Choosing Group Characteristics
- When planning formal group work, instructors should form the groups, considering student characteristics that can contribute to more effective group processes and group performance.
- Smaller teams tend to work better. Most studies that look at group size find that groups of 3-5 produce greater cooperativity and less social loafing, leading to better group performance and higher satisfaction.
Lou Y, Abrami PC, d’Apollonia S (2001). Small group and individual learning with technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 71, 449-521. The authors performed a meta-analysis of studies comparing classes that used within-class grouping to those that used whole-class instruction, finding that within-class grouping gave, on average, positive but variable benefits. They found that groups of 3-4 were more effective than groups of other sizes, and found variation with regard to group composition. Specifically, they found that low-achieving students demonstrated stronger outcomes when placed in mixed-ability groups, whereas mid-achieving students demonstrated stronger outcomes when working in homogenous ability groups. No difference was seen for high-achieving students.
Treen E, Atanasova C, Pitt L, Johnson M (2016). Evidence from a large sample on the effects of group size and decision-making time on performance in a marketing simulation game. Journal of Marketing Education, 38, 130-137. Teams had 1-8 members that completed an online “marketplace” simulation. The simulation measured decision-making time and total team score. The authors found that performance increases with group size until teams have five members, and then tapers off.
Apugliese A, Lewis SE (2017). Impact of instructional decisions on the effectiveness of cooperative learning in chemistry through meta-analysis. Chem Ed Res and Practice 18, 271-279. This meta-analysis on the impact of cooperative learning on students’ chemistry understanding showed no difference in groups that were 4 or smaller or five or larger. The authors used data from 24 studies, and concluded that groups sizes of five or more can be effective for group work.
Heller P, Hollabaugh M (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. Am J Phys 60, 637-644. To evaluate the effects of size and gender composition, instructor-assigned groups of two, three, and four members were tasked with solving physics problems. The authors found that the three- and four-member groups generated better plans for solving problems and exhibited fewer conceptual mistakes. They also found that groups containing at least one high-performing student performed as well as groups of only high-ability students and better than groups consisting only of low or medium ability groups.
Aggarwal P, O’Brien CL (2008). Social loafing on group projects: Structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education 30, 255-264. The authors investigated the impact of project size, group size, instructor- vs. student-selection, and number of peer evaluations on social loafing during group work by 420 students in several business classes. Student survey responses indicated less social loafing when projects and groups were smaller and when more peer evaluations were included. No difference was seen in instructor- and student-formed groups. Social loafing was associated with student dissatisfaction with their group members’ contributions and perceived fairness of the project grade.
- Generally, groups that are gender-balanced, are ethnically diverse, and have members with different problem-solving approaches have been shown to exhibit enhanced collaboration. The data on academic performance as a diversity factor do not point to a single conclusion; contextual features and the outcome examined appear to determine whether homogeneous or heterogeneous groups provide a greater advantage. In addition, studies that examine student performance in groups with different gender composition do not lead to a single, clear conclusion. Instructors should consider their goals and the characteristics of their students when making decisions about these factors in forming groups.
A web-based tool instructors can use at a cost to form groups based on scheduling and individual student characteristics.
Takeda S, Homberg F (2014). The effects of gender on group work process and achievement: an analysis through self- and peer-assessment. British Educational Research Journal 40, 373-396. The authors examined the effects of gender composition on ~1000 undergraduate business students’ performance on group work, examining self- and peer-assessments of students’ contributions to the group. The results suggested that students in gender balanced groups displayed enhanced collaboration in group work processes and more equitable contributions by group members. The results do not indicate that this cooperative learning environment led to higher student performance, however. Importantly, the authors observed underperformance by all-male groups and reduced collaborative behaviors in solo males in male gender exception groups (i.e. one male and all other female). Noting that their data indicate that 60% of male students self-select these types of groups when given the option, the authors conclude that instructors should assign students to groups to ensure gender diversity.
