Group formation – Peer parity vs diversity – part 1

This is the 17th post in a series titled ‘All Things Group Work’. The home page is here.

In the last post on the role of gender in group formation, I extrapolated that group success is actually less about gender per se, and more about peer parity. This is because when students have a sense that they are equal with their peers they are more likely to engage in the types of communication needed to drive a project forward: they are more confident to speak up and participate in the generation of ideas, they are able to challenge and argue points of opinion, and they are able to manage conflict. Equality also generates a sense of worth in a project, which assists motivation.

However, as discussed below, homogeneity can also stifle certain aspects of group work, so the challenge for those tasked with forming groups is to consider the advantages and disadvantages of balancing peer parity with diversity.

Friends vs ad hoc group formation

Chung’s (et al.) (2018) meta-analysis indicates that there are performance benefits associated with friendship, which are generalizable across a variety of task characteristics and populations. ‘Friendships allow members to bring to the table many of the group dynamics and processes that underlie productivity and effective performance.’ The advantage seems to stem from friends utilising a shared understanding of how to communicate with each other, vital when the going gets tough, and a capacity to persevere with a task and help motivate each other to keep going when it would be easier to stop. Essentially, friends provide a sense of peer parity. The evidence is clear that group projects that are designed to be compartmentalised and then brought together as a final piece are best done in friendship groups.

Interestingly however, when a task requires significantly more interdependence, characterised by the need to rely on each other, collaborate and communicate frequently, the study shows that the effects on groups comprised of friends vs groups of acquaintances are not significant. So, in tasks that require complex problem-solving and a need for group members to coordinate and consider multiple aspects of the project simultaneously, it matters not if the group is friend-based or acquaintance-based.

This may be because, as Loyd (2013) proposes, the comfortability of homogeneity can lead to friends simply ‘cruising’ through an assessment, or not being willing to challenge the opinion of a friend for fear of upsetting them. On the contrary, a group comprised of acquaintances has fewer inhibitions in this way, as members who are less connected emotionally to other members may be more willing to challenge their thoughts without fear of reprisal. Such a group may be more interested in opening up diverse thinking, which typically benefits problem-solving.

It is worth considering the limitations in the meta-analysis. It did not discuss in its methodology how any of the related studies went about forming the groups who were able to work interdependently. This is important because in order for interdependence to be successful, group members need to possess strong communication and negotiation skills, especially when a diversity of opinion results in conflict and presents challenges to a project moving forward. It is only a sophisticated mature person who is able to navigate such a context. Not all students possess such wisdom, and so this may render ad hoc group formation perilous, and demand greater attention is paid to Peterson and Behfar’s (2003) assertion that friendship groups are well-equipped to work through conflict.

Diversity in language skill

Because communication is so important in heterogeneous groups, care should be taken in deciding which groups would suit students who speak English as a second language. The skill of such students is obviously going to vary, but any lack of skill in being able to communicate and negotiate with sophistication in English is likely to lead to feelings of isolation, and result in disengagement. However, if the EASL student is partnered with at least one other EASL student in the group, then the benefits of peer parity present themselves, in the provision of an opportunity to work together to communicate their thoughts and ideas.  

Weighing things up

Whilst diversity of opinion can greatly benefit group success, it appears that it is only really achieved when several key factors are present. Every member in the group of acquaintances must possess sophisticated communication skills and be highly motivated to problem solve. It is this ability to problem solve and its effect on group dynamics that I will discuss in the next post.


Chung, S., Lount, R. B., Park, H. M., & Park, E. S. (2018). Friends With Performance Benefits: A Meta-Analysis on the Relationship Between Friendship and Group Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(1), 63–79.

Peterson R. S., Behfar K. J. (2003). The dynamic relationship between performance feedback, trust, and conflict in groups: A longitudinal study. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 92, 102-112.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger or on LinkedIn

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