4 Factors for Determining How to Best Group Students in PBL


When teachers are first learning how to engage students in project-based learning (PBL), one question comes up most often: how should students be grouped? It’s a challenging question because there are a lot of factors that go into how a teacher decides to group students. FOMG or Fear of Mis-Grouping can sometimes prevent teachers from trying strategies like PBL at all.  If you suffer from FOMG, here are a few things to consider:


  1. What is the goal of the task or assessment?


This seems like a simple question, but sometimes we forget to actually decide this before designing or choosing a task or assessment! If the goal is for students to demonstrate mastery in a particular skill, individual accountability will be very important, but it does not prevent me from having students work in groups. I might choose to ask students to complete learning logs or exit tickets at the end of a group work session to determine what they know independently. I might ask students to score each individual on the team and justify the score using a standards-based rubric, averaging the score of each group member and a self-assessment, plus my own evaluation.  If the goal has nothing to do with individual mastery, I don’t worry about these measures, as they may cause students to focus on extrinsic motivators. I let the group generate ideas, create, revise, and reflect together, without worrying too much about who does what.


  1. What matters more for this task/assessment: process or product?


If the answer is process, I almost always decide to arrange students in groups, and I almost always allow them to choose the group. If the process really is the most important, failure is a totally acceptable outcome and I may want the students to learn from the mistakes they made when choosing the group. If the product is most important, for example, if the students are publicly presenting a solution to an actual community problem, I might thoughtfully arrange groups, have the students create want ads for group members or rearrange groups mid-stream if the group is not working out.


  1. What is the personality of the class and the individual students?


Some students prefer to work alone. Sometimes it is totally appropriate to allow this and other times it is important to encourage the students to work with others to build their skillset. I provide scaffolding (such as task cards, or opportunities to delegate work within a group) for these students and check in with them frequently.


Some classes are social. Sometimes it is totally appropriate to capitalize on the relationships in the classroom and allow students to work together. It may also be important to mix the students up in odd configurations they would not choose themselves or teach them how to make choices about who to work with. Grouping students carefully can be a great way to connect social and emotional learning goals with academic goals.


  1. What would happen in the real world?


When using an authentic task, I always try to focus on this as the most important question. If someone was really doing this, would they work in a group or work alone? Sometimes that is the easiest way to determine how to structure my classroom. (Pro tip: almost no one in the “real world” works alone!) If appropriate, you can also consider ways to treat the students as employees to practice real-world skills.


I have made a lot of mistakes when grouping students and I do sometimes wonder if some of my early projects could have been more impactful if I had grouped kids differently. FOMG, however, is not a reason not to try project-based learning. The worst PBLs I have ever designed outperformed the best PowerPoints I ever made, hands down!


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