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Effective Grouping Strategies

The Early Career Framework states that teachers should learn that... Flexibly grouping pupils within a class to provide more tailored support can be effective, but care should be taken to monitor its impact on engagement and motivation, particularly for low attaining pupils.

I have written about Group Work previously and would suggest that you read back over that post before reading ahead with this one.

Flexible grouping is a data-driven teaching practice. With this practice, you put students into temporary groups to work together for only as long as is needed for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. The groups can be heterogeneous (made up of varying skill levels) or homogeneous (made up of the same skill level). The groups change often based on the learning objective and students’ needs or interests.

Flexible grouping uses a mix of heterogeneous groups (made up of students with varying skill levels) and homogeneous groups (made up of students with similar skill level) to help students achieve a learning goal. The size of the groups can vary — from two or three students in a small group to up to six students in a larger group.

Students work together, often with the guidance of a teacher, only for the length of time necessary for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. That makes it different from static groups that don’t change based on students’ needs, acquisition of skills, or knowledge.

A key component of flexible grouping is that while all students are working toward the same learning goal, the work addresses students’ varying learning needs. The work is engaging and important for all students, but the task or how they show what they’ve learned may look different for each group.

Flexible grouping is a powerful and effective practice for improving learning. It allows your students to get the right support, in the right way, at the right time.

When flexible grouping is part of the classroom routine, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about one or more students working with the teacher on a specific project. Students who struggle don’t feel singled out or embarrassed. Because groups change frequently and aren’t based on ability level alone, all students have the chance to get to know and work with each other. In fact, according to research, all students in classrooms that use flexible grouping show academic gains.

Flexible grouping is a highly effective strategy for creating an inclusive classroom culture that honours learner variability. Use data to put students into small groups for instruction. Your groups should change frequently in response to the lesson outcome and student needs. Students can be grouped at the same skill level or with varying skill levels.

Flexible grouping will be a key classroom practice when you return to in-person learning. Flexible grouping can support accelerated learning and address foundational skill needs. It also increases your students’ engagement and supports their social-emotional needs.

The American site "The National Center for Learning Disabilities" has some great tips on How to Implement Flexible Grouping and it is worth a read to look at how you can implement this in your classroom.

The Owl Teacher suggests that there are 8 Different Ways to Group Students

1.) Random - Group students randomly by pulling sticks or using an app to pick. I frequently use this in the classroom when I want groups of equal size and want students to branch out a little bit beyond their peers.

2.) Homogeneous - Group students based on similar academic achievement levels. For instance, the same reading level or math scores. Though some educators frown on this, it is still beneficial. I think the only time it’s NOT beneficial is when you repeatedly do it every time you group students.

3.) Heterogeneous - Group students based on differences. For instance, I try to look through my class list and decide who are my leaders. Then I sort them out each “leading” their own group.

4.) Interest - Group students based on their similar interests. Students are typically more motivated when they share common interests in a topic.

5.) Learning Style - Group students based on their multiple intelligences. If they are linguistic, put them with other linguistic learners. If they are kinaesthetic, then put them together. Like learn from like.

6.) Knowledge of a Topic - this one sounds a lot like learning based on interests. To some degree it is- but sometimes we have a lot of knowledge and understanding of something without really having an interest. Students with likeness in knowledge can share information with one another which confirms their understanding and builds self-confidence.

7.) Skill or Strategy - When you are grouping students similar to their skill or strategy, you can fill in any gaps or enrich students who need it most.

8.) Student Choice - Let the students group themselves. We have all heard that choice leads to success. But maybe have a few rules… You need to have someone new in your group this time, or something similar.

Instructional Grouping is defined as one where the learning of educational material is evident. A classroom has been grouped when the one large group of students assigned to that classroom is divided into a set of smaller groups for some portion of the time they are in the classroom. While in operation, each small group is recognized and treated as a separate and distinct social entity by the teacher and the students in the classroom. To be considered instructional, the activities carried out by students in a small group must include learning of educational material.

Instructional grouping is used:

  • To assure that all students learn

  • To increase engagement in learning

  • To teach students how to work with others

  • To facilitate social interaction between students

  • To motivate students

  • To improve students' self-confidence

  • To teach students how to work in a variety of ways

Ward, 1987 suggests that

  • Instructional groups should be used for specific instructional purposes. They should not be

  • the only mode of instruction in a classroom or subject matter area.

  • Teacher presentation of new information and skills should be done in a total-class, direct

  • instruction setting. Instructional groups should be used for review, drill and practice

  • activities or for expanded investigation of subject areas.

  • Use of long-term ability groups based on student ability should be reduced.

  • Pull-out instruction of students based on academic ability should not occur.

  • If long- or short-term ability groups are used, instruction should be monitored to assure that the quality of instruction and the learning climate is consistent across all the groups.

The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence suggests that Group work can be an effective method to motivate students, encourage active learning, and develop key critical-thinking, communication, and decision-making skills. But without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time. They have provided a number of suggestions to help implement group work successfully in your classroom.

Tanya Yero suggests that grouping students is one of the hardest aspects of classroom management. Grouping can make a big impact on your classroom. A few weeks ago I was talking with a teaching colleague of mine and she expressed her frustrations with grouping students. There are many factors to consider and things never work out the way you want them to. There are also mitigating factors that you cannot control. Nonetheless, there are strategies when selecting groups and I use different methods for different academic scenarios. You can read her blog post which gives a list of items to consider when strategically placing your students into groups here.

[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

*Davis, P., Florian, L., Ainscow, M., Dyson, A., Farrell, P., Hick, P., Rouse, M. (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: A Scoping Study. Accessible from:

Deunk, M. I., Smale-Jacobse, A. E., de Boer, H., Doolaard, S., & Bosker, R. J. (2018) Effective differentiation Practices: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review, 24(February), 31–54.

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Kriegbaum, K., Becker, N., & Spinath, B. (2018) The Relative Importance of Intelligence and Motivation as Predictors of School Achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review.

*OECD (2015) Pisa 2015 Result: Policies and Practices for Successful Schools. Accessible from:

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3).

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018) To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549–571.

Speckesser, S., Runge, J., Foliano, F., Bursnall, M., Hudson-Sharp, N., Rolfe, H. & Anders, J. (2018) Embedding Formative Assessment: Evaluation Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018]. 36

Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M. C., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2016) What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K-12 Students Academic Achievement: Findings of Two Second-Order MetaAnalyses. Review of Educational Research (Vol. 86).

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B., Travers, M. C. (2018) Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment. Research Papers in Education, 1522, 1–20.

Willingham, D. T. (2010) The Myth of Learning Styles, Change, 42(5), 32–35.

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