When using groups, teachers can form the groups or they can let students select their group members. When the groups are only working together for a class period or part of one, who forms the groups is less critical. However, recent research results offer convincing evidence that when the group interactions are more extend and students are working collectively on a project, there are some good reasons why teachers should form the groups.
In a study that involved upper-division business majors, the student cohort was asked to assume they were taking a business course with students they did not know. The teacher had asked them to select group members for a team assignment. Students in the study were then given two weeks to accumulate images that visually represented the type of classmates they would approach about forming a group and images of those classmates they'd avoid. They were told to look for these images in magazines and online. After collecting their pictures, each student participated in a 60-90 minute guided conversation in which they were asked what aspects of the image caused them to put it in the “approach” or “avoid” category. Then they were asked to describe the associations they made with the images and what they would expect if the person in the image were to become a member of their group.
In the discussion section of the article, the researcher reports that self-selection of team members can result in negative consequences for students who are approaching others and for students who are not being approached. “Some students … respond to the problem of too little information during team formation by using a variety of social cues to cognitively categorize their classmates into at least two broad categories. One category appears to be comprised of those who fit, in appearance and behavior, a business school norm.” (p. 45) Students used terms like “normal,” “every day,” “typical,” “regular,” and “average Joe” to describe those who wore business school casual clothes, had well-groomed hair, moderately good physical shape, little or no visible body art and possessed an expected set of relevant tools and supplies. They expected those who fit this norm would be smiling, interacting with others in the class, and participating in class, among other behaviors.
A good deal of stereotyping was evidenced by the range of positive personality traits and values ascribed to those in the “business school” category. They were seen as having ability, kindness, honesty, and trustworthiness. “Not only are classmates in the ‘other' category inferred to be relatively low in trustworthiness, they are also inferred to possess a wide range of negative personality traits, place too little value on education, place too little or too much value on self, and hinder one's ability to achieve a desired grade and contribute a fair share in doing so.” (p. 46)
Some of the stereotyping was blatant. One student said he would avoid any students who were reading a non-English book because they were likely ESL students. He described those students as not creative, unable to understand course content as well as American students, and likely to produce low-quality work, which would mean more work for the rest of the group. Other stereotypical conclusions were drawn about introverted students and those perceived to be “older”. Some younger students reported that they would avoid approaching older students because they probably didn't have good academic skills and handled technology poorly.
All of the students in this cohort reported using social cues in assessing other students as potential group members. If they seek to form groups with members that look and act as they do, that significantly diminishes the opportunity groups give students have to learn from and with others. “Not once during this study did a participant relate images in their approach category to learning about, or learning to work with, classmates who are different.” (p. 47) These results caused this researcher to be unequivocal in his conclusion. “Instructors need to assume full responsibility for making decisions about who works with whom and employ a decision-making process that leads to intrateam diversity.” (p. 47)
Reference: Neu, W. A., (2015). Social cues of (un)trustworthy team members. Journal of Marketing Education, 37 (1), 36-53.