Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

How can I compose groups?

Group composition affects many aspects of a group project, such as how efficiently group members work together and how much relevant knowledge they can share. When deciding how to compose groups for a project, you should:

Decide how to configure groups

There are two main factors to consider when configuring groups:

Size. Small groups tend to work efficiently because it is easier to coordinate efforts and schedules among fewer people. However, although large groups have higher coordination costs, they can theoretically accomplish larger and more complex projects. Some experts claim that groups of more than five or six students tend to be unmanageable, but there are no firm rules. Like other aspects of group work, the size of a group should be shaped by the project’s learning objectives.

Roles. Some projects require that each group member plays a specialized role to mimic workplace environments (e.g., project manager, data analyst, writer). Some instructors specify the roles that must be represented in every group and then allow students to join groups based on their strengths. It should be noted that if a course goal is for students to learn to play different roles, the opposite strategy might be effective: you can assign students to roles that move them out of their comfort zone and develop new skills.

Identify relevant characteristics of group members

The characteristics of group members can influence how effectively students achieve the learning objectives of the project. There is no single set of relevant characteristics for group members because it depends on your course, your goals, your students, and the nature of the project. Come talk to us so we can discuss the best approach for you.

Below are common characteristics to consider when composing groups:

Prior knowledge, previous experiences, and skills. If you want to structure groups to distribute particular types of knowledge (e.g., programming skills, design expertise, experience with historical research) across groups, you can assess students’ prior knowledge or ask them to complete a skills inventory. In some interdisciplinary courses, instructors use a student’s major as a proxy for prior knowledge. Keep in mind, too, that skills relevant to group projects may be interpersonal as well as discipline-based.

Motivation. Students have different levels of motivation within a course: some prioritize the work for a project in order to excel, some are content to receive the minimum passing grade, some are taking the course because of genuine interest, and some are taking the course to satisfy a requirement. Mixing students with different motivations within a group can cause tensions and problems. To counter this, some instructors group students by motivation. Distributing a questionnaire in which students reflect on their motivation, work habits, and desired grade—and then share the questionnaires with each other, but not with the instructor – can help students identify classmates they would work well with.

Diversity of perspectives. If one of the project’s learning objectives is to become familiar with multiple perspectives, you can compose diverse groups. We often think about diversity in terms of gender, culture, race/ethnicity, and native language, but you might also consider the relevance of socioeconomic, political, geographic, and other differences to the project’s learning objectives. However, it is important to make sure that there is critical mass in every group so that lone members of a particular social category (e.g., race, gender) do not find themselves isolated in a group. For example, in a class that has four women and four groups, instead of placing one woman in each group, consider putting two women in two groups.

Students’ familiarity with each other. Students who have worked together effectively in groups before may be more likely to work together effectively again. Before students are placed in groups, you can ask students if they have worked effectively with classmates on previous group projects. If you want students to focus more on the product than the process of group work, this may be a relevant characteristic. Similarly, if you are assigning another group project later in the course, or expect to in a future course that the students may enroll in, it may be useful to group students in a way that meets the present project’s learning objectives and prepares students to work together again in the future.

Personality. Students’ tendencies to act as extraverts or introverts are relevant to the roles that may be defined formally or develop informally. For example, an extraverted student may seem like a natural choice as a group leader for running group meetings. However, an introverted student who is detail-oriented may also be an effective group leader for ensuring that other group members are on schedule. If one of your course goals is to help students develop the skills required for different roles, consider assigning or encouraging students to choose roles in which they have less experience or proficiency.

You can consider any of these characteristics, as well as others, when composing groups. There are also several software programs (e.g., CATME) that help faculty create teams according to the criteria that they specify.

Decide who has the responsibility for selecting group members

You also need to decide who has the responsibility for selecting group members. This responsibility can be viewed as a continuum between instructor-selected groups and student-selected groups. Students tend to like choosing their own group members, but they often form groups that are homogenous—for example, in terms of gender, major, native language, culture, and race/ethnicity. However, this homogeneity may not support the learning objectives of the project.

If the instructor selects group members without student input, the instructor may be able to choose groups that serve the project’s learning objectives but not anticipate interpersonal issues among group members.

As a hybrid approach, you might allow students to select their own group members within particular constraints (e.g., no groups have more than three members or more than one engineer). You can also solicit student input before composing the groups yourself—for example, asking students to complete a short questionnaire about their competency in relevant skills or if there are interpersonal issues with classmates that would prevent effective group interaction.

Develop a contingency plan for changes in group membership

Sometimes the number and characteristics of the students enrolled in your course may change and no longer allow for the group composition that you had planned for or that you and/or the students had decided on. Because students may withdraw from the course or you may allow groups to dismiss non-contributing members, you should develop a contingency plan in case group membership changes during the project. Consider in advance what alternative work is feasible for groups when a member withdraws from the course, as well as for individual students who have been dismissed from their groups.