Selecting groups

An effective group selection process can can reduce problems within groups and improve the quality of the assignments.

Good group selection means students are more engaged in the group project and take more responsibility for their group members. This in turn reduces the issues that staff have to deal with, and often results in improved assignments as well. Ideally, groups should have four to five members, and students should be able to negotiate into and out of groups early in the process.

The big question with group selection is, should you let students self-select their own groups and rules within those groups?

The answer, according to most students and many lecturers, is yes. Students by far prefer to self-select their groups, as they have the opportunity to choose people who they could work well with. It also means that students are much more likely to take responsibility for their own groups, as they made the choice to be in that group. The same goes for choosing rules.

There are some circumstances where self-selection may not be the best option:

  • when group selection is dependent on students' topic of interest
  • when a key learning objective of the project seeks to simulate a workplace situation where people may be placed with others they do not agree with or work well with, then groups can be assigned randomly. If this is the case, then the project will need to involve a lot of staff support, for example, frameworks and interim check-ins to reduce potential problems. Projects such as these tend to work much better if they include a real-life aspect, for example, an external organisation as a client company.

The issues with group selection tend to be common and widespread across courses. Below are the main issues, along with solutions that have worked.

Issue 1: groups tend to lack diversity

  • Set guidelines for group member composition, for example, three different cultures, both genders, multiple majors (when feasible), different working styles (for this, a quiz should be conducted first to discover individuals' working styles).
  • Design the question so that diverse groups gain an advantage. For example, ask for a comparison between practices in New Zealand and in an Asian country related to the course content before the groups self-select, and emphasise that groups with both NZ and Asian members will have an advantage over other groups.

Issue 2: students tend to go with their friends and do not meet new people

  • Set groups within tutorials. Often timetable clashes mean that groups of friends are in different tutorials.
  • Use the solutions from Issue 1 to promote diversity in groups. This will also help to break up groups of friends.
  • Include lots of icebreakers and activities requiring student interaction, so they are comfortable forming a group with students they have recently met.
  • Ask students to select their preferred topic for the assignment, and then ask them to form groups with others who have chosen the same topic.

Even where groups are selected appropriately, issues can still arise in group dynamics.

Issue 3: group members have very different expectations and working standards

  • Get students to share a few key things about their working style before they choose their group members. For example, what grade they are aiming for, how much time do they intend to put into the project, and do they work well last-minute? They could write answers to these questions on a piece of paper and then wander around to find their groups in class, or do the same online in a discussion forum.
  • Use the group rules template to get groups to agree on a set of rules before they start work on the project.
  • Provide clear guidelines for how much time groups are expected to spend on each stage of the project (for example, three hours per person each week).