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In the past, when forming student groups in class I've always allowed the students to form their own groups, which has certainly made them happy as they tend to form around social circles. As a side note, students at my school go together as classes so they have years where they know all the other people in their class quite well.

However, I'm considering doing things differently this time. I'm thinking to actively form the groups in such a way that strong students are in groups with weak students and average students - that is, groups are balanced and there are no 'strong' or 'weak' groups. I believe I can simply randomly pick students for each group and as long as strong, normal, and weak exist in roughly equal numbers, I will naturally achieve my goals, at least for the most part.

What I'm really wondering is if anyone knows the effects of student groups being formed by teachers as opposed to being formed by students themselves when those students have a strong social connection because of traveling though university as a group.

Edit: The class size is 70 and the group size is five.

Edit(2): While the studying will be done in teams, individual members are assessed individually - social loafing will hurt the loafer the most.

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    What are the sizes of the groups we considering here? – Nicholas Apr 16 '13 at 14:50
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    I believe I can simply randomly pick students for each group and as long as strong, normal, and weak exist in roughly equal numbers, I will naturally achieve my goals, at least for the most part. — So, it's not a probability class, then. – JeffE Apr 16 '13 at 16:44
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    @JeffE: It should work in the limit of an infinite class size! – aeismail Apr 16 '13 at 16:52
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    @aiesmail: No, even in the limit, 1/9 of the groups would be all-weak and 1/9 would be all-strong. – JeffE Apr 16 '13 at 17:41
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    There's an additional thing to think about here: the quality of the work handed in by a group vs. the benefit for each individual student. In theory, if you have one strong student in each group, and all the other students in the group slack off and let the strong one do most of the work (which has been my very frustrating experience as a strong student), then the quality of the average assignment will go up, but not the amount learned by each student. – Ana Apr 17 '13 at 12:10
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My armchair researching dug up a lot of articles about this. I'm not an education scholar but here's a brief slice of some results from some research in the business education literature.

From Randall S. Hansen (2006): Benefits and Problems With Student Teams: Suggestions for Improving Team Projects, Journal of Education for Business, 82:1, 11-19

In their related work section, their works surveyed suggest that professor-selected groups appear to have a more positive experience.

However, Muller (1989) stated that student preferences are not necessarily the most important criterion for successful group work, whereas Koppenhaver and Shrader (2003) suggested that instructor-assigned teams lead to more stability in membership, and that stability enhances each team’s ability to perform effectively. Contrary to earlier researchers, Hernandez (2002) stated that student teams should be formed by the instructor, and that students are more likely to have a positive learning experience when groups are selected by the professor.

In an empirical study by Praveen Aggarwal and Connie L. O'Brien (2008): Social Loafing on Group Projects: Structural Antecedents and Effect on Student Satisfaction, Journal of Marketing Education. 30:255, they hypothesize that self-selection of groups might reduce social loafing, based on some related work below:

[...] This prediction has some precedence in the pedagogical literature. Groups formed by the students instead of random assignment by the instructor are assumed to be more cohe- sive, more productive, and experience a lower incidence of social loafing (Strong & Anderson, 1990). Mahenthiran and Rouse (2000) found that paired groups of friends had less incidence of social loafing than randomly assigned groups.

However, after their empirical study of 420 students in marketing and marketing-related fields, they conclude that there's no effect of student self-selected teams on social loafing.

In this study we proposed four such factors: reducing the scope of the project, reducing group size, allowing students to self-select group members, and including multiple peer evaluations. Three of the four factors were found to have an impact on social loafing.

The only one that didn't have an impact was self-selection.

So one paper says that self-selection is worse, another says it generally doesn't matter. This might suggest that there are other factors that you may want to consider first with respect to making teams perform.

However, as mentioned, I'm not a business education researcher, and these projects might not generalize to other domains either. For example, the fact that these two papers don't cite a similar body of work might suggest that there's a lot more stuff out there. If someone out there is able to expand on this that would be excellent.

