Stellar and Cellar: The Results of Student Self-selected Groups

By Jeff Cain, EdD, MS

Have you ever tried a new teaching approach just to see what happens? I have. Sometimes out of curiosity, I experiment with some aspect of teaching and learning simply because I have a “feeling” that it might work. An example is when my co-course director and I a few years ago changed how the capstone project groups in our pharmacy management course were formed. We switched from the college convention of 6-person college-assigned groups in favor of student self-selection. This put us in the minority because in a recent study of pharmacy schools, 80% of respondents reported using randomly assigned student groups.1

What prompted the change?
The original college pairings worked well enough, I suppose. Students completed their capstone business plans with adequate quality. No one failed. However, over time we noticed the not insignificant number of group “issues” we had to deal with. Inevitably, every year students from two, three, or sometimes four groups approached us about “trouble” within their group. The complaints were typical. Another member didn’t show for meetings or missed deadlines or simply submitted shoddy work. The higher-performing students (or those who really needed a good grade) couldn’t take it anymore and approached us for help resolving the problem. While there is value in forcing students to deal with group conflict, it made me think about our setup. What would happen if we let them choose their own groups?

What actually happened?
A class poll revealed that students preferred self-selection at an approximate 10 to 1 margin, so we made the switch. They had a couple of weeks to form their groups offline, after which they used the Canvas groups feature (image below) to assign themselves accordingly.

Reflecting on the results of this change to student-selected groups has left me with five major observations.

1. As expected (ie, hoped), the number of group conflicts decreased substantially. Instead of the three or four issues per year, we only had three or four total across five years. There were so few that I can’t remember the details. That was a big win!

2. There were significantly fewer negative comments regarding the assignment on the end-of-year student course evaluations. We made other slight changes that may have contributed to that, but previous research has also shown that reduced team conflict due to self-selection improves the student experience.2

3. These next two are incredibly interesting to me and probably deserve further study. Once students were allowed to choose their own groups, we saw the emergence of “stellar teams.” Winners want to be with other winners and this resulted in many of the highest performing students joining together and submitting superb work.

4. Now the fascinating, but unsurprising result. Not only did we see formations of stellar teams, we saw the exact opposite in the emergence of “cellar teams.” Just like the high performers, the lowest performing students in the class also tended to group together, but for very different reasons. Whereas the stellar teams chose each other, the cellar teams seemed to form out of necessity. After almost 3 years together as a class, the students were basically aware of each other’s grades, attitudes, work habits, and dependability. Once students had the ability to select who they wanted to work with, those with a history of poor performance or who had proven themselves difficult to work with were often excluded. Instead of being assigned to groups in which other members might carry the load, the lower students ended up with each other because other groups would not include them.

5. The range of scores on the capstone projects widened. Because of the stellar and cellar teams, the highest project grades were higher than previous by 2 to 3 points and the lowest project grades were lower than previous by 7 or 8 points (on a 100 point scale).

More questions
These reflections have brought new questions to mind. Were there unintended effects that were not so easily observed? Was this a disservice to the lower-performers? Maybe. Maybe not. Oakley et al states that when groups are designed to be a primary vehicle for teaching and learning, assigning groups has the best results.3 However, as a one-time project, this could also be a valuable learning experience of a different nature for some of those students. The consequence of past behavior (poor performance, unreliability, bad attitude, lack of effort, etc.) was that the lowest performers were forced to assume more positive roles, exert more effort, or fail. I care about every student and as my wife, who is a high school counselor says, “natural consequences are often best.”

Do you have any interesting observations regarding group assignment methods and the intended and unintended outcomes?

Dr. Anne Policastri, now ASHP Director of Membership and Affiliate Relations, was co-course director with me during the time of these decisions and observations.

1. Skelley JW, Janssen MF, and Kendrach MG. Picking teams: Student workgroup assignment methods in US schools of pharmacy. Currents Pharm Teach Learn. 2015; 7(6): 745-752.

2. Bacon DR, Stewart KA, Silver WS. Lessons from the best and worst student team experiences: How a teacher can make the difference. J Manage Educ. 1999; 23(5): 467-488.

3. Oakley, Barbara, et al. “Turning student groups into effective teams.” J Stud Centered Learn. 2004; 2(1): 9-34.

Cain profile photo

Jeff Cain, EdD, MS is an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice & Science and Director of Education Technology at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Jeff’s educational scholarship interests include innovative teaching, digital media, and contemporary issues in higher education. He is actively involved with preparing aspiring academicians for a future career in pharmacy education and scholarship. In his free time he is an obstacle racer and is president of For Those Who Would, a 501(c)(3) charity in the adventure and endurance racing communities.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning


  1. Great thought provoking piece Jeff! I’ve had a different experience in my Servant Leadership class. We have two group projects throughout the semester. For the first, I assign teams. I assign them based on complementary strengths-based leadership profiles. For the second, I let them pick. I have experienced more issues related to team dynamics when they choose vs when I assign them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that, Andy! Why do you think your groups have team dynamics issues when they self-assign? I wonder if you see a different outcome because your groups are based on complementary strengths (versus a method of diversifying in grades, gender, etc.)………??????


      1. Good question. I think that when they self-assign, they choose to work with friends first, good co-workers second. I think that good friends don’t always make good colleagues. I tend to associate with people that are like me during “friend” time, but I find the teams that I am on do their best work when we have a heterogeneous group bringing different talents to the table. I think friends may take others for granted and assume another team member will do something because the like it or are good at it or will have my back. These are often the root causes of the conflicts that arise from our self-assigned groups.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have seen something similar in my capstone course. I have done self-selected and assigned groups for various course project, but now allow students to self-select for 2 major projects, but their topics for the projects are randomly assigned. Additionally and of interest, when I have students do peer assessments within groups (which is part of their final project grade), the assigned scores are similar comparing assigned v. selected groups. But the “stellar/cellar” phenomenon you mention is something I have seen.

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  3. Self-selection seemed to improve the didactic performance of the already strong performers but could it have come at the expense of their co-curricular development (e.g., adaptability, empathy, team-building skills)? With a few exceptions, self-selected teams are not very common in the workplace, and strong individual performers tend to have the greatest difficulty adapting to less-than-stellar teams (and in some cases, these difficulties arise because extremely conscientious individuals place unreasonable expectations on their peers). Since assigned teams tend to be the norm, and teams tend to be comprised of individuals with varying levels of performance, does self-selection prevent students from developing the types of skills they’ll need to be successful in a professional setting?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely think there could be unintended consequences like you describe. We all have to learn how to work with people that we don’t mesh with, for whatever reason that may be. If I was using groups/teams as a primary mode of teaching and/or if this was their only opportunity to work as a team, then I would definitely use assignments (and provide training in how to be a functioning team). The particular course with this project no longer exists or I would probably go back and experiment with central assignments with some tweaks that would promote ideal team behaviors.


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