2009 Teaching and Learning Symposium

2:30-4:30 p.m., April 21, 2009
HUB Ballroom

Session Description



To Group or Not to Group: Effect of Structured Groups on Student Performance in a Cell Biology Laboratory Course

Alison Crowe and Jason Patterson (Biology)

We have compared the effect of structured versus non-structured groups on student performance in a small cell biology laboratory class (24-36 students). This study grew out of observations of 3-4 person teams of students who work together to develop a testable hypothesis and design and carry out experiments to test this hypothesis.

For the first 3 quarters that the course was taught, students were formed into groups based on where they sat on the first day of class. Anecdotal evidence from observing student interactions suggested that these self-selected groups exhibited distinct characteristics and group dynamics that impacted group performance. Based on previous studies of the benefits of heterogenous groups, we decided to create structured groups that would contain one “high-risk” student, two “medium-risk students” and one “low-risk” student. Students were placed into one of the three risk categories based primarily on their previous performance in other cell and molecular-based courses. To avoid influencing the instructor’s perception of students’ abilities, the evaluation of students’ transcripts was performed by a second party, who then gave a list of group assignments to the instructor with no risk-levels indicated.

Results from the structured groups indicated that students performed at their predicted risk-level 66% of the time (n=65). Of the 34% of students who performed differently than predicted, 68% performed higher than expected and 32% performed lower than expected. We next compared random and structured groups in two different sections during the same quarter of instruction. We found that students performed at their predicted risk-level 66% of the time in both sections, with a similar percentage of students performing better than expected in both sections. These findings indicate that structuring groups had no significant effect on student performance; however, qualitative differences in group dynamics were observed which may impact overall student satisfaction levels.


Index of Symposium Presenters