Flexible Grouping – For the Teachers

What Makes Grouping Strategies Effective?
A Summary of Research

Small Groups of studentsGrouping 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


Flexible Grouping

One thought on “Flexible Grouping

  • August 21, 2019 at 4:26 am

    Ask yourself, “What is the best type of configuration to meet my learning outcome for this activity?” Consider a teacher-led group (whole-class, small group, or an individual teacher-directed activity), or a student-led group (collaborative, performance-based, or pairs). 


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