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The Art of Assigning Small Groups

written by: Ellis Scott • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 2/1/2013

Assigning students to groups can be a challenge in the higher grades. Leaving students to pick their own groups almost always ends with several problem groups. Try this method for an easy and painless way of assigning groups fairly.

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    Assigning students to groups can be a challenge in middle school and in high school. You don’t want to allow the students pick their own groups because though that can work for sometimes, it usually leaves you with a few different types of groups with varying skill levels.

    The high level group is never the problem. It’s the group of low level students who really try hard but accomplish little that is the issue. It’s also embarrassing for them to present against a group of 4.0 nerds. They don’t have a chance to save face. Of course, there is also the knucklehead group. You know them. Given free reign they find each other and get nothing done except being disruptive. Besides, sometimes you just want certain students together for various reasons.

    So what is a teacher to do? I found numbering off doesn’t work well because my students tended to conveniently “forget" their numbers. So if we numbered of in 3’s, I would still end up with a group of 4 or 5. Go figure. Through trial and error I came up with a great system. It will require some work on your part ahead of time (just once though, and then it’s reusable) and you will have a system that is virtually unbeatable.

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    An Easier Process: Small Group Assignment Cards

    You will need to create card sets on colored stock paper. Each set will consist of the largest number of group you ever break students into. For example, I never did any groups larger than 5, so I made sets of 5. That’s 5 red cards, 5 blue, 5 green, etc. Next you will randomly place different things on each card to make it easy to shuffle the groups.

    For example, on 1 card from each color you will print and glue a picture of something such as a smurf for example. Then another picture, another, and another until all your cards have different pictures (in sets of 5). So you would have 5 smurfs, 5 spongebobs, etc.

    Next, in the top right corner write letters (also in sets of 5). Then do the same with different numbers (in a different corner). Then do shapes. Then do something on the back of each card if you like. Everything is in sets of 5. After you are all finished, laminate the cards so they will last for a while and you will use these over and over.

    Now, on the day you are doing group work, decide in advance how you are going split them up (by the shape on their card, by the number, by the picture, by the color of card, etc.) If you are going to work in groups of 3 and you are using shapes, you will need to make sure you only pass out 3 of each shape. This way, when you tell students to get into groups by the shape on their card… Presto! You have groups of three.

    Hopefully this all makes sense. Below is a picture of what your cards may look like just to give you a visual. In the example below you have 5 different groupings you could do. Students could get into groups by letter, number, shape, picture, or color of the card. There is plenty of room on the cards to add more options, just use your imagination.

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    Why This Method Works

    1) Students have no idea how you will split them up, so they can’t trade cards ahead of time to try to get with somebody they want. In fact, the first time you do it, have fun. Tell them ahead of time they can trade with anybody they want. The first time they will enthusiastically trade, thinking they have it all figured out. After a few times doing it though, most wont bother trading even if you give them the option.

    2) You can change it up every class period, so they won’t be able to find out from the previous class how you are going to do it.

    3) It feels random to the students which takes away from them arguing about why you put them together. In reality, it’s not random. If you know how you will split them ahead of time, you can give the knuckleheads different cards based on the criteria you are using that period and they will just feel like they got screwed by the luck of the draw.

    4) If you time them when you tell them to split up (i.e. “you have 30 seconds to get into your groups based on the color on your card) it is quite quick and hectic. If you pay attention you can catch anybody trying to do last-minute trades.

    5) Once they are in groups and working, you can collect the cards again as you walk around so you have them for the next class.

    Try it and let me know how it works for you!