When you are using cooperative/collaborative learning in your college classroom, you need to think about the number of students you have each of the different groups. The size of the groups will vary according to the tasks, but groups of four to seven students typically work most effectively. Some distinctions to consider include the following:
- The smaller the group, the less information and experience there is upon which to develop solutions.
- The larger the group, the smaller the opportunity is for individual students, especially shy ones, to contribute. Larger groups also lend themselves to being dominated by one or two students, yet they can also be more diverse. Discussions are livelier and solutions more broadly based, when members are diverse in age, gender, race and other factors.
To ensure diversity, it is typically more effective to assign students to a group, rather than allowing students to select themselves. When the group work will be done in class, random assignment usually works well. Simply divide the total number of students in the class by the number you want in each group to determine the number of groups. Then, beginning at a convenient place within the class, have students count off up to the number of groups you need. Then have all the “number 1’s” gather to conduct their discussion. Proceed with the “number 2’s” and so on. You can also form random groups by having students draw numbers or items of a particular type or color from a container.
Random assignments do not work well for groups that will be meeting outside of class because of students’ schedules, areas of residence, and other factors. One of the biggest complaints that students have about cooperative/collaborative groups is the difficulty in finding time to meet. This challenge sometimes leads students to divide the work and piece it back together at the end. Such activity typically does not foster the spirit of collaboration that is intended to maximize students’ learning. Therefore, strategic professors take students’ schedules into account as they assign groups. Proactively creating groups that can meet will significantly increase the likelihood that they do meet and will lower what David Yamane (1996) calls “transaction costs,” that is, the prices students pay for having to work collectively.
The effectiveness of cooperative/collaborative learning depends largely on the quality of the learning experience you design. Having students group together to answer the review questions at the end of the textbook chapter may be only slightly more effective than assigning the same material as individual homework. Using a custom-designed case problem with interesting characters and situations will provide a dynamic learning opportunity that cannot be duplicated at home or in the library. Learning experiences that require students to explore their personal values and discuss them with those of diverse beliefs create a truly synergistic environment. As always, think about why you are having students take apart in a particular learning experience. Never use group work for its own sake. Rather use it because it will lead to outcomes superior to those of another instructional method.