Student Grouping: What is Effective?

How do we leverage student grouping to best promote achievement?

This is a question teachers and administrators ask themselves almost daily. Unfortunately, there are few clear or easy answers. But we can draw out a few general principles from recent research and other sources of knowledge that may help to inform our instructional practice.

It’s important to acknowledge there’s often a steady pressure on teachers to utilize group work. And for some teachers, grouping students by ability can make serving a wide disparity of different levels of students more manageable.

But there’s an often unstated assumption: group work is inherently superior to whole class or independent learning. But is group work always better than other modes of learning?

Tom Bennett, a British behavioral specialist, argues in an article in American Educator, “Group Work for the Good,” that there is little research to suggest group work is better for academic learning. Bennett cautions teachers to only “use group work when you feel it is appropriate to the task you want your students to achieve, and at no other time.

OK, but what are the times when group work is appropriate? Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book, Guided Instruction: How to Develop Confident and Successful Learners, offer some important insight. Here’s a short passage from their first chapter:

“. . . an understanding of memory systems has profound implications for instruction, which include creating systematic and intentional scaffolds of students’ understanding rather than leaving them alone to discover information independently. That’s not to say that students should not work together in collaborative learning; they should. We have argued for productive group work in which students interact with one another and generate ideas to produce individual works (Frey et al., 2009). But this work must center on the consolidation and application of content that students already know. It’s neither the time nor the place to introduce new information. Doing so would overload the working memory system and fail to ensure learning(Bold added).

In other words, new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to.

So now we’re only selectively and strategically using group work to reinforce content we’ve already introduced to our students. But how do we ensure students are productive during the times when they do work as a group? Here it can be instructive to look at some of the analysis coming out of the business sector. Fostering productive teams, after all, is critical to the success or failure of many modern businesses.

One finding from the business realm that will make immediate sense to educators is that creating a context that fosters shared identity promotes productivity. You can read more about this research in “Spaces the Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity,” in the Journal of Personnel Psychology. We know that giving our students a sense of belonging and recognizing who they are and what they bring is critical to fostering a positive school community. But it’s good to know that it also can improve group performance.

Another finding is that how a team communicates is what determines its effectiveness. As presented in an article, “The New Science of Building Great Teams” in Harvard Business Review, effective teams communicate more equitably and with higher engagement. And even more critically for consideration in a school context, socialization outside of formal meeting time has a huge influence on team effectiveness. What this means for educators is that fostering effective group work requires time and training. Furthermore, as described in a passage “Group Dynamics for Teams” by Daniel Levi, this training requires norming, socialization, and building cooperative skills. Educators know that many of our students struggle with social skills and working productively together. These skills must be taught and developed.

Similarly, moving into research from higher education, in “What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups” the authors argue that if “team working skills” are “important as a learning outcome, they must be assessed directly alongside the task output.” In other words, if a teacher is going to utilize group work for a task, they must establish explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in the group work itself, not only for the content of the task. This again reinforces the idea that when we do use group work, we must do so strategically.

This builds off of Robert Slavin’s review of educational research, as outlined in an ACSD article, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” which suggests that not only must effective group work have group goals and rewards, but also must hold each individual accountable for their contribution. Group work which incorporates only one aspect of those two critical components (group goals and individual accountability) demonstrates little benefit to learning, whereas group learning which incorporates both is far more effective.

Even adult research teams require training and practice to develop intrapersonal awareness, foster shared norms, and to understand that conflict is normal, as suggested by a paper “Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills.” The authors further suggest that fostering diverse teams is essential to productivity.

This latter insight, that diverse teams are more productive, may be one of the most useful within a classroom context. Various studies, as presented in an article on Harvard Business Review, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” by David Rock and Heidi Grant, suggest that ethnic and racial diversity makes for more effective, deliberative, and innovative teams. This is an important consideration for teachers when forming groups.

However, it’s important to note that research on homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping is mostly unclear. Ultimately, how a teacher chooses to group students must be strategic and based on the task and learning outcomes. But the findings on diversity seem to suggest that our default should be mixing students of different backgrounds and ability.

A synthesis of findings on effective group work

Ok, so we’ve reviewed a fair amount of information on grouping. Let’s summarize what we have so far:

  • Use group work only when it is necessary to achieve the task you are planning
  • Use group work only to reinforce and apply content students are already familiar with
  • Create a classroom and school environment that fosters a shared identity
  • Provide norming, time for socialization, and training in the cooperative skills students will require to work productively as a team
  • Set explicit learning targets for group work skills when engaging in a group task, while holding each individual student accountable for their work within the group
  • Group students heterogeneously to promote greater critical thinking and creativity


Bennett, T. (2015). Group Work for the Good. American Educator. Retrieved from

Channon, S.B. (2017). What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups. SpringerLink. Retrieved from

Cheruvelil, K. S., Soranno, P. A., Weathers, K. C., Hanson, P. C., Goring, S. J., Filstrup, C. T. and Read, E. K. (2014), Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12: 31–38. doi:10.1890/130001. Retrieved from

Greenaway, K.H., Hannibal A. Thai, S. Haslam, A., and Murphy, S.C. (2016). Spaces That Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity. Journal of Personnel Psychology. 15(1), 35–43. Retrieved from

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010). Scaffolds for Learning: The Key to Guided Instruction. ASCD. Retrieved from

Levi, D. (2001). Group Dynamics for Teams. Sage Publications, 322 pp. Retrieved from

Pentland, A.S. (2012). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Rock, D. and Grant, H. (2016.). Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Slavin, R. (1988). Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement. ASCD. Retrieved from

Wang, Z. (2013). Effects of heterogenous and homogenous grouping on student learning. Chapel Hill. Retrieved from

Yee, V. (2013.). Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor With Educators. NY Times. Retrieved from

Group Work Decision Tree

Student Grouping: What is Effective? by Mark Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at

Give teachers some privacy

By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language ( [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (, via Wikimedia Commons

“…many trucking companies use cameras that automatically record a driver whenever there’s sudden braking, swerving or speeding up. But in one company Bernstein studied, the videos never go to management and are not used in performance reviews (unless the driver is texting-at-the-wheel dangerous). Instead, a team of coaches, whose only job is help drivers improve, receives the videos. Drivers, he says, like and trust that the system is there to help them, because it keeps their mistakes within a trusted circle of people who are not wielding power over their lives.

