I’m using a technique this semester to divide my first-year writing students into groups, which I do almost every class. I’ve found they’re not very good at have all-class discussions without my giving them time to talk about ideas ahead of time. This approach is not a new one; I heard about it at a conference almost a decade ago, in fact. Someone wrote about it online this week, though I don’t even remember where.
Here’s how it works. Using a basic deck of cards, pull out whatever you won’t need based on the number of students you have. I have 30 students in one card, so I use ace through seven, then two eights. Each student takes a card. I began by simply dividing them into groups of four, having them match up with people with the same number card, threes with threes, etc. I would often put the eights into the sixes and sevens, so no group was under four or over five.
There are several benefits of this approach. The most obvious is that it’s a quick way to put students in random groups, often away from their friends, so they’re more likely to focus on the task at hand, not simply talk to their friends. Given that I teach at a school were students tend to be much more extroverted, random groups doesn’t always help with this issue, though it might mitigate it.
More importantly, early in the semester, I could call on students randomly, asking the two of diamonds, for example, to respond to a question. Given that I didn’t know who had that card, it was clear I was not trying to embarrass anyone by cold calling on him or her. This approach also makes students more accountable, as they never know which, if any, questions they’ll be responsible for reporting to the entire group.
Overall, I like this approach, as it has accomplished much of what I’ve listed above. It also makes students get up and move around not quite halfway through the class, which helps us change gears in a visible manner. However, there are a couple of drawbacks I’ve noticed.
First, students often look for loopholes, and they’ve begun finding them. There are a group of students in one class, for example, who try to look through the cards as they come around and get ones that will put them all in the same group. Once I figured this out, I started changing the groups. This past week, I did A-3-5-7 and 2-4-6-8 of the same suit, and I’ll try A-4 and 5-8 this coming week. I’m trying to think of a way to mix up the suits, but I haven’t come up with an idea I like yet.
More importantly to me, calling on students by cards has felt rather impersonal. Given that I try quite hard to get to know my students, this approach feels like it’s added a layer of distance that wasn’t there before. It does keep them from feeling like I’m singling them out, but I’m not sure that trade off is worth it. Thus, this past week, I stopped using the cards and just began calling on students by name. I went around the room, though, and used almost everyone in every group I called on. Given that they had time to work on a question ahead of time (and with other people), no one seemed surprised when I called on them, and they all participated quite well.
I’m happy with the tweaks so far (though someone seems to have walked off with one of the cards), and I’m going to continue this approach and see how it goes. I can imagine more creative teachers could take this idea further, perhaps giving each card in a group a specific task or even making their own set of cards based on what they want people to do. I’m happy enough with the basic set of cards and how it’s working. Discussion has been robust, and that’s exactly what I want.