How do I end up in a decent group of people for group assignments?
February 26, 2011 8:52 PM   Subscribe

Group work at University: How do I maximise my chances of ending up in a group with people who possess at least medium-to-high intelligence / conscientiousness? When who you sit next to determines what group you end up in, what "cues" can I look for when deciding who to sit next to?

Suggestions so far:
*Sit next to people with glasses :)
*Sit next to outgoing people (because better communication = better group work, and also a better presentation)

I'm pretty easygoing, so I don't mind a bit of social loafing from group members, since if I was working alone, I'd put in heaps of effort anyway. And I also enjoy working with others. So group assignments are A-OK by me.
But the last few group projects I have had, I have somehow ended up with people who seemed to know what they were talking about, but actually submitted complete crap, and at the last minute -- earning us merely passing grades. (When left to my own devices I get high distinctions).

Any tips on how to pick people to sit next to when I enter a new class, knowing that I'm going to be grouped with these people for the entire semester to work on a major project?
posted by mjao to Education (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Sit in the front.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:56 PM on February 26, 2011

Sit in the front -- not the front row, but the first few (depends on how big the classroom is). This all but guarantees conscientiousness, which, in group projects, is far more important a skill than intelligence.
posted by jeather at 9:12 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think sitting up the front is a good one, except that typically stragglers are forced to sit up the front too (since they're the only seats left) -- and this happened with my last group project.

BUT, that classroom was completely full, so if there are seats available at the back and yet people choose to sit at the front ... I think you guys might be on to something. :)
posted by mjao at 9:20 PM on February 26, 2011

Thirding (fourthing?) the advice to sit in the front. These are people that are putting themselves out there to catch the professor's attention. These are the people you want to work with.

In the medium-to-long-term, effort (preferably sustained effort) trumps intelligence. The people that are consistently outgoing or hard-working are the people that will push the group into success; often times, these are the same people that sit up front, instead of in the back (on Facebook).

On preview: Yes, the people that choose to sit in the front are the ones you want to look for. ;)
posted by raihan_ at 9:22 PM on February 26, 2011

Response by poster: So what should Plan B be if it is a tiny classroom and people are forced to sit up the front who wouldn't otherwise do so?
posted by mjao at 9:34 PM on February 26, 2011

Sit up front. Pay attention to those who ask questions and engage the prof in discussions before and after class. The ones who've done the reading and can answer questions in class are also good candidates. Those who are taking good notes near you are also good candidates.
posted by LN at 9:38 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Assuming you're not asked to form groups on the first day of class, keep an eye out for people who are taking good notes and paying attention, and/or asking intelligent questions.
posted by MsMolly at 9:38 PM on February 26, 2011

You don't have to just use immediately obvious cues here unless groups are assigned on the first day. You can look around during the first few lectures, too. Things to look for:

- Are they actively taking notes or at least attending to lecture, or are they surfing the internet, sleeping, or talking with their friends?

- If they ask questions in lecture this is a great sign but few people do that.

- Do they start packing up to go before the lecturer is done? Not a good sign.

- Do they consistently come to lectures?

These things require being actively aware for several lectures in a row, but unless groups are assigned on the first day, it's worth the effort. If they're assigned the first day, nthing the advice to choose people who sit at the front. And show up early-ish so you can identify the people who sat there because they were early and wanted to be there.
posted by forza at 9:39 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

So what should Plan B be if it is a tiny classroom and people are forced to sit up the front who wouldn't otherwise do so?

Choose the best-looking people. That way, if they're total morons, it's not a complete loss.

(This is not snark. I am serious. I've gotten stuck with some truly sucky people in groupwork, and looking back, there was NO WAY I could have known in the first week or two of class. These were studious-looking people from selective schools who, as it turned out, has chosen the wrong degree or were just plain lazy. The best thing you can do is make YOURSELF know to the lecturer as a "person who knows their shit" and hope they remember that when it comes to marking your groupwork. In a tiny class, it is more likely they will remember you.)

That being said, if there are mature age students, even just in their early twenties (and these are way more common in some degrees than others) these are likely to be people who a) really WANT to be back at school, and b) have probably been in the workforce for a few years and understand how "working as a team without a teacher hovering over us" works.
posted by jaynewould at 9:42 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A complementary approach: keep track of who speaks up in class. Partner up with people who make relevant contributions and stay on point. Avoid people who make wanky, irrelevant comments to make themselves seem smarter. An aware instructor will usually cut these people off to avoid wasting the class's time. People who speak up to correct something on the board ("you missed a minus sign!") could fall into either group.

