I’m not a big fan of group work, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil – labs, research projects, discussion groups and the like. The minute you speak the work “group”, students ask if they can make their own groups, which means of course they want to get into groups with their friends, which of course means very little work will get done. And, of course, the perfect educator (me? Ha ha!) would hand-tailor the groups for the perfect students (my students? Ha ha!) – a perfect blend of motivated, high-performing students who were perfectly willing to help the motivated but lower-performing students for maximum work and optimum learning.

Unfortunately, in the real world where you and I live, things are not perfect. Students are absent, some students aren’t motivated, and high-performing and low-performing are relative concepts. But even in the real world, I want to homogenize my groups so each group contains students at varying levels. As much as I would like to be able to prepare group assignments ahead of time, one or two absent students on the day of the group results in a frenzy of last-minute juggling of group assignments.

Here’s how I do student groups on the fly: my grading software (GradeQuick) allows me to sort students by rank. I can sort by overall score or by score on an individual assignment. (You could also do this manually if you don’t have software that lets you sort students this way. Just list the students in order from high score to low score.) The day before a lab, for example, I will sort the class by rank and print out a roster that is sorted from high score to low score. The only other thing I have to do beforehand is decide how big the groups are going to be.

The next day, I take out my roster. Draw a line through any student who is absent. Next, divide the group size into the number of students to calculate the number of groups. For example, if I’m going to divide 24 students into groups of 3, I will end up with 8 groups. Starting at the top of the roster, I count out the first 8 students and draw a line, then count out the next 8 students and draw another line. Now it’s time to assign the students.

Start at the top and assign the first 8 students to groups 1 – 8. I print a roster with blank boxes, so I just write the numbers in the first box after the student’s name. Next, I want to assign the lowest-performing students to groups with the highest-performing students, so I start at the BOTTOM of the list. The lowest student will be assigned to group 1; the second-lowest to group 2; and so on until the bottom eight students are assigned to groups. With the students in the middle group, I also start at the bottom and assign groups. If I need to fine-tune assignments (kids who don’t get along, too many friends in one group, etc.), it doesn’t take that long to rearrange the groupings.

It’s not the perfect method; it’s not the ideal method. The good thing is, it usually works.