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16 April 2009

Random.org and randomizing lab partners

Want an easy way to assign random lab partners?

In a run-of-the-mill lab exercise, I have students work with a partner, but I collect analysis questions from every student individually. In these cases, I assign partners randomly. I don’t want them picking their friends, or competing for the “best” student in the class. If they picked a partner, they’re more likely to rely on that partner’s answers without thinking for themselves. Random partners build camaraderie in the class… not just for this week, but for the weeks to come. Folks had better be nice to one another, because who knows whether they’ll be stuck working together next week!

(On the other hand, if I have a longer, more involved lab in which I expect a combined report from a partnership, then I allow students to choose partners, or even to work alone. That way they don’t have an excuse if their partner slacks – they chose that partner!)

So anyway, how do you choose random lab partners? I used to use dice, or playing cards, or a calculator’s random number generator. These things took time. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could just type my class list into a program, and the program would spit back random partnerships?

Well, I found just such a program. Check out the
list randomizer at www.random.org. The site itself is fascinating… you can read dissertations about the nature of randomness, the difference between a random number generator and a pseudo-random number generator, and all sorts of counterintuitive consequences of randomness. But the list randomizer is what’s made my labs run more quickly.

Try it out. All you have to do is copy your class list from, say, Microsoft excel. Then paste the list in to the website. Press go… and the class list is spit back in random order. Lab partners are read off the screen: the first and second name are partners, the third and fourth are partners, and so on.

The program is good for other purposes besides lab partners. I used it today to choose teams for a little review game in AP physics. I can choose random teams in my intramural league that I run in the wintertime. Other ideas? Post in the comments.


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