This strategy by itself will miss quiet, hard-working classmates. Consider talking to people before and after class. The ones who can manage to show some semblance of interest in the material make good teammates. The ones who just complain about the teaching style and grading policy are probably flakes.
posted by Nomyte at 9:45 PM on February 26, 2011

It's possible your major has an extracurricular group or event(s) related to it: real examples include the women in Computer Science club, the anthropological student association's annual Potlatch party, etc. Attend their events so you simply know people already, before you even show up in class with them.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:53 PM on February 26, 2011

Generally, the dedicated students tend to sit in a T-shape: all across the front few rows, and then in the middle of the seating area all the way towards the back. Find the people who come to class early, come every day, and take notes. People who sit with their textbook open in front of them and consult it during class tend to be more active, rather than passive, learners. The people who take the longest to finish tests may not be the smartest, but they're certainly the hardest working.

If you're forced to pick on the first day of class, or are simply numbered off, you're not going to be able to pick out the good group members from the bad ones. Your best bet in that situation may be to push for teacher-created groups so you don't actively attract the bad group members.
posted by lilac girl at 9:56 PM on February 26, 2011

I'm a non-traditional (old!) undergrad student, and I've found myself gravitating toward the other older people in the class for group projects, and this practice has worked out really well. Usually, they're making some kind of sacrifice to take the class, so they take it seriously and work hard to get good grades; they're more experienced with deadlines and the like; and since they've (usually) worked in professional environments on projects before, I feel like the understand group/project dynamics (I feel like the time I was with younger students, they took every comment and suggestion really personally and bristled at criticism; the older students were more understanding of the end goal in mind, and not so sensitive).
posted by Ideal Impulse at 11:03 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Act like a dumbass and the professor will pair you with smarter people to even out the group.
posted by LarryC at 11:28 PM on February 26, 2011

Act like a dumbass and the professor will pair you with smarter people to even out the group.

Not true. If anything, this will make it harder to get into a group with higher-performing students. If a professor is going to "even out the group" they'll put low-performing students with mid-tier students. In a high-performing group, they will be either completely overwhelmed or force other group members to do 100% of the work.
posted by orangeseed at 11:50 PM on February 26, 2011

2nding Ideal Impulse. I too am an "old" student by the standards of my school, and I find that I only work with other people who have full-time jobs. This seems to be because full-time students don't want to work with me, since I don't have a flexible schedule and can't come to campus all the time for meetings. But you know what, those kids are missing out, because a. I program *as my job* (this is a computer science master's degree so this is a big deal) and am both fast and experienced compared to most full-time students; and b. my company only reimburses me if I get a certain grade in the class; nothing motivates like money, especially if you're a grownup with a house and a spouse and mouths to feed and such; and c. if the partnership went well I would be able to refer them very strongly for a job at my company, a reasonably sought-after employer in my field. I get real money if my referral is hired, so I'm very incentivized to come up with a great project so that I can talk my referral up.

I've given up even trying to find project partners amongst the general student population, though; if you want a nontraditional student project partner you will have to be aggressive about it.
posted by troublesome at 11:56 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

The people down the front are barely competent suckarses who think sitting up the front will somehow get them extra marks. Clue by four, morons - your lecturer hates you.

Sit at the back, halfway between the centre and the door. We're the people who get High Distinctions. We're surfing the net. We rarely write anything down, and when we do, it's with a raised eyebrow. We're not asking questions. We're packing up early.

We do all of this because we did the fucking readings, we think fast and we can write to a deadline.

Not that it matters when the lecturer goes '1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3...OK, all the 1s over here' or assigns you to a group based on surname or student number or some other arbitrary factor.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:20 AM on February 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think a lot depends on the subject, as well. Are these business classes? Engineering? History? I've been in so many seminar classes where there's no front or back--there's just a roundtable.

In business school, I was matched with two people--Harvey and Angela. Everyone in the class thought Harvey was a brainiac because he always raised his hand, looked older and more mature, and he even wore glasses. Angela was some youngish woman who rarely raised her hand. Harvey quickly proved himself to be a complete idiot. He had no idea how to use a computer, which was unfortunate considering every project involved advanced knowledge of MS Project, Powerpoint, Word, and Excel. Angela was quick and intelligent; she and I carried the project. Somehow, everyone still thought Harvey was a brainiac because he raised his hand in class a lot. Angela and I also realized quite fast that he was simply regurgitating what the professor said; it doesn't take much to impress a room full of business students, though.

