Creating high-functioning study groups is an art, not a science
There is no right way to create study groups. The technique you use will depend on the specific collection of students you are working with and your personal need to control such decisions. Remember, too, that if your first efforts don’t work well, you can always intervene and change the groups to resolve the issues as they present themselves.
Here are some guidelines to consider as you start the process:
Involve students in the formation of study groups
Since one of the central functions of study groups is to teach students a sense of responsibility and ownership, having them participate in the creation of those very groups is a good place to start. For many students, their day-to-day experience of powerlessness in the classroom causes deep and understandable resentment. This is an opportunity for them to experience some control over their educational experience. In general, students should have as much say in forming groups as is practical, given their maturity level and attitude about school.
To whatever extent students are involved in forming study groups, you can encourage them to make wise choices by conveying to them how important such groups will be in the learning process. They need to be reminded that working with friends, while possibly more fun and more comfortable, may very well not lead to effective learning.
Of course, you must also have a say in the formation of groups because you have an overview that no student has, and you have to look out for the needs of everyone in the room. Finding a balance between their input and your direction is part of the art of forming study groups.
Have every student work with every other student
Before students can make good choices about who to work with, they must be well-informed. They should experience working with all the other students in the class in order to know who they work well with and who distracts them from learning. This can best be accomplished at the start of the year by randomizing who students work with every time there is group work. There are many ways to do this, from the use of playing cards (all the kings meet at this table, all the jacks at that one), or by sorting by birthday or age. The more creative and playful you are and the more fun they have sorting themselves, the better.
Randomizing working partners serves several important functions. Insisting that students introduce themselves to each other at the start of each new grouping helps eliminate anonymity. This is an important step in building a sense of community.
Consistently reminding students of the importance of finding good partners also emphasizes the centrality of learning. Encouraging them to pay close attention to how well they learn with each other also hones their awareness of what effective work looks like.
Once students have had the chance to work with each other, it is time to give them a say in the formation of study groups. A structure is needed to allow them to express their preferences confidentially. This can be done by means of a form such as the one shown below.
The degree of influence they have in the creation of their groups can be constrained by the form. For example, the attached form allows them to choose a maximum of three other students they would like to work with and, at most, one student that they really don’t want to work with.
Once they are completed, the forms can be sorted into piles representing the groups. As a rule, try to grant as many of their requests as possible and always accommodate their decisions about who they don’t want to work with. Keep an eye on your grade book to factor in academic strengths, success on tests, and so forth. Most importantly, use your intuition about how they might work with one another. Finding the right balance of strengths can be tricky and time-consuming. It is worth the effort to get this as close to right as possible.
Restructuring groups should occur promptly if there is strong objection to the initial arrangement. There may well be hidden animosities or tensions in the class that become obvious when groups are announced. Sometimes a student will immediately respond negatively to the group he finds himself in, or the group to an individual. Students should have a way to inform you that there is a serious problem without exposing their issue with other students. If possible, they should be able to discuss it with you. You can invite students to sign up privately for times to meet with you for that purpose. Creating a form that allows students to communicate their wishes privately is another way to give them a voice in the process. Here is an example:
Your own response will depend entirely on the situation at hand, of course, but in general it is important to honor any serious concerns. Sometimes, responding requires tact and a concerted effort to disguise why the change is being made in order to avoid hurt feelings.
Dealing with unpopular students
One of the more difficult situations you may encounter has to do with a student whom no one wants to work with. This is a problem that obviously requires great sensitivity and care. Sometimes talking privately to team members about strategies to help integrate the offending person can help. Urging them to have patience during a trial period will sometimes smooth over initial turbulence, particularly if you reassure them that you will take action if it doesn’t work out. Dealing directly with the student about the issue that makes him unpopular is, of course, an important but also a very delicate matter. Use whatever support is available to you—counselors, social workers, and other teachers who know the student—to address this task.