Heller P, Hollabaugh M (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. Am J Phys 60, 637-644. To evaluate the effects of size and gender composition, instructors-assigned groups of two, three, and four members were tasked with solving physics problems. The authors found that the three- and four-member groups generated better plans for solving problems and exhibited fewer conceptual mistakes. They also found that groups containing at least one high-performing student performed as well as groups of only high-ability students and better than groups consisting only of low or medium ability groups. Finally, they found that homogenous gender groups and mixed gender groups consisting of two females and one male performed better than groups with two males and one female.
Woolley AW, Chabris CF, Pentland A, Hashmi N, Malone TW (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330, 686-688. Woolley and colleagues report the results of two studies examining group performance, using 699 people working in groups of 2-5 in a laboratory setting. They found that a single latent factor termed collective intelligence – supported by strong inter-item correlation on different tasks – strongly predicted the groups’ ability to solve tasks, which included solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources. They found that collective intelligence depended both on the composition of the group (e.g., average member intelligence and, more importantly, social sensitivity) but also how group members interacted when they are assembled (e.g., their conversational turn-taking behavior). Importantly, the higher the proportion of females in the group, the higher the collective intelligence that was measured, an effect that appeared to be mediated by the women’s higher social sensitivity scores.
Jensen JL, Lawson A (2011). Effects of collaborative group composition and inquiry instruction on reasoning gains and achievement in undergraduate biology. LSE 10, 64-73. The authors investigated the effect of homogenous and heterogeneous groups, based on student reasoning ability (e.g. high, medium, low) on student achievement, reasoning gains, and attitudes in an introductory biology class. When a learning cycle inquiry approach to instruction was used, students with initial low reasoning abilities in homogenous groups exhibited significantly greater reasoning gains than those in heterogeneous groups. No difference was seen for medium or high reasoners in homogenous and heterogeneous groups.
Lou Y, Abrami PC, d’Apollonia S (2001). Small group and individual learning with technology: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research 71, 449-521. The authors performed a meta-analysis of studies comparing classes that used within-class grouping to those that used whole-class instruction, finding that within-class grouping gave, on average, positive but variable benefits. They found that groups of 3-4 were more effective than groups of other sizes, and found variation with regard to group composition. Specifically, they found that low-achieving students demonstrated stronger outcomes when placed in mixed-ability groups, whereas mid-achieving students demonstrated stronger outcomes when working in homogenous ability groups. No difference was seen for high-achieving students.
Webb NM, Nemer KM, Zuniga S (2002). Short circuits or superconductors? Effects of group composition on high-achieving students’ science assessment performance. Am Educ Res J 39, 943–989. The authors examined the role of group composition on student performance, specifically examining the role of student ability. High-ability 8th grade students performed well in homogeneous groups and in some heterogeneous groups but not in other heterogeneous groups. The types of group interactions that occurred during group work strongly influenced performance, and group interaction predicted student performance more strongly than did either student ability or the overall ability composition of a group.
Lamm AJ, Shoulders C, Roberts TG, Irani TA, Snyder JL, Brendemuhl BJ (2012). The influence of cognitive diversity on group problem solving strategy. Journal of Agricultural Education 53, 18-30. The authors examined how groups composed of students with different problem-solving styles (i.e., adaptors and innovators) addressed a project. Using content analysis of focus group interviews, the authors determined that groups that were homogenous with regard to problem-solving style used only some of the steps in Bransford’s IDEAL problem-solving model and overall exhibited less success on the project than heterogeneous groups. The heterogeneous groups worked together to identify problems, created solutions as problems were identified, came up with goals while creating solutions, and thoroughly anticipated what others would think of their solutions throughout the process, exhibiting greater variety in the problem-solving steps used.
Watson SB, Marshall JE (1995). Effects of cooperative incentives and heterogeneous arrangement on achievement and interaction of cooperative learning groups in a college life science course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 32, 291-99. The authors investigated the role of heterogeneous grouping and cooperative incentives in determining student achievement and cooperative interactions in group work. They manipulated these variables for 109 students three introductory life science classes, measuring individual student achievement using a previously constructed multiple choice assessment and measuring cooperative interactions through observation. They found no significant difference in heterogeneous vs. homogenous groups. They also found no difference for groups with and without cooperative incentives.