In engineering school, our group of four was made up of me (hard-worker, top of my class), a screwball who never took notes, and two other people somewhere in the middle. The screwball and I carried the project. He turned out to be extremely hard-working and intelligent. The other two fought to get out of any tasks or duties. They were lazy feet-draggers--anchors on the project (senior design). They skipped group meetings and wanted to do little more than pass (while me and the 'screwball' expected to excel).

My point? Leave it to random chance. Try to get more women in the group, because they're typically more focused.
posted by rybreadmed at 1:07 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 2nding Ideal Impulse. I too am an "old" student by the standards of my school, and I find that I only work with other people who have full-time jobs.

Funny, I've found that the older students tend to expect that their work and life issues trump actually contributing. And I AM an older student, so I know it's largely an excuse. Working with full-time students can be annoying for different reasons, but automatically choosing older students isn't always a good strategy.

Sit at the back, halfway between the centre and the door. We're the people who get High Distinctions. We're surfing the net. We rarely write anything down, and when we do, it's with a raised eyebrow. We're not asking questions. We're packing up early.

This is so wrong it's hilarious, especially the packing up early bit.* Unless you're in a freshman-level seminar, these people are the ones who think they know the material and then when you're trying to finish the project they haven't paid enough attention to know what the requirements are and who don't really care about the class because they haven't invested in it.

My strategy? It's to look for people who are engaged with the material, because they care. Look for people who are actively focused on what is going on, even if they don't speak up very often. Avoid the people who talk the most in class, because they're usually performing for the professor. If it's a small class, pay attention to the people who appear to know the professor from previous classes and gauge how they interact. If you're lucky enough to have had a test or an assignment before having to pick a group, it's good if you can have a casual conversation with people about how they did. People who show up late more than once a semester are probably not your best bet. People who don't show up for classes are absolutely not the best bet. Ask your other friends in the program. You don't have other friends in the program? Make some, even if only for networking purposes. You need the information they can give you.

*I've had so many professors drop critical pieces of information into the dull roar at the end of class that I don't pack up until they've visibly disengaged and are packing up themselves - quite frequently the tidbits they dropped meant a significant difference in final outcomes.
posted by winna at 4:30 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sit near women. Plenty of studies show that groups have better outcomes when they include women (business groups, study groups, any types of "groups trying to accomplish something"). As a prof who assigns group work, I find that ON AVERAGE Groups of All Women > Mixed-Gender Groups > Groups of All Men.

Now, I certainly have groups of all men that knock it out of the park, and mixed-gender groups too, and groups of women that manage to suck it up. But if I were just going to guess, knowing nothing about the students other than their demographics, I'd GUESS the groups of women and the mixed-gender groups would out-perform the groups of men. (Actually KNOWING my students, I think in my current class the men are going to outperform the women this semester, both individually and if they make single-gender groups when we do groups a little later on. Like I said, it's just an average.)

(One hypothesis: Groups of women tend to be more social, especially if I don't assign groups until mid-semester when students have gotten to know one another somewhat; I expect those social ties lead them to feel more responsible to the group and thus more likely to complete their work and work hard at it. Since I don't see the effect in online classes, where social ties are weak, I think that bolsters my hypothesis.)

And, yes, in GENERAL adult/non-trad students work much harder. (I have a friend who's a non-trad and she calls her cohort the "Try-Harders" which is apt.) There are always a couple of adult students who have a sense of entitlement because of their adulthood, but in general adult students are very hard workers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:28 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd say: women and grade should be the first criteria, absent other information. Women work harder than men, and they are generally more organized and timely. They also tend to "inspire" male members to be more productive. Sitting in front can be a good indicator, but there are brown-nosers and there are people who expect excellence. It's good to be asking questions, but only if the question is intelligent, and if you are familiar with the materials, you should be able to tell the difference. I like those who ask questions that make me jot down notes.

rybreadmed, while your more out-spoken teammate turns out to be a dud, he DID get you a good team (i.e. with Angela). That's one advantage of teaming up with a popular/out-spoken person: even if they are not good, others will assume that they are good, and they generally have the better picking. This, of course, works only with team larger than 2. I'm surprise you didn't notice that, being in business class and all.
posted by curiousZ at 7:19 AM on February 27, 2011

Best answer: The advice upthread is well received, but in addition: minimize your reliance on group work for information retention. The new book Academically Adrift finds a decline in critical thinking and writing skills at colleges where group work is high.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:33 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

A couple of more ideas.

Run from people who are consistently late for class, if they can't be there for a scheduled class they won't be around for group meetings.

