7 Ways to Group Adult Students for Teamwork Online

by Kristina Wilson

Introduction

In the School of Professional Studies (SPS), group projects are our bread and butter. That means team case studies, small group discussions, peer review, and other collaborative assignments.

One question I’ve heard faculty members frequently ask their peers in course presentations is, “How do you group your students?”

Everyone has a technique for doing it differently, based on any number of factors. How many students are in your class? How many students should be in each group? What if you have students “left over”? Should I group them with teammates they know? Teammates they don’t know? Teammates they choose? Teammates I choose?

Although the strategies are probably infinite, read on for eight ways to group adult students for teamwork online, from the new-and-exciting to the tried-and-true. I’ll define each technique, describe potential contexts for use, and help you figure out how to make it work in Canvas.

1. Generate random groups.

What is it?

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but there’s no rhyme or reason to why students are in groups together. It’s left to chance!

When should I use it?

Random groups can work well when students are just getting to know each other. It can give them an opportunity to meet peers they might not normally gravitate toward. Likewise, random groups are their own lesson in working with people who are different, and may emulate a work environment in which you cannot choose peers or project stakeholders.

How can I do it in Canvas?

You can use the Randomly Assign Students feature in the Project Groups tool. For step-by-step assistance, please review the How do I automatically assign students to groups? Canvas guide.

2. Choose the topics and have students opt in.

What is it?

You compose a prompt in which students have a choice of a few different topics, joining other peers who are interested in the topic to complete the assignment. For example, you might have a few different case studies, articles, or videos that form the root of the response.

Then, you develop a sign-up sheet and students can self-select the topic or media they are the most interested in. Just don’t forget to choreograph the numbers carefully–for example, if there are 20 students in your class, you might provide 5 topics and specify that each group should contain 4 students.

When should I use it?

You can use this in just about any assignment context, but it could be particularly helpful for stoking conversation in small-group discussions or helping students maintain interest in a long-term project. It hearkens to one of the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines: “Optimize individual choice and autonomy.”

How can I do it in Canvas?

You could set up a discussion specifically for topic selection by providing the options in the prompt and asking students to “claim” their topic by commenting. Then announce the groups formally in an announcement.

You can also build a sign-up sheet by creating a page that students can edit. Follow this Canvas guide (How do I create a new page in a course?) to create a new page. Then, in the Options: Can edit this page role selection dialogue, select “Instructors and students” from the dropdown.

In either case, you will need to manually assign students to groups. I hear you asking if there’s a Canvas guide for that. Yes! How do I manually assign students to groups?

3. Group students by skill level.

What is it?

Students come into your class with a variety of backgrounds and different approaches to learning. You may consider grouping students with attention to their skill level for any number of reasons. For example, grouping students at high, medium, and low skill levels may allow you to devote more time to working directly with students at the lower levels. Creating groups by mixing skill levels may allow for more peer learning opportunities.

When should I use it?

In SPS, this could mean:

  • Creating groups for a video assignment which contain at least one student who is tech-savvy.
  • Creating groups for a case-study response in which one group contains students who have experience in the field and another which contains students who do not; then, asking the groups to critique each other.
  • Creating study groups for an exam that mix students who are performing well with students who could use extra support.

How can I do it in Canvas?

This technique is dependent on how much you know about your students, so it may be easier to do later in the term when you have been working with them for 6 or 8 weeks. However, you can also develop activities to help you learn more about your students from the onset.

In addition to helping you meet Quality Matters standards and cultivate a classroom community, a well-crafted introduction discussion can help you learn more about your students prior experiences and skill levels. For example, you might say, “Please share if you have any industry experience,” or “In a scale of 1-5, how would you rate your comfort with learning online? Why?”

You could also create a survey specifically prior to grouping students for an assignment. This Canvas guide can help you: How do I create a survey in my course?

Once you feel like you have enough information to create skill-level groups, you will need to manually assign students to groups. (Remember, this Canvas guide can help: How do I manually assign students to groups?)

4. Create themes and have students opt in.

What is it?

In the Harry Potter series, students are assigned to “houses” based on their personality traits. In her 2014 book Syllabus, Lynda Barry shares the pseudonyms her students used to sign their work all terms; for her class “The Unthinkable Mind,” each student’s nickname was a part of the brain. Students might be called, for example, Amygdala or Hypothalamus or Thalamus.

Sometimes a personal (rather than professional) bond can help students collaborate on group projects. This gamified approach asks: How might you group students by interests?

When should I use it?

In small programs especially, it may be helpful for students to forge social connections that will help them hold each other accountable in group contexts. For example, students meeting early in their degree program may be yearning to align with their peers; later in their degree program, they may have been grouped with their peers many times before. This method allows students to see their peers with new–or fresh–eyes.

A few techniques to consider:

  • Groups that sound like sports teams – The Ghosts (quiet, contemplative personality), The Tanks (loud, strong personality), The Lizards (quick, ambitious personality)
  • Groups that identify strengths – The Scribes (writers), The Bookworms (researchers), The Actors (presenters)
  • Groups that relate to hobbies – The Dancers, The Readers, The Binge-Watchers
  • Groups that respect time zones – The East Coast, The Midwest, The West Coast

 

However, it can be tough to regulate group size with this technique. Plan accordingly!

How can I do it in Canvas?

You could set up a discussion specifically for theme selection by providing the themes in the prompt and asking students to identify their chosen theme by commenting. Then announce the groups formally in an announcement. (Does this sound familiar?)

You can also build a sign-up sheet by creating a page that students can edit. Follow this Canvas guide (How do I create a new page in a course?) to create a new page. Then, in the Options: Can edit this page role selection dialogue, select “Instructors and students” from the dropdown. (Does this sound familiar, too?)

Then, you will need to manually assign students to groups. I can’t share this Canvas guide enough: How do I manually assign students to groups?

5. Ask students to fill team roles.

What is it?

Should one student argue for side A, another student argue for side B, and one student be the “fact-checker”? Should one student lead the team, another create a shared workspace, and another coordinate meeting times? Should one student compose the executive summary, another develop the infographics, and another format the report with headings and page numbers? This strategy asks students to find a job they’re well-suited for and then find a team that needs someone like them.

When should I use it?

This technique can be good for role-playing discussions or long term projects, especially those that emulate workplace stakeholders. Students may feel like they’re setting themselves up for success by choosing a role they feel well-equipped to do.

How can I do it in Canvas?

This might work a little differently in Canvas. I’d suggest creating a few different discussions labeled for different teams (Teams A, B, and C; Groups 1, 2, and 3, etc.) and then asking students to select one, beginning to post immediately in their new role. Once all of the positions have been filled, announce the groups formally in an announcement.

You could create these group discussion placeholders in Canvas in advance, and not need to manually assign students to groups using the tool; you’d simply trust students to return to the discussions labeled with their team name. Or, you could give students private spaces by, you guessed it, manually assigning students to groups. Hmm, I wonder how you might do that? How do I manually assign students to groups?

Conclusion

This is only the tip of the iceberg. This could easily be titled “10 Ways to Group Adult Students fo Teamwork Online” or “50 Ways to Group Adult Students for Teamwork Online.” If you are trying to come up with a creative way to group your students for an assignment, please feel free to reach out to a Learning Designer on our team.



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