Cooperative grouping

In science classes, do students work better in random groups or with their friends? I’m a student teacher in middle school. – S., Arizona

Most teachers will tell you there is no best way to set up groups. There are many variables, including the age of the students, the structure of the investigation, the students’ experience levels, and the classroom social climate.

Thoughts from my experience in middle school:

  • Use random assignment for the first few activities. You can observe the students’ interpersonal skills, work habits, and which students do and do not work well together.
  • With student-selected groups, I was concerned about the students who were selected last (or not at all) and that students wouldn’t learn how to work with a variety of people. Sometimes friends would focus more on social aspects.
  • I found heterogeneous grouping by ability worked best for my classes most of the time, and single-gender groups provided more opportunities for equitable student participation.
  • I usually structured the groups, changing them periodically. Sometimes, students with an intense interest on a topic worked together.
  • Although I rotated cooperative roles, I would usually try to keep the groups intact for a unit. This also saved time, because the students knew who their partners were and which lab table was theirs.
  • Check with the teacher of special needs students to determine any accommodations specified in their individual education plans.
  • Regardless of how you structure the groups, you may need to model what cooperative behavior looks like, and work with them on appropriate language.

You have a great opportunity for action research as you try different configurations and note which ones seem to work better for your students.



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  1. tara
    Posted June 1, 2017 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    I definitely agree with random groupings at first. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to gender. thanks for pointing that out!

  2. Sunny
    Posted June 1, 2017 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I like using the same group for an entire unit. It definitely saves time in many ways. It gives middle school kids enough time to work out any social anxieties so they can really learn the content at hand. With that said, no process is perfect so watch out for problems that escalate. When teaching middle schoolers, I felt like they were always worried about something so the more consistency that I was able to build into the classroom, the better the lesson went.

  3. Susan Michael
    Posted June 5, 2017 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I created a rotation chart for lab partners at the beginning of the year. Each student was assigned a number. The chart had the lab station labeled on the left side of the table which aligned with the pairings. I keep a master of partner sets for even numbers and typed the student roster on the bottom of the page. Before the first lab, I explained the process, had the students put the rotation chart at the front of their binder and then each time we did a lab, would identify which set we were on. This process helped with smooth transitions. If the class had an odd number of students, the loner got to chose who they wanted to work with or be the replacement partner for someone who was absent.

    • Ayanna Pantallion
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      Great idea! Do you mind sharing a copy of what you described?

  4. Gabriel Maldonado
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    This is an empirical question that should be answered by controlled research studies not teacher anecdotes or opinions.

  5. Rebecca Ramirez
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the consistency of keeping students in a group for at least the unit being taught. I did however did not pay much attention to the gender roles within a group and worked more on groups that were mixed levels so that you didn’t end up with lows or high achieving groups all together. I did, however, work on making sure girls had an important role in science and not just taking notes for the group, with that said, all students were responsible for keeping notes in their science notebooks.

  6. Steve
    Posted June 16, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I found that boy-boy girl-girl group of 4 works best for me, and I change it on a monthly basis so most everyone works with each student by years’ end. My seating charts get better the better I know the kids.

  7. Samantha S.
    Posted June 19, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    When I create collaborative groups, I strategically pick student groups that have mixed ability levels. I will take a student list that is ranked based on different means each time so that the groups aren’t always the same. For example, I might rank the students by current grade and then go down the list and count by four or five depending on how many groups I want. I then look at the groups and make adjustments if two students are paired together that do not work well or if the gender ratio is way off. I find this method usually results in students finishing around the same time versus groups with like ability levels (usually friends choosing each other) either finishing before or after the other groups.

  8. Krista Marino
    Posted June 19, 2017 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I thought all of your experiences so far are great and pretty accurate. I personally like grouping students in two different ways. One, is flex grouping. Flex grouping is based on students wants and needs. You give them a chart for each day, or each experiment. The chart tells them that at some point they must be in specific groups but other days they have completely their own choice of grouping. I think this gives the opportunity to groups you want to happen and groups that are simply student choices. The other way I like to group students is based on the content being taught at the time. Certain content calls for different areas of needs for all students. If a student really needs help in one unit, place them with other students who could help that student more. If you have a lot of students who need help, you could put all of those students together and spend extra time with that group for additional support.

  9. Mary Gonzales
    Posted June 28, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to see what is on the tags in the picture.

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