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  • Although I did not read those papers, I believe there are some values in them. My concern is that, were the studies conducted based on the eduction system similar to the one the OP is in? As far as I know, all the students in the OP's class know each other very closely in a number of years. – scaaahu Apr 17 '13 at 6:06
  • Nice list of references. much better than my speculations :) – Suresh Apr 17 '13 at 6:48
  • @scaaahu: I cannot generalize these papers to the OP's situation, since I don't know enough about either the body of literature nor the OP's class and students. However, given the preliminary evidence it appears that combating the "good and bad" group perception might be better done through breaking the project up into smaller units, reducing group sizes (five is plenty small already), and by introducing multiple peer evaluations before worrying about group formation method. In absence of other evidence, those suggestions all sound reasonable. – Irwin Apr 17 '13 at 16:22
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I have a practical suggestion based on a course I used to attend.

It was a natural continuation of another course (which was a requirement), and the majority of the student body from the first course was proceeding to take the second course.

The only team leaders were picked by the professor, in a sense that the best students from the previous class were team leaders, and were free to form their group as they wanted.

This ensured several things:

  • no "elite" team with only the top students

  • the groups were formed mostly to students liking

  • some degree of balance was naturally present

    (e.g. we grouped on purpose with 6:4 in favor of "stronger" students, because we were allowed to distribute the assignment grade on our own, and that way non-perfect score still meant everybody got approximately the grade they wanted which coincided mostly with their effort: non-perfect project was not a tragedy)

  • on the previous class, a small number of students were actually "pushed" to go the extra mile, do exceptionally, and provide a team leader for their social group

From the student perspective, at least, it worked pretty well. If you say the student body is not changing that much from class to class, maybe something similar could work.

The downside might be that an "elite" group is clearly identified, but if it is based on objective criteria, and not seemingly the random whiff of a professor, it does not seem so bad.

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I am not sure this is a good idea in your case,

They go together as classes so they have years where they know all the other people in their class quite well.

So, there is a long story in their social circles. You really don't want to be part of that story.

For example, if student A and student B happen to be dating the same person, where do you put A and B?

In addition to balance skills, I can understand one of your purposes is to let them work together as professionals regardless their personal relationships. In the real world, it would work if there is a good group leader.

In your case, how do you find 14 good leaders from 70 students? (group size is 5)

Note that you mention strong, average and weak students. I would like to emphasize that it is not too hard to find 14 strong students from 70 students. However, it is not an easy task to find 14 good leaders from a 70 student class.

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  • I'm hoping that the strong students will 'step up' and become good leaders. It might be wishful thinking. – earthling Apr 17 '13 at 5:00
  • @earthling You may have 14 strong students in a 70-student class. But, strong students may not be good leaders. I grew up from that kind of college system (in Taiwan). In my experience, there is a handful of good leaders in a 50-student class in 4 years. (we elect representatives for our class). You need luck to find 14 good leaders from 70 student class - not 14 strong students . – scaaahu Apr 17 '13 at 5:22
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If you choose the groups, then in a sense you have taken responsibility for their success. A group that perceives themselves as "weak" will subconsciously or consciously blame you for their predicament, absolving them of the need to work hard.

You also open yourself up to charges of favoritism or worse. Again, your perception of strength and weakness might be quite different to the students' own perception, and this has little to do with what the "right" answer is.

It's not clear that the pedagogical benefits of explicit grouping (even assuming you're able to separate weak from strong, which I am dubious of) balance all the downsides of grouping in this manner. While your goal is honorable (balancing groups so that they're of roughly equal strength), it's a doomed goal.

You can never force equality in the classroom. What you can aim for is fairness. A group formed by students is fair in the sense that the students can't complain that you forced them into it.

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Balancing skills is very different from balancing past performance. Strong students will, by definition, be strong at most things. Weak students on the other hand will have different strengths. For example, a group of weak students who are all bad at X, will form an extremely weak group. A group of weak students where student A is bad at X but excellent at Y, student B is bad at Y but excellent at Z, and student C is bad at Z but excellent at X could actually form an extremely strong group. Better than grouping on past performance might be for students to rank their strengths at X, Y, and Z and create groups based on this. This will alert students to the strengths required to do well and also allow them to see the strengths/weakness of their groups.

An alternative, which was used during my undergraduate education, is to use a personality test to create groups. This way the students are aware of the benefits/difficulties of personal interactions, which is of high importance to success.

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