It's one of the questions always asked by faculty using group work. Sometimes students tell the teacher they want to form their own groups. Teachers worry about those students who aren't well connected with others in the class. Will they be invited to join a group? Or, what about that clique in the back row who already spend too much time having fun? Or, maybe it's that very bright, motivated bunch in the front row. Yes, they will work hard together, but other students could learn so much from working with them.
In some situations, it isn't possible for teachers to form groups. Take the case of a 700-student introductory course for biology majors and those in related fields. To incorporate active learning experiences in the course, the instructor (and TAs), much to their credit, included a number of clicker questions that were first answered individually and then in collaboration with others, some of which were graded. Students in this course also completed six paper-and-pencil exercises, which they did in pairs or small groups with each student receiving credit for what the group submitted. In a class that large, teacher-formed groups for in-class activities are not an option.
Well-designed, in-class group work continues to show a variety of benefits—better academic achievement, development of higher-order cognitive skills, and more student engagement. But whom students choose to work with is bound to affect whether those benefits accrue and at what level. So one course instructor and associated colleagues decided to look at whom students collaborated with on the activities described above. For logistical purposes, they worked with those sitting nearby, but students did have some freedom to choose where they sat. At the beginning of the course, seating was completely open. After that, students were encouraged to sit in an area near their TA (who instructed their labs and was there to help during these in-class activities).
Their article describes the variety of ways they analyzed who students chose to work with. That analysis revealed these main trends (p. 22).
- Most of the time, students self-sorted by ethnicity. For example, there were 22 of the 699 students who self-identified as African American. By the end of the course, they were 10 times more likely to working together than a pair of students who shared none of the characteristics considered in the study.
- Most of the time, students in this course self-sorted by gender.
- Past high achievers (determined by GPA at the time they entered the course and SAT verbal scores) worked together early on, but then that relationship disappeared.
- Students who actually did well in the course (based on their final grade) began collaborating, and, by the end of the course, they were more likely to be working together than expected by chance.
- Students with a history of struggling academically (based on their GPA when the course began) started associating, and, by the end of the course, they were much more likely to be collaborating than expected by chance.
The researchers' summary conclusion was: “Our data indicate that in a large-enrollment classroom that emphasizes intensive collaboration, students self-segregate to a small degree by academic characteristics and strongly by demographic traits” (p. 123).
What they found demonstrates the old adage that likes attract. The question is whether collaboration in homogenous groups is a good thing. If diverse experiences and perspectives are what promote better solutions to challenging problems, deeper learning, and the development of higher-order thinking skills, then heterogeneous groups may be preferable. If one of the goals of group collaboration is the opportunity to learn to work with others who are different, then homogenous groups don't accomplish that goal. On the other hand, if being with those who share the same ethnicity, gender, and possibly level of language fluency makes it feel safer and easier to communicate, and if those groups are free from bias, then homogenous groups have the advantage.
“The existing literature on professional and classroom collaborations suggest that the active-learning experience would be optimal if students worked in heterogeneous groups that were free of bias based on gender, ethnicity, or language fluency, and that required struggling students to engage and work hard” (p. 124). In this situation, students did not choose to create groups that fit this description. Should teachers form the groups when it's possible? Perhaps, provided that teachers help students understand the value of diverse groups and perhaps, provided teachers help student understand the value of diverse groups and how to work constructively within them.
Freeman, S., Theobald, R., Crowe, A. J., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2017). Like attract: Students self-sort in a classroom by gender, demography and academic characteristics. Active Learning in Higher Education, 18