As we are all aware, what the members of a group will be able to achieve together is largely determined by who is in the group. What is the best way for teachers to divide students into groups? In this tip, we suggest several alternatives, in addition to the well-known group-composition methods. We also address frequently asked questions on group size and such matters as dissolving student groups in case of problems. We conclude by considering group composition at the programme level.

‘The classics’:

In what ways can students be divided into groups?

  • Allowing students to choose for themselves
    Students are able to choose their own groups based on topic (motivation for specific content) or individual choice (preference for working with particular fellow students). Allowing students to choose their own groups has been shown to work best when they already know each other (e.g. in the later years of the Bachelor programme and/or in smaller groups). Self-chosen groups are often more cohesive (Davis, 2009 on group cohesiveness). At the same time, however, self-chosen groups are at greater risk of ‘group-think’ – the tendency to be less critical of each other’s ideas or work. In addition, self-selected groups are usually formed according to affinities (e.g. friendship, ethnicity or culture), such that some students are left behind to form a ‘leftover group’ (last one chosen). For this reason, it is advisable to encourage students to aim for diversity when they are allowed to choose their own groups, given that diverse groups have been shown to yield better finals results (Page, 2007).
  • By the teacher, based on specific criteria
    Groups can be composed based on specific criteria, including prior education, degree programme, prior knowledge (e.g. As derived from self-tests), gender or academic results (e.g. in a related module). Students could be placed in either homogeneous or heterogeneous groups, depending on the objective of the assignment. For example, within the framework of interdisciplinary projects, the teacher could choose to have students from different disciplines cooperate, with a view to inter-professional learning. In contrast, homogeneous groups can help students add depth to their own expertise.
  • By the teacher, at random
    Students are divided into groups at random (e.g. alphabetically or by student number). This manner of composition is easy to use, and it is therefore the most commonly applied for large groups of students. The student’s seat in the classroom can also be used for forming groups. One possible disadvantage is that students in such groups may not possess sufficient complementary skills to complete the assignment successfully. 

‘Is there any other way?’

What are the possible alternatives to these most commonly used strategies?

  • Adopting a combination strategy (Davis, 2009)
    Some teachers use a strategy that combines the aforementioned options. Students are asked to state their preferences (e.g. ‘List three people with whom you would like to work’), after which the teacher assigns students to groups with at least one of these three students. The list of preferences could also include a distribution according to specific criteria (e.g. ‘List three people with whom you would like to cooperate, taking into account variation in such characteristics as prior education, gender and cultural background’). Although this option poses somewhat more of a puzzle to the teacher, students are explicitly urged to consider diversity in group composition (see Study progress and diversity amongst academically at-risk students). For large groups, this type of group composition can be realised according to a short digital (or other) questionnaire.
  • Based on student self-evaluations (Davis, 2009)
    In this alternative, the teacher starts by identifying the three or four most important competences for succeeding in the group assignment (e.g. communication skills, analytical skills, technological skills, a background in a particular discipline). The students then assess themselves on these competences, ranging from weak to strong. For small groups, students can then indicate their strengths by show of hands during the lecture. This makes it possible to form groups in which at least one member is strong in each of the competences. For larger groups, this can be done digitally using a short survey.
  • Working with the jigsaw method
    The jigsaw method combines parallel group work (in which each group receives the same assignment) with complementary group work (in which each group receives a different assignment). Particularly in the first phase, students are divided into groups (at random), with each group being responsible for a partial assignment. In Phase 2, the students are re-divided into groups consisting of a representative from each of the groups from Phase 1. This essentially results in the formation of heterogeneous expert groups. This method allows students to approach a complex assignment from different perspectives, requiring them to compare the various ‘pieces of the puzzle’, which creates a certain measure of dependency. A less time-intensive variant consists of replacing Phase 1 with an individual assignment (possibly self-study).

How large should the groups be? 

(Davis, 2009)

  • A group size from four to five students is ideal.
  • Students perform small assignments best in groups of limited size, which can minimise free-riding. This will keep the groups small enough to monitor group cohesion.
  • Students with less experience in group work tend to work better in smaller groups.
  • One possible disadvantage of larger groups is that not all students are willing or able to participate in the group work. In larger groups, sub-groups are likely to emerge quickly (which can be beneficial for the assignment, as long as the sub-groups eventually come back together). 
  • Is it better to use groups of four or five students? Groups of four students offer the advantage of making it easier to work in pairs within the groups. In contrast, groups of five offer the advantage of allowing voting in case of specific difficulties.
  • The type of assignment also determines whether it would be better to have more or fewer students in a group. For example, observing a physician in a hospital should be done in a small group, while a brainstorming session could also be held in a larger group.

Once a group, always a group? 

(Davis, 2009)

  • It is not advisable to dissolve a group that is not functioning well (Barkley et al., 2004). This is because it is more difficult for students from a group that has been dissolved to find a place in another existing group, in which a particular group dynamic has already emerged. Moreover, a group that has been dissolved will not have the opportunity to learn how to cope with unproductive interactions. Intervention is obviously needed if the cooperation is seriously de-railed.
  • One option could be to re-arrange the groups at the start of a new assignment.
  • Students should also have the opportunity to learn how to cope with group conflicts, which are also likely to occur in their future professional practice. For group work, it is advisable to include an interim feedback system that provides students with the opportunity to make adjustments. One example could be a peer assessment, in which the group process is charted along the way, and then used as a base for a conversation (see also Peer Assessment).
  • In some cases, one member of the group can cause a breakdown in cooperation. If there is no option other than to remove this student from the group, the student can be placed in another group. The teacher can make this student responsible for setting up an additional interim feedback session in order to discuss the cooperation within the new (larger) group.

Last but not least

Do not underestimate the importance of group composition throughout a programme.

As stated at the beginning of this tip, there is no one ideal way to compose groups. It is nevertheless important for students to encounter different types of groups throughout the programme: groups that are composed both heterogeneously and homogeneously, with different types of fellow students and different patterns of cooperation. It is therefore advisable to vary the aforementioned strategies throughout the programme, in order to provide variation in the composition and size of the groups. This should also be coordinated with the other teachers in the programme.

Want to know more?

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2004). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Burke, A. (2011). Group Work: How to Use Groups Effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11 (2), 87-95.

Davis , B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. (chapter 21: Learning in groups, pp. 190-206)

Page, S. E. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.