This is surprising because, at first thought, when you let a random group of intelligent and creative people self organize, the result should be as interesting and varied as the people in the group. But instead of bringing out everyone's best qualities, it amplifies only a few, specific qualities:
1. The Visionary. Giving students the freedom to pick their own projects is a huge burden! What would you expect when you come up to a student and say: "Quick, come up with a great idea right now, because your grade depends on it!" Out of five students, just one would love the burden. That student is The Visionary.Wait, but that's just two people, the group still needs more. The next person to join is...
The Visionary never has problems coming up with great ideas. They tend to think big thoughts often, and kick around various ideas for years. When they see a course project as an opportunity to pursue this idea, they jump at the chance. To get there, they'll enlist the help of...
2. The Code Monkey. The Visionary is already good friends with a Code Monkey, and respects how many languages the Code Monkey knows, and how many different graphics and networking libraries they've used. The Visionary doesn't want to do all of this work on their own, so they pick a competent peer they can trust. The Code Monkey always gets an A on programming assignments and the two quickly work out a deal: I'll do the write-ups and the presentation, and you do some coding spikes to be sure if this idea is feasible.
3. The Leech. The Leech is actually a great person. They respect people and the course, and they want to get something out of it. Specifically? They want to get an A. The Leech seeks out groups as they are forming and finds the group that they think the professor is most interested in. The Leech doesn't want to exactly gain at another's loss, the want to coast on another's gain.And that's how it unfolds. Most of the time. Obviously, if the project is only 2-3 people, or 5-6, some people will be playing simultaneous roles, or change roles over time. The labeling isn't as important as the group dynamic that emerges.
The Leech typically knows The Visionary or The Code Monkey and is the "second pick" to join the group. The Visionary didn't ask The Leech first, because The Code Monkey was in higher demand. But the group needs to grow, so The Leech is accepted. The Leech's acceptance solidifies the group's mission, and already their roles are set in stone. Based on this solidifying service alone, The Visionary might be the one to approve of The Leech.
In a nice group, The Leech isn't even much of a Leech, and is more just an Understudy Code Monkey.
4. The Slacker always comes late. Groups by this point have already started to form into twos and threes, and time is running out before those left become "that group." You know, the group of people who are randomly assigned, because they just don't know enough people and so the only ones left are assigned to a group by default? Who wants to risk their grade with that!
The Slacker might've been a Visionary-in-Waiting, unable to convince anyone to follow their lead. Being too much of a leader to be a follower, The Slacker only reluctantly follows. The Slacker joins the group based not on what their different ideas are, but based on the path of least resistance. The Slacker is different from The Leech, because they aren't as engaged. Even though The Leech wants to coast on the work of others, The Leech knows how key it is for the group to be strong. The Leech is engaged by giving The Visionary all of the social support he or she needs. The Slacker can pull the group the other way. The Slacker might suggest ideas and changes only because it would be easier for their particular circumstances, not because it would lead to the best project.
Thus, groups sometimes end up with a project with a key component dedicated to some technology The Slacker is comfortable with. However, given that they are The Slacker, that key component will only be ready until "next week." As the deadline approaches, that key component is only half done-- if that-- and everyone needs to save face explaining why they just didn't get there. The Slacker is a drag on the group not because they don't do things, but because they've actively pulled focus away from where the group could have gone.
5. The Watertreader rounds out the group. The Watertreader could join the group at any stage, before or after either The Leech, The Slacker, or even The Code Monkey. A Watertreader might have even been brought on by The Visionary as The Code Monkey. Yet, when it comes to either the coding or the write-ups, The Watertreader is simply in over their head. This could be due to personal issues or inexperience. The Watertreader works hard, but no matter what only seems to be getting by.
Yet, the Watertreader might be a key part of the group, too. They don't make promises like The Slacker, so they don't drag down morale. If they were part of the project early on, they might have recruited the best people of all categories. There's an opportunity for The Watertreader to help gel the team, and even use their organizational skills to keep the group on track: "Come on guys, we need to set up a meeting for next time right now!"
As a result, I will no longer let students self assign groups. Even though in some cases it works out perfectly, in the average case it does not.
Random selection for group projects is worth the risk to me, given that this means I'm picking a policy that is less popular.
And remember being in "that group"? The one that ends up being randomly assigned by default? They always end up being the more interesting groups. Why? Because it brings out the visionary in everyone, so everyone is engaged, and no one has a choice but to be their best.
This post was inspired by @mattmight's post on "Classroom Fortress: The Nine Kinds of Students".