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Suggestions for Determining Group Size and Forming Groups

The following are suggestions for determining the size of small groups and for forming small groups, versus letting students choose their groups.

  1. If students resist random group assignments, versus forming their own groups, remind them that in a work setting they rarely get to choose with whom they will work.
  2. The following are methods for randomly assigning students to small groups:
    • Purchase or borrow childrens' puzzles. Select the number of puzzle pieces according to how many students you want in a group. Mix up the puzzle pieces and give each student a piece as they enter the class. Have students form groups by finding the other pieces needed to complete the puzzle section. (Silberman 21)
    • Form groups based on birthdays. All of the January and February birthdays sit together and so on. (Silberman 21)
    • Use playing cards such as the aces, king, queens, etc, and hand students a card as they enter. When you are ready to have them work in groups, have them find other students with the same type of card. (Silberman 22)
    • Use candy such as Starbursts and have students take a piece of candy as they enter. Have them sit with students who have the same flavored Starburst. (Silberman 22)
    • Code student learning materials to predetermine groups and/or group roles (i.e., colored paper clips, handouts, etc.). (Silberman 23)
    • Instruct students to leave their seats and circulate randomly around the room. Call out the word "Freeze!" and have students form teams with students who are in the same area. This activity could be modified to promote community building by having students share one personal piece of information with each student as they mill around the room, such as place of birth, a favorite movie, etc. (Kagan and Kagan 11 )
  3. Ideally, assign heterogeneous groups which reflect varied performance, ages, learning styles, ethnicity, work habits, gender mixes, etc., with the idea that the groups will reflect the students' various strengths.
  4. As a general rule, the amount of involvement and interaction that occurs in group work is inversely related to the group's size. (Cuseo 11)
  5. Dyads provide a comfortable context within which students can prepare for larger group settings.
    • If the task is challenging, pairs may not have all the abilities to complete the task, as compared to a larger group. (Cohen 73)
  6. The consensus among cooperative learning experts is that the optimum group size is three to four, but ultimately group size should depend on the group's purpose or task. (Cuseo 17)

    Groups of four...
    • promote diversity while minimizing feelings of anonymity and they lend themselves to paired work. (Cuseo 17)
    • avoids the "odd man out" syndrome that can occur with groups of three or five. (Cuseo 17)
    • make it easier to form balanced, heterogeneous groups based on gender (two males and two females) or minority-majority status (two underrepresented students, two majority students), or ability (two low, two high). (Cuseo 17)
  7. Groups of four or five are particularly appropriate for long-term projects.
  8. Groups larger than five can result in "freeloaders" or "hitchhikers," and/or a diluted experience.


Cohen, E. Designing Group Work: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York: Teachings College, 1994. Print

Cuseo, J. Igniting Student Involvement, Peer Interaction, and Teamwork: A Taxonomy of Specific Cooperative Learning Structures and Collaborative Learning Strategies. Stillwater: New Forums, 2002. Print.

Kagan, S., and M. Kagan. Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano: Resources for Teachers, 1992. Print.

Silberman, M. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon, 1996. Print.

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