and analyse more data, do more background reading. They can also cover for missing or undermotivated members.
  • Large groups can be very difficult to organise. It can be particularly difficult to pull the work of a large group together, e.g. a group report or presentation. Larger groups need more structure, more formal meetings and clearer roles for each individual.
  • Groups of more than 8 require excellent project management skills and plenty of time to complete the task.

Adapted from G. Gibbs (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 9.

What are my options in terms of forming groups?

Option 1—Assign students to groups

There are different views on the best way to determine group membership. Teaching staff often find it preferable to assign students to groups rather than allowing them to select their own. This way students can be matched or mixed up depending on the desired outcomes. It is important to allow sufficient class time to assign students to groups.

Assigning students to groups helps to avoid ‘cliques’ or other groupings that might interfere with the groups’ project. If students are not happy being assigned to groups, it might be helpful to explain that they will not always be able to choose their group members in the workplace, and that learning to work effectively with a diverse group is an important skill in their profession.

Many overseas students appreciate the opportunity to work with and get to know local students, and diversity within groups can be valuable for all students. Groups with a mix of gender, age, culture, local and rural students provides a rich learning environment for students who can draw on a range of different experiences and perspectives.

Option 2—Use a random method of assigning groups

If you don’t feel comfortable assigning students to groups, you may wish to distribute coloured or numbered cards to students and ask students with the same colour or number to form a group. Once again, it is important to allow sufficient class time to assign students to groups. Note that randomly assigning students to groups will not necessarily result in groups with a diverse mix of students.

Option 3—Let students choose their own groups

There may be situations where it is preferable to let students choose their own groups e.g. if you would like groups to consist of students who are interested in the same topic, have mutual goals, or students with compatible timetables etc. In such cases, you might like to use an ice-breaker or activity to help students discover which of their class members they might like to work with. As suggested above however, this can often result in students forming groups with friends only, and students may not benefit from the diversity of experiences that their peers have to offer.If you decide to let students choose their own groups, the following handout might be useful.

Student handout 2

Deciding on group membership

Things to consider:

  • Selecting group members isn’t just about getting together with friends. In fact groups of friends can sometimes work poorly together on projects because they may not feel they can be tough enough with each other.
  • Neither is it simply a matter of choosing the brightest or those who get high marks. Bright students might be incompatible and very poor at cooperating with each other.
  • Effective groups contain a balanced range of types of group member whose different strengths complement each other. For example, it is no good having a group of creative people with no one who is good at project management.
  • It can also be a disaster to have a group full of leaders with no workers.
  • It is useful to consider your personal strengths and preferences so that you are clear on what you might bring to a group. This will help you to select group members so that you get a balanced pattern of strengths and preferences to help determine group members’ roles and responsibilities.

Adapted from G. Gibbs (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 9.