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10 Easy Grouping Techniques for the College Classroom

Tolulope Noah

Azusa Pacific University

Talking is a critical component of the learning process (Tanner, 2009, pp. 89, 93-94; Davis, 2009, pp. 97, 102). One way to incorporate student talk into the college classroom and foster active learning is through the use of "informal learning groups," where students form pairs or small groups as needed to discuss questions or work on brief processing activities. Professors can utilize these informal groups throughout a class session to "reinforce concepts, check on students' understanding, or offer a change of pace" (Davis, 2009, p. 207).

A variety of grouping techniques may be used to avoid the classroom pitfall of students routinely pairing up with friends to avoid being forced out of their comfort zones. Pairing with a variety of peers provides opportunities for students to get to know each other, encounter different perspectives, and learn from one another.

Following are 10 quick, easy, and creative techniques designed to group students to discuss questions, examine data, analyze case studies, solve problems, discuss readings, and brainstorm ideas.

1. Colorful Index Cards

Each student is given a colorful index card, and then they form groups with others who have the same color index card. Students may also form mixed groups that contain one card of each color. This strategy works particularly well with the Text Rendering Experience discussion protocol (School Reform Initiative, 2017). In this protocol, students read a passage and write a sentence, phrase, and word from the text that they found most significant on an index card. They then discuss their selected sentence, phrase, and word in small groups.

2. Playing Cards

Prepare a set of playing cards based on the number of students in the class and the number you want in each group. For a class of 20 students, you might prepare a set of playing cards with five of each suit and have each student select one. Students then get together with others who have the same suit. You can adapt this strategy by having students form groups based on the value/number on their cards instead of the suit, which is particularly useful for larger classes.

3. Clock Partners

You are probably familiar with the Think-Pair-Share discussion protocol, where you pose a question to students, give them time to think about it, and then have them pair up to share their responses (Brookfield & Preskill, 2016, pp. 139-142; Nilson, 2010, p. 164; Davis, 2010, p. 208, 293, Tanner, 2009 pp. 91-92; Tanner, 2013, pp. 323, 325). Clock Partners is a great way to spice up this strategy and expand opportunities for student interaction with a variety of peers!

Provide each student with a Clock Partners handout. You can use a clock with all 12 hour slots or with four hour slots (3:00, 6:00, 9:00 & 12:00), based on your needs. Give students time to walk around the room and make “appointments” with peers. To make an appointment, both people must have that hour free on their clock, and write each other's names down in the appropriate slot. Whenever you need students to pair up, simply tell them to take out their Clock Partners handout and meet with their _____ o'clock partner! (Example: "Please meet with your 4:00 partner and discuss the text.")

Download a free Clock Partners template here.

4. Dot Stickers on Handouts

Place multi-colored dot stickers on handouts before class. Students form pairs/groups with others who have the same color dot on their handouts. Likewise, you can have students form mixed groups composed of students who have each color dot.

5. Numbers/Letters on Handouts

Write numbers or letters in the corner of the handouts you will be using. Students form pairs/groups with those who have the same number or letter on their handouts, or form mixed groups as previously described. The numbering strategy is also useful when you need students to read aloud. For example, the handout pictured on the left has five bullet points listed about privilege. I wrote the numbers 1 to 5 on five of the handouts, and the five students who had numbers on their handouts read aloud the bullet point that matched their number.

6. Color-Coded Paper

This strategy is particularly useful for activities where students read about different topics and then teach others about what they learned (Brookfield & Preskill, 2016, pp. 189-192; Nilson, 2010, p. 164; Davis, 2009, pp. 209-210; Barkley