# Something to try with small groups...

| 1 Comment
The question: When putting students in small groups, do you let them chose their own or do you assign them to groups? And if you assign them, how do you do it?

When students pick their own groups they tend to stick with people they know and they also tend to talk about things not related to the class, so I usually like to assign groups. Although I have tried a couple of different approaches, I often end up having students count off. Sometimes students resent this method. One time I had a student grumble, "We aren't in grade school anymore so don't make us count off." Regardless of how I do it, the process of assigning students to groups has always been just a a way to get to the real aim of the assignment: the small group discussion. But, what if the process of forming groups was more important? What if the process of forming into small groups was a crucial part of the learning exercise?

Here is something to try with small groups that my sister, who teaches geography (GIS to be exact) at Wollongong University in Australia, just told me about:

The goal: To review topology and how it works in GIS: how does the computer know what points link up to define lines and which lines join together to form polygons and therefore which polygons touch each other and which don't.

The exercise: Different signs (vector line, vector point, vector polygon, or roster) are posted around the room. These signs represent the different groups. Each student gets a card that has a description of something that would fit with a particular sign/group. They have to figure out which sign they belong to and then convince the other members that they belong. Then they have to explain, to the class and to the instructor, why they should be there.

While I can't envision this specific exercise working in any of my classes, the idea of making group formation be part of the process seems really cool.

Questions: Have any of you done something similar in your classes (either as the instructor or the student)? How have you used (or participated in) small groups?

## 1 Comment

Small groups are something that as a former high school teacher I struggled with all the time. I felt that if I always chose the groups that the juniors and seniors that I was teaching would think I was 'babying' them, which I kind of would be if I never let them exercise their autonomy by choosing their own. I usually ended up letting them choose but then there would be issues about people being left out or groups not actually doing the work - this is sadly something that I have experienced while teaching here at the U, too. Whether the formation of the groups is significant is an interesting question. I think it is valuable for students to work with different people in the class, although sometimes if the material is personal or sensitive, they may want to choose people they already trust. How they decide to move and navigate around the space of the classroom and with each other can also be a trust-building exercise. As Shrewsbury (10) notes, the interactions and connection building aspect of life is important to women and giving students a say in how the groups are formed seems to be an inherently feminist value.

I am at a benefit in that here I have taught classes for future teachers, so I can get away with splitting them up in crazy ways because I can use it as an example for what they can do in their future classrooms. Two of the more common methods that I have come across are:
*Take a deck of cards into the class and have each student grab one. Then you can split they by red/black, suits, even/odd, face/number, etc. I like that this method offers so many variations.
*Allow the students to 'rank' the reading for that class in some order (least favorite to most, most intriguing to least, most confising to least, most problematic to least...). Have the students group themselves based on finding similarity or difference in their rankings.