Designing better teams in classrooms

How Instructors Can Design Better Teams In The Classroom - O'Reilly Mac DevCenter Blog:

"So what's my suggestion for how we can improve the classroom? It's simple: don't distribute the brain power, and keep the standards high. Build teams so that everyone in the team is on equal footing and tailor projects accordingly. That means put the smartest kids together and put the not-so-smartest kids together. For some, that idea will immediately seem unfair and cruel, but think about it. If you faithfully apply this approach throughout an academic career, it should ultimately allow the smart kids to excel far beyond what they could otherwise do in a mediocre team, while forcing everyone else to get with the program, or get out of the program (literally). But in most cases, I really do think that everyone ends up learning more, and for me, that's a big a win-win for everyone. More productivity. More education. Less waste. And less folks end up making it through with a degree that maybe they shouldn't have made it through with (the coasters and clueless.)"

I have been a undergraduate teaching assistant for 4 semesters now. And this is the first time that I have heard this method of forming groups. There are usually two ways that we form groups. One being that we, as course staff, will evaluate everyone based on their scores on homework and exams so far and try to distribute them into groups. Usually there is a sweet spot for the average score of the group members but we also do not lump the smartest together with those at the bottom of the class into an average group. The benefit of this is the diversity we have in groups. Students get to meet with people that you would otherwise not associate with. Also, as my professor says, research done about assigning groups has shown that such groups tend to have a higher success rate of completing their projects. Success in groups is always a good thing especially when it affects your grade.

The other method for deploying groups would be to let the students form their own groups. Usually this turns out to not be such a good idea. Students who take the course together with their friends will usually form their own groups. Sometimes this can be beneficial since they are familiar with each other's work habits. However, this may also lead to conflict since it is harder to coerce you friend's commitment to the project. And individuals who come in to take the class alone will have to hunt around to find good group members. In the end, to minimize the risk of working with uncommitted people, these individuals would rather work on their own.

Getting back to the point here, the method of assigning groups by lumping all the smart kids together might not really be such a good idea. Sure you would get a group of smart students that are probably going to be able to create a great project. However the real world does not work like that (unless you are in academia where all your colleagues have Ph.D's as well). You will meet all sorts of people in the world. There will be those who will not be as smart as you but they have other redeeming qualities. Also, what if you are working for a company? You do not have a choice with whom you work with? What if you are working at Microsoft and Bill Gate's son is being a dumbass? (This is a lame example). A better example (thanks to the lecturer for the class I am teaching) would be that the idiot sitting beside you now in class might turn out to be your future boss. And now, what would you say to that? Working with someone you once considered an idiot?

Classroom is not only about educating people in technological knowledge. There should also serve as a preparation for getting the students to work in the real world. People need to work together and learn together in the real world. No one will be there to sieve out the smart from the dumb for you. In fact, the same rules in the classroom might not even apply. People living in the real world can potentially cheat their way to achieve something better. There wouldn't be any professor or cheater checkers there to enforce the academic integrity rule.

So bottom line, I think that the course staff should intervene a bit in group formation. Probably they do not need to upset every group but they should perturb the group demographics a bit. Let the students form their own groups first and then based on some predetermined criteria decide whether those teams should work together or not. The goal of the group project is not so much to get a grandiose project but to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot at contributing to the group and learning at the same time.

Of course, usually class projects take place at the end of the semester and there is not much time to evaluate how things will go. If possible, I would like to form groups earlier during the semester and then switch members around. That way at least most people get a chance to work with different people and find their more compatible group partners. I believe that everyone has the ability to contribute and all they need is some motivation. By lumping the coasters and clueless together, it would be hard for them to motivate each other. Besides, education is for everyone, not only the privileged few.

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