This is my first post to the community. I am currently researching on the criteria that make grouping of students as efficient as possible. There are many methods that a professor in an international university program could use to sort the groups of students in class. Nationality, age, educational background, GPA so far, age, level of interest on the course, genre, combinations of them etc. I am creating this post, to try and gather all the opinions on what criteria you use in your classrooms to make your groups as efficient as possible and if you have tried any different scenarios of grouping, what are the results you came across?

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    Questions: i) Which kind of activities are you interested in? ii) Which kind of efficiency do you want to maximize? Notes: I teach in an international university program. I don't have access to any of the pieces of information you have listed, apart from genre and nationality, which I can guess from the students' names and photographs. In my courses, groups are needed for lab sessions about electronic circuits and measurements. The criterion I use is to hand them a piece of paper, or the electronic equivalent of it, with grouped empty cells, and say: fill your names in ;-) Mar 17, 2015 at 20:57
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    Thank you very much for your comment! Basically i am looking into MSc courses that groups of 3-6 students are formulated and together make group reports throughout the semester. Group reports are mostly generated through heavy brainstorming and thats what i am looking to maximize. Professors have access to all the criteria that i already mentioned in my university. But it is not a problem to collect any kind of information, as students are asked to fill forms before signing up for a course. I am talking about maximizing group work efficiency mostly in an international setting/university. Mar 17, 2015 at 21:14

3 Answers 3


Having seen this be done in various ways, I'll suggest 2 successful approaches I have seen used.

The first is to split students into groups based on a combination of class performance to date (from mini tests or assignments), and attendance at class. Obviously this requires we have attendance records, but these are available on account of the main class activity being a programming lab, where attendance on lab computers is recorded during a scheduled class.

We found the by considering class performance alone, students could end up in groups where they were of similar ability, yet one (or more) had significantly better work ethic and attendance than the others. I won't go into correlation between attendance and work ethic here as I feel it's off topic for this question. I will add that we see a clear and undeniable correlation between attendance and class performance, but work ethic is obviously difficult to quantify or measure.

I suggest you also group students by course for logistical reasons, as it makes it easier for students with similar timetables to meet outwith the class. This may be less appropriate or indeed unnecessary if your students have free choice in classes, or if you use the American style "major" system, rather than the UK-style where a "course" is the major, following a somewhat prescribed curriculum.

An alternative approach (to which I do not claim any credit over whatsoever, but alas am unsure of the originator of), which I shall not express an opinion on, is to offer the class a choice - either I (instructor) assign your groups, or you can. If you pick your own groups, that's it - final. No mark reallocation and negotiation and peer assessment. Alternatively, I (instructor) pick groups, but we have a peer assessment phase and divide marks according to contribution.

The rationale of the latter approach (which I again highlight I unfortunately don't know the originator of) is that it forces students to think more carefully as to who they work with, rather than just a friend. Obviously your own policies may prelude this, or require peer assessment of contribution etc.

My experience is that in the latter case, students prefer to have the instructor assign groups, when faced with the prospect of having to select groups based on ability, rather than blind loyalty and friendship. By giving the students the choice over how the groups are decided, they have had input into the process, and we receive significantly less complaints regarding group allocations when doing this, compared to setting groups without offering the "choice". In the event the students chose to pick their own groups (which is incredibly rare), you simply need to ensure everyone has a group, and that you stick to your policy on the group mark being final (note there are many considerations as to if this is valid or if it perhaps allows weak students to be carried, but I shall avoid discussing them for now as I feel they are relatively obvious to any instructor)

In terms of student efficiency, I find the ability/attendance composite works nicely. I don't have experience of the other criteria for grouping on, other than anecdotally where (by coincidence) a group of international exchange students asked if they could be split up, as they wanted the chance to try working with other people than their own cohort (from the same university and course). In that case it was simply a coincidence due to a group of exchange students performing best in the class.


Let them self-organize. Then whatever happens will not be your fault. Plus students might want to work with people they are friends with.

I suggest using Piazza in your classes, and creating a "search for teammates" post, so people who don't know anyone in the class can still find groups.

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    By letting students self organize you normally get people from the same country form groups, friends or even worse many times they do not know anyone so they make groups with people that do not share the same ambition for the course. I am looking to maximize the efficiency of group work (and with that i mean brainstorming) into an international setting/university. Mar 17, 2015 at 21:17
  • @donparalias: "they make groups with people that do not share the same ambition for the course": Doesn't that provide them with the best opportunity imaginable to learn how to work in realistic groups, like what they will have to cope with throughout their professional life? Mar 17, 2015 at 21:58
  • Yes you are absolutely right. And maybe this would be an excellent scenario too, put together people with diverse expectations. However, we are talking about classes that are heavily based on group work. Having people with you to enjoy a "free ride" while others work much more efficiently is a situation that most students do not want to end up with. Also be careful, we are not talking about different GPA but for different course expectations. You can not put together in an entrepreneurship course for example someone who wants to start a startup with someone that course is simply mantandory. Mar 17, 2015 at 22:46
  • Also i think you are missing the point here. I am looking on how to divide people in groups that could make them as efficient and effective as possible when it comes to group work and brainstorming. It is not a matter of teaching them a lesson for real life. In real life anyway a project manager would most definetely group people in the most efficient way to get the job done. I am just looking on what criteria someone would use in an academic level to get the outmost of a class. Mar 17, 2015 at 23:02

First, I think many of your proposed criteria would fail independently, because they emphasize fairly abstract metrics that don't capture the qualities of an efficient group, which are things like communication, synchrony, logistical compatibility.

Second, setting aside the issue of metrics, how do you define the maximum? Must we attain the maximum possible efficiency for all groups (unlikely), the maximum for the most (or least, or median) efficient group? To reduce the problem, given a particular set of groups, if a swap could be made that reduces the efficiency of one group and increases the efficiency of the other, how do you decide whether to make the swap? Basically, this is a challenging search space over which you don't have the ability to do any real searching unless you reassign people at will.

That might sound like an excuse, but it's really an important pedagogical consideration: should you prioritize the bottom, middle, or top of the class, given that the others may suffer from your decision?

All that being said, I think the most effective way to produce long-term groups is to first work in small random groups in class a few times, and then self-select while reserving the ability to make swaps which are mutually beneficial (i.e. no dumps). Unlike gdp, I don't see any reason not to factor group contributions in when grading, as this seems like a sort of arbitrary punishment for wanting to choose your group members.

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