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Visibly Random Grouping, one semester in.

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This year I tried something new: visibly random grouping (VRG) every single day. I posted my plan back in September, full of optimism and backed by research.  In short, I planned to assign students  randomly to groups every day, using a deck of cards that I shuffle ostentatiously in front of them.  My classroom has 6 large tables, and my largest class has 24 students, so I assigned aface value to each table and sorted out custom decks for each class.IMG_0386

In anticipation of the new year, I bought decks of cards and a spiffy little card holder.  I prepared myself for pushback from the students. I even prepared for pushback from parents, fearing that students with learning or anxiety issues might find the social uncertainty too  stressful and might complain at home.

Now, with four days left in the term before finals, I am trying to process my thoughts about the technique, so I can decide whether to continue it next semester, and how I might plan to modify it.

The things I feared, and how they played out:

  • Students refusing to sit at assigned tables. This ended up not being much of an issue. Maybe my students were unusually compliant, but they didn’t usually argue to sit with their friends. As the term went on, I had a few students who would ask to sit alone in one of the satellite “testing desks” (designated by jokers in the separate “test-day deck” I put together) when we weren’t doing group work, and I sometimes allowed it. I think they were self-identifying as being easily distracted by the students around them.
  • Students switching cards on the sly. This happened some during the first week. It stopped when I started handing them their cards face up, so they could see I knew which card they got.  Sometimes it still happens occasionally, but it’s not a huge problem, and when I notice a statistically unlikely trend, I pay closer attention.
  • Random match-ups failing spectacularly.This happened, but not in the class I expected. In my lower level class, where I expected the most problems, the randomness only occasionally generated bad combinations.  However, in my Honors Geometry class (the largest class, and mostly freshmen), I ended up having to assign seats at separate tables to six of the kids for the long term, and randomly grouping the rest of the class around them. Those six just couldn’t keep from talking when sitting together in any combination.
  • Difficulty remembering names. Yep, it was hard. But I persevered and learned them after a week or so.

The things I hoped for, and how they played out:

  • Better classroom culture. Well, the statistician in me doesn’t dare draw conclusions from a non-blinded, uncontrolled study.  But I did get anecdotal feedback from a classroom observer who asked what was up with the cards, and a student told her how much she liked it.  The student said she probably never would have learned all the other students’ names if she hadn’t been forced to sit with them all over time. N of one—check.  I’ve not had many behavior issues this semester, but maybe the kids are just more compliant, or I’m getting better at classroom management.
  • Fewer entrenched bad behaviors. Again, like above, I can’t tell for sure, but I didn’t have as much trouble early on with students talking off-task and needing redirection.  As the students all got to know each other better, the behaviors did emerge, but again, I don’t think it was as bad as it has been for me in previous years.
  • More transfer of knowledge. One of the arguments for this method in the literature is that it creates more transfer of knowledge from student to student, and less reliance on the teacher. I am not sure that I’ve seen that. But then, I am not that good yet at designing group work, and just randomizing seating isn’t going to change that.  We’ll see how this develops as I get more proficient at collaborative learning.

Things that happened that I never thought about:

  • Playing with the cards instead of getting ready for class. If you give it to them, they will play with it.  Students devised ingenious games, playable with only three or four cards. They would gather cards from other tables for more intricate games.  They would build houses of cards. I needed to get the cards back quickly, or I had trouble gaining their attention to start class. The Honors students were worst about this.
  • Damaging the cards. Corollary to the above: If you give it to them, they will destroy it.  Idly tearing the cards, spilling things on them, coloring in the spots, folding the corners–you name it, I have watched students do it.  Really, guys?  You can’t have a card for three minutes without defacing it? Again, the Honors students were the worst about this.

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  • Difficulty handing back papers. I didn’t realize how helpful it was that students usually sat in the same places, when it came to handing back papers. When I didn’t randomize, I got very quick at locating students, but when they sit randomly I have to search for each and every one. It really does take a lot more time.
  • Knot of students around my desk before every class. Students mob my desk when they come in early, and they want me to stop what I am doing to pass out the cards. I tried letting them take their own, or assigning a shuffler, but it led to more sneaky seat-swapping. It makes it difficult to do last minute class prep, especially between blocks.

Help me!

I think I’m going to do it again next semester so I can see if the benefits continue with different students. I do wish I had some kind of instant, electronic card-dealing program that would allow me to select a partial deck and deal cards to a list of students on the classroom screen. Does anyone know of one? Does anyone else have refinements on the technique, or other advice for me?  If so, please leave them in the comments.