Grouping Students using the Periodic Table

By Dan D. Dulek on September 8, 2014

At the beginning of the last school year, I was searching for a new way to quickly put students into groups. I didn’t want students to always have the same partners and I didn’t want to continually create groups for them. After thinking about it for a while, I realized the answer was staring me right in the face…the periodic table (I have a giant one on the wall across from my desk). I wanted to find a way to use the periodic table to group my students while also reinforcing that the periodic table has a pattern. After much thought, I came up with the following time-saving method for randomly grouping students for labs or group activities. Keep in mind there are times you may still want to group students by their abilities.

poker chipsHere is how I group my students using elements on the periodic table. I have 26 students so I use 26 elements, but you can adjust this method according to the number of students you have.

Using poker chips, I write a symbol of an element from the periodic table on each chip, front and back, using a permanent marker. (If you want to get fancy, you can buy blank round stickers, often used for garage sale price tags, to label the poker chips. I chose to write directly on the chips.) I selected four elements from six different families on the periodic table because I wanted to create groups of four students at each lab station. Often, I have 26 students in my classes, so I added hydrogen and helium so that each student gets one element poker chip. Finally, each lab station is labeled with the following family names: Alkali Metals, Alkaline-Earth Metals, Nitrogen Family, Oxygen Family, Halogens, Noble Gases & Hydrogen/Helium.

On lab days, or days when I want to place students into groups, I ask each student to blindly grab one of the poker chips from a container. Students move to a lab station based on the element poker chip they chose. At this point, the students have some choice. They may choose who they partner with amongst the 3 other students at the station. The two students who grabbed the hydrogen and helium poker chips do not go to a lab station based on the group/family name. Instead, because H and He are unique, they have a lab station to themselves and are automatically partners.

I like this method because it reinforces the idea that elements are in families on the periodic table and it keeps the names of the families on the periodic table fresh in students’ minds. It also saves time in class because students are not milling around looking for a partner. Instead they grab a poker chip and report to the corresponding lab station.

Occasionally, I have an uneven number of students because some kids are absent, or one of my classes has less than 26 students. In those instances I still ask students to choose a poker chip, and after all of the students are in groups, I go around and quickly condense the stray students into groups or if there is time I have one or two kids pick again

In the beginning, my students didn’t like this method because they couldn’t choose their friends for every lab. It has been my experience that when you do something the students don’t like, you are on to something! Just like most things, my students accepted the idea and eventually came to like the idea of getting a new partner for every lab. By using this method, I have found that my students can more easily recall the names of the families. They also have a greater ability to recall which elements are in which families without using a periodic table. Since this method requires students to find the elements on the periodic table they have told me they have a much easier time finding the elements they need during homework problems, quizzes and tests. Overall, this is a very simple and subtle way to increase students’ awareness of the periodic table.

Daniel is a full-time chemistry teacher and part-time board game designer. Follow him on Twitter @ddulek, visit his website,, or contact him directly at