Small Group Work: Getting Started


My first class of the year went well. I have lots of interesting students in the class, people spoke up, no one fell asleep, the level of engagement was high and the amount of obvious texting was low. The time came to get people into groups for the first time.

Group work now is a far cry from group work when I was a kid, when we had the Astronauts, the Race Car Drivers, and the Cowboys. We were sorted into these ability based groups at the beginning of the year, and it was once an astronaut, always an astronaut.

My students are mostly in their late teens; I figure it’s time they learn how to form groups without direction, so I just shared the desired outcome and encouraged them while they figured it out. But sometimes I like to be more directive, and with younger students you have to be. Once the class dynamic settles in, you may have groupings you want to avoid, or students who get left out, or other issues that make natural group development less desirable.

Here are some ways to get students into groups:

  • Psychogeometrics is one of many ways of testing people’s learning or work style. I like this one because it’s fast, and statistically speaking, it works just as well as the more complicated approaches. Follow the link to read more about it, or use your favorite method of sorting — What Character Would You be in Winnie the Pooh, the Myers-Briggs inventory, whatever — and group students so that each table has the greatest possible variety of approaches.
  • Divide people by some random characteristic like first letter of last name. Changing characteristics like having buttons on your shirt or shoe color work well if you like to mix up the group.
  • Create a glyph exercise with any data you like and have students look around till they find students whose glyphs match their own.
  • Number off and have students with the number 1 sit together, students with the number 2, etc. Or add some fancier math and have all prime numbers sit together or have each group’s numbers total ten.
  • Cut slips of paper from different colors and patterns of paper and put them in a hat. Have students pull out a slip and find the others with the same paper.
  • Use the online Hogwarts Sorting Hat.

Clearly, some systems work better when you want a smaller group and some when you want a larger group, some will give you even numbered groups and some won’t, and some are more random than others. Consider the desired outcome in terms of these factors before choosing a particular method.


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