One of the keys to creating meaningful and flexible groups in the classroom is the purposeful placement of students into those groups. I have, at times, used random groupings (check out my post about 20 ways to group students in the world language classroom), which I find work well for class-culture building and engaging activities designed to encourage student-to-student chatter. However, I find for home groups and other groups based on readiness, interests, or learning preference, it is best to carefully create groups in advance. Here are some tips for creating effective student groups:
1. Use student note cards for making groups. Use your grade book program to print out one label for each student, and place it on a note card. Use this card to select student groups. Add information about student traits and grouping to this card throughout the year (such as "likes skateboard" or "a good leader when surrounded by other technophiles"). You can thus keep track of prior student groups and easily create others by moving student cards around until you find the best fit. This system works for keeping track of flexible groups as well as home groups.
2. Create balanced home groups. These are the groups that students work in when they enter into class or return to after working in other groups. Try to distribute students based on student traits (such as age, gender or interests.) Put one leader into each group. For home groups, I recommend a range of skill levels, putting a (generally) strong student next to a student with good readiness, one more student who is meeting most class standards, and a fourth student who may not have the same level of readiness. The "strongest" student should not be next to or across from the student who has the (generally) largest gap in skills. These two students often don't communicate well, and having two student buffers leads to more success for everyone. It's easier to create home groups after the first month of school, when you know your students better.
3. Change home groups each quarter/trimester. Keep students in home groups long enough for them to gain trust and create a comfortable group environment. Changing groups each quarter builds class culture and also gives the teacher the opportunity to adjust and reorganize student groups based on current student performance.
4. Even numbered groups. In my experience, groups of four students work the best and I prefer an even number to an odd number. A group of five is better than a group of three.
5. Carefully select seating locations. Place best friends facing in opposite directions or bad combinations of students across the room from each other. Put chronically late students near the door (fewer disruptions) or put a student with excess energy near the door to be the official door opener, providing an outline for movement.
6. Use group learning structures. I love many of the group structures by Kagan, such as the three-way interview or numbered heads together, which create a series of steps for students to complete in groups to finish the task. These structures can be reused and keep groups focused, dictating the process for communication. Groups are more on-task and effective when using group-learning structures.
7. Do team-building activities within groups. Create an environment where students can bond. Do quick warm-ups where students share information about themselves. My blog post about energizers contains some great team builders.
8. Use a group-work rubric. A rubric tells groups exactly what your expectations are for asking question, group roles, and behavior.
9. Have a way to get student attention. It may be a double clap, a specific sound effect, or the light switch. Having a method of gaining student attention is imperative for successful classroom management in a student-centered classroom.
10. Ask students for their feedback. Asking students for their feedback on the class and various activities helps to build class culture. Some of my best classroom practices have come from students.
There are ten ideas for creating effective student groups. What strategies have you used for productive group work in your own classroom?