Instructional Practices

8 Creative Ways to Group Students in the Classroom

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Group work is an essential part of any student-centered classroom. Long gone are the days when kids were expected to work on assignments alone at desks arranged in neat rows—and for good reason. The National Education Association supports cooperative learning because of its research-proven benefits.

Teachers who find creative ways to group students in the classroom can see many positive results. When compared to competitive and individual learning methods, group work tends to see a higher increase in academic improvement, productivity, and classmate support. It also promotes higher self-esteem and better social skills.

Figuring out ways to group students without creating behavior problems can be a bit challenging. However, doing so can boost your students’ overall learning experiences tenfold. Here are some options that can take your classroom to the next level.

How to Group Students in the Classroom 

Option 1: You choose

I consider myself a semi-adventurous teacher when it comes to collaborative learning. I’m creative with my lesson plans and also like to have a little control over placement. Students don’t always have productivity in mind when grouping themselves.

Then there are certain assignments that require mixed grouping. I love having students take part in reading discussion groups. For these, you need a mix of abilities. Otherwise, more advanced kids finish too quickly, and those who struggle sit in silence.

For a teacher-selected mix, try these ideas out:

1. Continents, patterns, and colors

In my last school, every classroom had a theme. Mine was travel, so I arranged my students in groups based on the names of the continents (e.g., Africa, South America, Asia, and so on).

Then, I grouped students’ desks in a “four square” setup, where desks where grouped into two-by-two squares. Sometimes when teaching in small groups, I would travel from section to section. At other times, each group would travel to a new continent to complete a stationed assignment.

If travel isn’t your thing, here are some other group name ideas:

  • Patterns: stars, dots, stripes, plaid
  • Colors: yellow, orange, blue, green
  • Under the sea: jellyfish, dolphins, turtles, sharks
  • Dinosaurs: spinosaurus, triceratops, ankylosaurus, stegosaurus
  • Plants: sunflowers, poppies, daisies, bluebells
  • Artists: Rembrandts, Kahlos, Lawrences (for Jacob Lawrence), Monets

2. Buttons and shapes

This is a great option if you need students to sit in a certain grouping because of accommodations or behavior but want to quickly pull them into other groupings for activities. It also works for any desk layout. So, if you choose something other than “four square” or individual groupings, buttons and shapes is a good option.

Walking around the room while students are seated, place a colored button (one color per group) on each student’s desk. Then, have the students stand and meet their partners at a particular place in the room. When they finish the assignment, they return to their individual groups. This can work with shapes, tiles, or any other small object that you have available.

3. Behavior grouping

Even your most well-behaved student can benefit from this type of grouping. I like to mix my talkative students with the more reserved ones, my “wiggle worms” with my more stoic kids, and so on. This helps with classroom reward systems as well. Assigning groups in this way will not only encourage positive student behavior but also build a sense of social connection and teamwork.

4. Partner pairs

I get it. Sometimes, rows are the only thing that will work. If you must (or just really want to) group your students in traditional rows, consider two options.

The first is to make rows with pairs so that even though students are lined up in rows, each student also has a clearly assigned partner.

Or, you could assign each student a “turn and talk” partner with whom they hold discussions during collaborative work. By assigning these partners yourself, you can cut down on the unnecessary drama and hurt feelings that tend to happen when certain students aren’t chosen by their peers.

Option 2: They choose

Personally, I only do this as a reward or when ability/behavior does not factor into the assignment at all. If you decide to give it a try, consider these options:

5. Interest groups

This works especially well with history and reading but can work in other subjects as well. For example, if you were teaching a lesson about the transcontinental railroad, you could use centers around the room. One might involve creating a steam engine blueprint (art), one might have a find-and-color word search (reading), another might be STEM-based (building a model), and so on.

Students could make their own groups based on interests and then switch at the sound of a timer. This allows the groups to vary and for each student to have a chance to participate in the activities that interest them the most.

6. Popsicle sticks

This is a random grouping teacher favorite, but students can use it as well. First, write each student’s name on a popsicle stick. Then, place them in a container. Allow each student to pull a stick. This gives them a sense of having some say in the selection process without allowing the group selection to become a popularity contest.

Side note: I have a strict policy when it comes to students considering others’ feelings during partner selections. During the first few days of school, I explain that any expressions of disappointment during partner-picks will lead to them being assigned by me every time.

7. Paint swatch secret ballot

This option is similar to interests but can be used with any activity. First, laminate enough color swatches for everyone in the class. For example, you might have five swatches in green, red, blue, and so on, depending on how many students are in your class. Have students come up in pairs to choose a color. Once students have made a selection, instruct them to write their first name (or initials, class numbers, etc.) on a swatch and place it into a tub as if they were casting a secret ballot.

The last two called will have fewer options to choose from, so they get the special task of pulling out the other swatches and telling their peers how to group up. You can make this even more random by instructing students not to tell the others which color they chose.

8. Random name selector

Do a quick online search for a random name selector (there are tons of options) and enter your students’ names or class numbers. Decide how many groups you want, and choose that many students to be group leaders. Have each leader come to the smartboard (if you have one) or your computer and randomly select X number of students using the random selector. Voilà! This is another one of the many creative ways to group students in the classroom.

Fun Ways to Divide Students into Groups

Which of these creative ways to group students in the classroom is your favorite? We’d love to hear your feedback!

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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