What Makes Grouping Strategies Effective?
A Summary of Research
Grouping students for instruction has long been a part of our educational system. Most commonly, students are grouped into grade levels by biological age.
Grouping by ability has also been a popular method of grouping students, but this type of grouping has become somewhat controversial. Research on ability grouping appears contradictory, showing both benefits and detriments to student achievement, self-image, and school improvement.
The inconsistency in results is largely due to the wide variety of factors that are involved in grouping, including the students, teachers, and administrators, the school environment, and the curriculum.
No two schools, and no two classrooms, will have exactly the same results due to the factors that make each situation unique.
We can, however, learn from the research what characteristics are common of successful grouping practices.
1. Groups must be flexible and regularly reviewed
- Each student should be in the group that is most appropriate for him or her
- If a group is no longer meeting the needs of a student, that student should be moved to a more appropriate group
- Labeling of groups should be minimized
2. Base groups on students' skill levels, not on IQ or a single test score
- Don't rely on any one point of information to determine the grouping of a student
- Use a variety of assessment pieces for each student, including test scores, classroom performance and previous growth
- Teacher input is also very valuable
3. Student effort should be taken into consideration
- If a student is willing to work hard, he or she should have the opportunity to work up to the expectations of a more difficult group
- Older students should be given the opportunity to make some choices concerning the group in which they would like to be placed; research has shown that students are willing to challenge themselves, that they will tend to expect more of themselves than we expect of them
4. Use groups in 1-2 subjects, with other classes being of mixed abilities
- Student's primary class should be of mixed ability
- Research shows that it is beneficial for all students to have time to interact with students of an ability level similar to their own and also with students of a wide range of abilities
- Grouping tends to be most effective in subject areas with a specific hierarchy of skills, such as math and reading
5. Curriculum must be significantly different between groups, and geared specifically to the students in each group
6. Pace and structure must be matched to students' abilities
- For grouping to be effective, the groups must be different. Teaching the same curriculum in the same manner to each group will not be effective
- Use of differentiation strategies such as curriculum compacting, centers, and learning contracts can help a teacher to spend less time on the material that the students have mastered, and to instead focus on what the students are now ready to learn
- All students can benefit from instruction that focuses on engaging the students in what they are learning. They all need opportunities to make discoveries, to explore, to work together, and to solve problems for themselves
7. High expectations of all students must be maintained
- All students are capable of learning, and learning should be expected of all students
- The goal should be to have each student show growth; the goal is not to have each student move to another group
- Support should be provided for each student to be pushed beyond their current levels of understanding, to be appropriately challenged
There are as many ways to structure flexible grouping as there are teachers and classrooms.
- Can range from part of one day to an entire school year
- For one or two subjects or all subjects (research suggests no more than two for most students)
- Within a single class, within classes at one grade level, or among classes at multiple grade levels
Core Instruction or Supplemental:
- In place of subject-level instruction (ie. the group becomes the students' primary instruction for that subject) or in addition to the "regular" class (ie. the group is supplemental instruction)
The Needs of the Particular Group of Students
- Are there just a few students with scores well above or below the rest of the class, or are their scores more evenly spread out, allowing for groups of similar sizes?
- When do the bells ring?
- When are the biggest blocks of time during the school day?
- Are there blocks of instructional time that two or three teachers share, allowing the possibility for the teachers to group across multiple classes?
- When during the school year would be natural times to restructure groups? (ie. beginning of new units, start of the instructional terms/quarters, etc.)
Support of Teachers, Administrators and Parents
- Are other teachers willing to do multi-class or multi-grade groups?
- Does the school adminstration support grouping? Are there particular rules or guidelines that must be followed?
- How and when will the grouping process and potential benefits be explained to parents and other stakeholders?
- Are materials at a variety of academic levels available?
- Are you restricted to particular curriculum, or can you bring in supplemental materials as needed?
Group within Groups
- Example: If students are grouped by ability for a lesson, within those groups, students can be further grouped by interest or learning style
- A Teacher's Aide or other assistant may work with a small group of students within a group to even more specficially focus on a skill those kids need