Tight classes


Small college prof.:
I am also teaching another class where 3/4 of the students in the class have been in the same classes together over the last two years. The other 1/4 have formed their own small groups, but I am wondering, other than doing revolving groups at random, how I might ensure there is more fluidity to the groups?

I know the major group projects require people to be comfortable with one another, so naturally people will want to work with people they have worked with before, but does anyone have any ideas on how to deal with this 3/4 of the class groupthink?

(The 3/4 of the class group is not negative; but I want to avoid marginalizing the others in the class, as the 3/4 group does dominate things presently.)

Ahh, groupthink! Isn't it fun? At first I thought I really supported the idea of cohort groups, where students mostly stay together through their degree program, but I have changed my mind since then! You are right to be concered about the tendency of people to "cluster." One negative effect of this is that the quality of work tends to go down. We'd like to think that if people are "comfortable" working with each other, then they should work even harder to produce something stellar. Usually the opposite is the case.

I would strongly advise limiting the amount of choice in group activities. Instead mix and mingle everyone in pairs, for the in-class work. If you do assign a larger group project, also create a mandatory independent component. For example, if the assignment is a group presentation, I also require that each student turn in a write-up of their part of the presentation, with references, etc. Each write-up has to be unique, and this helps to break the groupthink.

The difference in sheer quality is amazing. We've gone from superficial, "get it done" group presentations to well-planned, informative, research-based group presentations.

Another activity that I've tried that seems to work pretty well is to have in-class projects where students have to consult with a variety of people to get the project done --  e.g., interviews, polling, etc. We also do "read-arounds," in which students read someone else's essay/paper and respond in writing before we have our discussion. I make sure to switch the papers of people who don't tend to work together. I'm sure there are many other ideas, and I'm curious to see what teachers can come up with since I deal with groupthink on a daily basis.

For projects, I usually assign students alphabetically (what I call "alpha groups"). For in-class group work, geographic groups -- by row or such -- work out fine.


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