Explore potential strategies.
Group composition is problematic.
Some questions faculty members grapple with as they plan projects include: Should I assign groups or let students choose their own groups? Should I assure diversity within groups? If I split up categories of people (e.g., by gender, race, ethnicity) what will that mean for individuals who find themselves the lone representative of that category within the group? How should I deal with mixed abilities, skills, backgrounds, etc.? There is no easy answer for these questions; different group compositions will have different advantages and disadvantages. Your best bet is to weigh the pros and cons of different compositional arrangements and pick the best solution for your course, your students, and the goals of the particular assignment.
Allowing for the practical constraints of your course (e.g., class size, student composition) your goals for the assignment should drive your decisions about group composition. For example, if the project requires a multidisciplinary solution or if you want group work to mimic a particular workplace configuration, you might compose groups so that they include students of different disciplines (e.g., one engineer, one designer, one computer scientist). If you want to showcase how various disciplines approach problems differently, you might want to create discipline-specific groups. If you want group members to represent a number of cultural perspectives, you might mix groups according to cultural background.
Decisions about group composition can also be pragmatic. In some cases, creating groups randomly might be the easiest reasonable solution. If a project requires a lot of out-of-class meeting time, you might opt to create groups based on common schedules. If you have a number of students from one language group in your class, you might choose under certain circumstances to group them together so they can focus on the content material without the additional cognitive burden of functioning in English. However, pragmatism must work in concert with the goals of the course and assignment. The previous example would not make sense if one of the goals of the assignment were for students to develop facility with a particular content vocabulary or to give a group presentation in English.
Think about the advantages and disadvantages of different group compositions before creating groups. For example, you may have a limited number of one “type” of student (e.g., students with a strong background in the subject area; students of a particular gender, race, or ethnicity) who you would like to disperse among groups to create diversity. While there are advantages to this decision (e.g., a wider range of perspectives and experiences to draw on) there are also potential disadvantages: the lone person of a given “type” may feel isolated or resentful that they are expected to speak for or represent their sex, race, ethnicity, discipline, etc. Homogeneous groups also have both pros and cons. Groups possessing similar skills or experiences can work faster because they do not have to spend time explaining to the “out-of-group” members; however, their perspectives and approaches may end up being more limited because they lack diversity.
Talk to students about the advantages and disadvantages of particular group compositions, as well as your reasons for creating groups as you have. If students know, for example, that you have created groups to reflect a variety of experiences and knowledge, they will be more likely to draw on that knowledge. If students know that homogeneous groups have potential limitations to watch out for, they may employ different strategies to compensate for these limitations, for example, by actively seeking input from more heterogeneous outside sources. By the same token, awareness of the issues that can arise with heterogeneous groups can help students address them proactively (e.g., by assigning and periodically switching roles or creating turn-taking strategies to ensure that everyone’s perspective is heard).
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