Watson WE, Kumar K, Michaelsen LK (1993). Cultural diversity’s impact on interaction process and performance: Comparing homogeneous and diverse task groups. Academy of Management Journal 36, 590-602. The authors compared the interaction process and performance of culturally homogeneous and diverse groups over a 17 week period. Initially, the homogenous groups had higher scores on process and performance effectiveness. Both groups showed improvement on process and performance over the course of the study, however, the culturally diverse groups had more rapid improvement. At the end of the 17 week period, there were no differences between groups on process and performance effectiveness, but the diverse groups scored higher on two task measures. The authors support the use of culturally diverse groups for longer-term groups.
McLeod PL, Lobel SA, Cox TH (1996). Ethnic diversity and creativity in small groups. Small Group Research 27, 248-264. Small groups (3-5 members) of ethnically homogenous and ethnically diverse members were asked to complete The Tourist Problem, brainstorming task that asked participants to brainstorm ideas for increasing tourism to the United States. The ethnically diverse group produced higher quality ideas—more effective and feasible—than the homogenous groups. However, the members of homogenous groups reported marginally more attraction to their groups than did members of diverse groups.
- Self-selected teams are more likely to be given as examples of students’ worst group experiences, and result in negative opinions of the course, instructors, projects, and classmates.
- Students prefer self-selection over random assignment to teams in advanced courses and experience higher levels of communication, commitment and satisfaction with their relationships with team mates in self-selected teams.
Brickell JL, Porter DB, Reynolds MF, Cosgrove RD (1994). Assigning students to groups for engineering design projects: A comparison of five methods. J Engr Educ 83, 259-262. The authors compared several methods for assigning students to groups for a required junior-level civil engineering class. Groups were manipulated with regard to student interest and GPA (i.e., homogenous vs. heterogeneous within a group) and student responses were compared to student-self-selected groups. The authors concluded that groups with a mixture of homogeneity and heterogeneity perform better when compared to self-selected groups, and that students in self-selected groups report the poorest attitudes about the course, the instructors, and the projects. Overall, groups with homogeneity with respect to interest and heterogeneity in GPA were most effective in terms of performance and attitude.
Feichtner SB, Davis EA (1984). Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups. Journal of Management Education 9, 58-73. The authors compared retrospective student perceptions of group work, surveying upper-division students in speech communication and business policy courses. Student survey responses indicated that students are more likely to have positive experiences in classes where groups are either formed by the instructor or by a combination of methods (e.g., one instructor collected data on students’ research interests and then grouped those with similar preferences). Specifically, in recording information concerning their worst group experience, 40 percent of the respondents noted that the students themselves formed the groups, while in the best group experience, only 22 percent reported that the students were responsible for forming the groups.
Chapman KJ, Meuter M, Toy D, Wright L (2006). Can’t we pick our own groups? The influence of group selection method on group dynamics and outcomes. Journal of Management Education 30, 557-569. The authors compared two approaches to assigning students to groups, self-selection and random assignment, in 16 upper-level undergraduate business courses. Student responses to end-of-semester surveys indicated that the students in the self-selected groups had better communication with each other, were more enthusiastic about working together, took more interest in each other, and were more confident in other team members’ abilities. They were also more likely than students in the randomly assigned groups to resolve conflict effectively and to be more comfortable asking others in their group for help. The students in the self-selected groups indicated that it was less likely that group members would do others’ work, and had slightly higher group outcomes. Compared to the self-selected groups, students in the randomly selected groups felt that members used time in group meetings more efficiently and that the group was more task oriented.
Myers SA (2012). Students’ perceptions of classroom group work as a function of group member selection. Communication Teacher 26, 50-64. The author compared two approaches to assigning students to groups, self-selection and random assignment, in an introductory communication course. Using several standardized scales that measured organizational citizenship behaviors, organizational commitment, and small group relational satisfaction, he found that students in self-selected groups reported more commitment to and relational satisfaction with their work groups as well as more affective and cognitive learning than students in randomly assigned groups, but that students reported no difference in use of organizational citizenship behaviors.