Watch out for cultural dynamics. Some people are from societies where "the nail standing up gets hammered down" to use a cliche. Others can't say "no" or voice an opinion in a group setting. A good mix of cultures could probably work but if everyone else is from Culture A and you are from Culture B, there could be real communication problems. I learned this one the hard way.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 9:11 AM on February 27, 2011

Best answer: This is something that fascinates me more every year as I start to see patterns in my students' seating preferences. This chart is somewhat hilariously accurate, especially the "too cool for school" section. I personally would go for the people who sit in rows 2 and 3 slightly to the right (uhh, my right, your left) of where the lecturer stands.

The women suggestion is also a good one.

Weird anecdata: When I'm assigning groups, I've started to go by alphabet, for the simple reason that the people absent that day tend to be the ones who slack off, so there's a death-spiral effect in which the last couple of groups do WAY worse than the sum of their individual parts. But something I noticed for the first time last semester was that students with surnames earlier in the alphabet were tending to do better (not always, but as a general trend), and there was a real downward hummock at around R S T. I'm sure this is just a coincidence.
posted by media_itoku at 11:14 AM on February 27, 2011

Sit in the front -- not the front row, but the first few (depends on how big the classroom is). This all but guarantees conscientiousness, which, in group projects, is far more important a skill than intelligence.

I find this advice really suspect. I am an A student and I always sit in the back so I can see the entire screen, and so I can see my fellow students asking and answering questions. Those are the people I would want to be in a group with, especially if they are older.

Half the people who come in late are forced to sit in the crummy front row seats that have a poor view of the screen. I don't think you're giving yourself any advantage if you sit in the front, too.

Oh, and my professors know me because I participate, not because of where I sit.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:19 PM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice in this thread, I would just like to say that obiwanwasabi's advice does not reflect my experience with the students who sit in the back of my classes or who pack up early or who work well in groups.

I know my students based on how often they participate, not because of where they sit, as oneirodynia said. Frequent participation is a good indicator of good grades.
posted by vincele at 1:35 PM on February 27, 2011

Focus on quality not quantity - people who ask intelligent questions that show that they've been listening and have done the reading (not just people who ask lots of questions), and people who contribute in a way that shows that they've synthesised the previous discussion (not just people that contribute for the sake of it) are both good.

Nthing getting in with the mature age students - in my experience they're not only more committed, and have more experience of working with others and hence enhance a group project, but also I found them to be far more interesting people than most of the people in my classes.

I disagree with the "pick the people who sit up the front". In my experience, they were always the try-hards, which didn't always translate into intelligence... (datapoint - I was an A student who always sat towards the back, on the side)

Try sitting at the back for at least one class - you can then at least see who is taking notes and who is checking Facebook...
posted by finding.perdita at 3:07 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

The smart people seek each other out to chat. In part because they are the only ones who actually want to talk about the material, in part because talking to unengaged uninterested people is a form of punishment. Watch the herds (packs? groups?) that form after class. One of them will be conspicuously filled with the smart kids.

If you want to find the hardworking ones, look for the notetakers. If you want to find the smart ones, look for the after-class chatters who are talking about the material. Note that these are often not the same people, as "smart" does not mean "high achievement", but instead means "absorbs material quickly".
posted by pmb at 4:36 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Obiwanwasabi, I dunno, I'm sure there are lots of students like you, but going up to somebody surfing the net and raising eyebrows could just as easily land me in a group with somebody who doesn't want to work as it could land me in a group with a genius. FWIW I get high distinctions and I do sit up the front, often -- not because I think it gets me extra points (??) but so I can see and hear better and so I don't get distracted (if I'm up the back I do tend to mess around on FB more etc). Ultimately, I do wish I knew somebody like you who just did the work quickly and efficiently and with not that much effort but I think I'd have to know who you were beforehand :) I think I would get into trouble trying to pick you out of a tutorial room.

The suggestions about women being better workers in a group seemed slightly controversial at first, and don't sit quiiiite right with me, but if we're talking about averages, and professors have noticed this, well that's interesting :)
posted by mjao at 2:28 PM on February 28, 2011

Number of Women in Group Linked to Effectiveness in Solving Difficult Problems

(But, as I noted, the researchers think higher social intelligence is the key, not gender qua gender.)

Reports on the study were all over the web last year, it was hard to miss.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:00 PM on February 28, 2011

Depending on your personality, you could go for 1) your friends 2) other people you think would be easy to boss around. No, not "boss around." How about "bring forth the best from?"
posted by oreofuchi at 12:23 PM on March 1, 2011

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