You have a team project in your course this semester. Should you encourage students to form their own teams? Or should you put them into groups? Will it make any difference in the overall outcome of the project?
As you consider your decision, you might imagine the possible results of each scenario. If you put students into groups, you foresee students asking for changes so that they can work with friends or in a more comfortable situation. If you allow students to form their own teams, you worry that some students might be excluded, or that students might feel pressured to do work on behalf of less capable peers. What factors could guide your decision?
Essentially, instructors have three options when placing students into teams:
- Allowing students to select their own groups.
- Assigning students to groups randomly.
- Assigning students to groups strategically based on set criteria.
There is some evidence that students work more effectively when they choose their own groups. In self-selected groups, students may begin with a sense of belonging, and as a result they feel a stronger sense of obligation to contribute well to the group project (Aggarwal & O’Brien, 2008). Does this mean that it is always best to let students choose their own groups?
As I’ve talked to students about their experiences with group projects, it has been interesting to note their feelings on the subject. Some students express that they would like to gain more experience working in diverse teams, but are unsure of how to reach out to students different from themselves Is there a way to assign students to groups in a way that is likely to create a shared sense of ownership of the group project?
Assigning students to groups strategically can lead to diverse teams while minimizing student frustration about team members lack of equal contribution to the work. In one study, students were assigned to teams based on their expressed level of motivation (measured by the amount of time they intended to spend on the project), and their schedules. Highly motivated students were matched together based on schedules, while students with lower levels of motivation were also matched together. Students matched with this method were less likely to “free-ride” on the contributions of others, and produced stronger final products (Harding, 2018). Other possible considerations when strategically grouping students are skill sets and ability levels.
Why might this strategy be successful?
- In some group projects, high performing students who are concerned about their grades on final projects may limit the contributions of students they perceive as less capable. If groups are more equal in ability level, all students are able to contribute their best product to ensure the group’s success.
- In some cases, students with multiple commitments may not have the flexibility to commit the same level of time as other peers – regardless of their ability or achievement level. By grouping them with others with similar schedules, groups are less likely to experience conflict about time commitment.
- Students who may be inclined to “free-ride” if they are grouped with highly motivated students are required to commit effort to team projects when matched with similar students (Harding 2018).
What else might you want to consider? Team size is another important variable. Small teams are more effective than larger teams. As teams grow, there is less of a sense of commitment to the group as a social unit, and more opportunity to rest on the work of others in the group (Aggarwal & O’Brien, 2008). Groups of 2-4 students may be a better choice than larger teams.
By thoughtfully and strategically organizing student teams, you can help your students move one step closer to effective learning experiences through team projects.
Aggarwal, P., & O’Brien, C. L. (2008). Social loafing on group projects: structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, 30(3), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475308322283
Harding, L. M. (2018). Students of a feather “flocked” together: a group assignment method for reducing free-riding and improving group and individual learning outcomes. Journal of Marketing Education, 40(2), 117–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475317708588