Grouping students for maximum success and comfort

Sometimes I go to a workshop and the presenter hands out a piece of paper and then tells you to find a partner (or a group of 3) to discuss it with.  Even as a grown-up, there is often that moment of dread.  Who will I talk to?  What if no one wants to be my partner?  I don’t know these people! Oh, it looks like everyone has a partner now; what should I do?  Maybe I will go to the washroom!

Another presenter will do the same activity but randomly number or colour code the papers.  The instruction will be to find the partner with the same colour or number and talk about the paper.  I don’t mind these nearly as much.  I know I will have a partner.  There is no looking, no trying to catch someone’s eye, no having to approach someone.  I enjoy these kinds of interactions.

As a teacher I often wanted my students to work in partners or in groups.  But, I will admit, I didn’t often think about how I would achieve the groupings.  And if I hadn’t planned that part then I resorted to “find a partner or a group of 3”.  It was easy for me, as the teacher, to give that instruction.  Invariably there would be a few kids leftover at the end and I would put them together.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I have been thinking about it more recently.

A new student came to my office this week.  She is struggling to fit in.  She told me she had no friends.  She said she hated it when the teacher asked everyone to find a partner and no one chose her.  I remembered how I felt at meetings, even meetings where I know people.

These days I observe classes more than I teach them and I see things I never saw when I was teaching.  When I am in classes where students are told to find a partner, inevitably students start to make eye contact.  Some students keep their heads down.  One or two students are always swarmed by a number of students and have the luxury of choosing their partner.  There are always one or two students that quickly bop around to numerous students trying to find someone who will say yes.  Some students grab onto another student’s arm and won’t let go, staking out their partner early.  And then, there are always some students left at the end.  Frequently when these students are paired up there is eye rolling or faces.

Now when I teach, even adults, I never say “choose a partner” unless I am totally disorganized.  And then, invariably, I regret it.  Here are some things to think about when grouping students in order to create maximum learning and maximum comfort for your students:

  1. Do you want students in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups?  If it matters, and sometimes it does, you need to make the groups ahead of time.  I suggest a variety of groupings so that the same students aren’t always paired together.
  2. Is there value in having students work with the same partner or group over time? I think so.  I think that trust builds over time and students are more likely to feel comfortable and take risks.
  3. Peter Liljedahl has done research on Visible Random Groupings where students are randomly assigned different working partners as they enter the room (http://www.peterliljedahl.com/wp-content/uploads/Visibly-Random-Groups-June-20-2013.pdf). He finds that this type of grouping works better than any other type of grouping and that teachers who try it also stick with it and do not go back to letting students pick their own partners.  You can assign numbers, group kids by colour, birthday, height, favourite songs etc.  It doesn’t appear to matter just that students see that all groupings are random and the expectation is that they will learn to work with their group.

Do consider the power we give to some students and the angst we cause other students simply by saying “choose your partner”.  Try random groupings.  Try working partners for the month.  See what works best for you.

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Filed under classroom environment, collaboration, pedagogy

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