Do boys loaf more or less when working in groups with girls? Do girls work better in a single sex group? What is the ideal classroom grouping scenario? Such questions can beguile even the most experienced of teachers. Answering those questions could provide us with important marginal improvements for our teaching practice.

Whilst we should take care to avoid lazy stereotypes, we do know that boys and girls can respond differently to group work. With my English Language A level teaching experience, I have always been interested in the dynamics of language and gender. In terms of language use, females are repeatedly shown to be more inclusive with their talk in group settings, whereas males prove more competitive. This research into adult language has correlated quite well with my experiences of many of the classes I have taught. Does it translate to how we group students within our classes?

Some research has shown (Smith-Lovin & Brody, 1989) that in adult conversation, that as the number of females in the group rises, the number of male interruptions decreases. Should this influence our grouping decisions? Perhaps this should guide us toward mixed gender groupings? At the very least, it may make us think hard about how we group our students.

Advocates for group work will cite the benefits of the ‘wisdom of crowds’, whereat larger groups make better predictions and decisions. And yet, having smaller and smarter crowds is that little bit better (see the research here). So then, when we decide to enact a group task in class, having a mixed group of girls and boys, selected by their expertise related to the topic, mat prove our best bet.

If we accept the notion of the ‘wisdom of crowds‘, then what is the magic number for group size? There is no fixed answer, but research evidence shows that any group size above six is unlikely to be effective. Why is this? Well, successful group work relies on group goals, but alongside individual responsibility. With too many students in a group it is too easy for social loafing (students putting in less effort when they know they can because other group members pick up the slack) to happen. Better to have a smaller groups, such as trios or fours. Of course, even then, they’ll need training.

Instead of just doing the same old, same old with our groupings, how about reflecting upon the following questions before making your in-class grouping decision:

  • What is the ideal number for the group size for this task?
  • Are students clear about what effective collaboration looks like and sounds like?
  • What are the group goals and individual goals for this task? Are they clear to the students?
  • How are you going to fend off ‘social loafing’?
  • Should personality differences influence our grouping decisions? Are there introverts in the classroom that should receive particular attention as we decide upon grouping students?
  • How should we group in relation to ability or skill levels? Are the groups separate by ability or mixed, or randomised? Does this make a difference?


In response to this blog, Jenn Borgioli Binis shared this excellent Atlantic article on Group Work and the Secretary Effect – showing how group work can reinforce social roles. Once more, it provokes us to think hard about group work in our classrooms. Thanks Jenn!