…In instituting these four forms of privacy—privacy within team boundaries, privacy limits on employee data, privacy in decision-making, and privacy about time—the organizations Bernstein studied refused the temptation to observe (or try to observe) everything. That refusal did not cost them profits or effectiveness. Instead, respect for privacy enhanced their success.”

–David Berreby, “Want People to Behave Better? Give Them More Privacy” on PsychologyToday

Observations of teacher practice have become a rote chore of paperwork to try and please accountability mavens. Those same mavens then get in a huff when they don’t find a whole bunch of teachers rated ineffective.

How about you just let teachers observe one another and give each other feedback, and administrators just sit in on that process every now and then? You might find that to be much more effective than the rigmarole of compliance that teacher evaluations have become.

Initiatives I’m Excited About at My School This Year

There’s an unfortunate narrative that sometimes gets pushed in the ed reform community that charter schools are places of innovation and effective practice, while traditional district schools are maintainers of the status quo.

At my school, Jonas Bronck Academy, there’s a few initiatives that I’m excited to help support in this new school year that I think any school, whether charter, district, or private, might learn something from. Check out a short overview of those initiatives in this presentation:

If you’re interested in learning any more about any of these initiatives or would like to share resources, feel free to reach out to me!

The Mirage of a Mirage: On the New TNTP Report on PD


Today I went down to DC* for TNTP’s release of their Mirage report on the (non)impact of professional development on teacher effectiveness. TNTP presented an overview of the findings, then journalist Amanda Ripley facilitated an interesting panel with USED’s John King, teacher Jennifer Corroy Parras, DC’s Kaya Henderson, and AIR researcher Dr. Michael Garet.

The big story is that teacher PD is 1) enormously expensive, yet 2) there’s no silver bullet. In other words, teaching is complex (glad ed reform world is beginning to acknowledge this), so we still are very far from knowing what improves teacher practice at scale, yet we’re investing a lot of time, energy, and money in it willy nilly.

There are a lot of aspects to explore, and the panel touched on a number of them. Ripley provided some nice framing of the systemic issues, such as that most PD (and US system of ed at large) is disjointed and incoherent, and that there is a general lack of clarity around what effective teaching looks like, accompanied by high expectations. She noted that this lack of clarity and high expectations for teachers parallels student experiences in our educational system, with both teachers and students leveling off in performance after an initial 5 years.

Both John King and Kaya Henderson pointed out that an oft missing link in PD is a focus on curriculum, a point on which I strongly concur. Curriculum provides the frame, the backbone, the structure that daily guides student and teacher experiences in the classroom. Without that structure and purpose, we are left with the incoherent gloop that Ripley first referred to.

TNTP’s report is incredibly insightful and useful–if enervating–material. I feel like it’s also important to define the kind of PD which the report mainly seems to abide by. I’ll admit that I haven’t yet dived too deep into the report, but from an initial scan of the survey questions and findings, I obtained the distinct impression that they mostly mean “PD” as in a specific dosage or frequency of a prescribed intervention that results in a change in an individual’s teacher practice within the classroom (and which should then ideally translate into improved student outcomes).

When I think of PD, I think of teachers sitting together around a table and collaborating to design common assessments, curriculum, resources, and examining student work and data. This was a component of TNTP’s teacher survey (noted as informal & formal collaboration, and peer time), but the report notes that an equal amount of such time was dedicated to this in both “improvers” and “non-improvers.” But I think there’s one key aspect of such collaborative time that we need to delineate, and which I believe could distinguish between those two populations: how teacher collaboration and planning time connects to a school-wide system.

Let me give some specific examples of what I mean to make this tangible:

  • A bi-weekly 8th grade-level team meeting working to horizontally (within the grade) align curriculum and assessments and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills
  • A weekly ELA department team meeting working to vertically align curriculum and assessments (and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills)
  • A PBIS system of agreed upon (developed both school-wide and via grade-level teams) infractions, consequences, and rewards
  • An established vision for utilizing advisory time to provide social-psychological interventions, accompanied by planning time to design these interventions, and time to analyze and assess their impact

You could go into both an effective and ineffective school and witness such use of collaborative time–but the key is how that teacher collaboration ties into a coherent, school-wide system.**

Admittedly, though, this all goes back to the great complexity not only of teaching, but of working in a school. There are so many variables behind what goes into anything remotely approximating either “PD” or “teacher practice” that it is difficult to define what we’re looking for, and even more difficult to do well consistently and to replicate and scale across different contexts.

I came back to NYC with three takeaways that best summarize my thoughts from the TNTP report . We would do well to consider the following in education reform:

  1. Coherency (in curriculum & assessment, first and foremost)
  2. Clarity (in expectations, feedback, and roles for teachers and students)
  3. Hard work (and more hard work)

*Thanks to Educators 4 Excellence for this opportunity

**I think this is what may have contributed to the differences between the charter and district schools in this study. The charter network was more effective in supporting their teachers effectiveness and growth over time. Charter schools often have much tighter and coherent school-wide structures and systems tied to assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

Daily Practice

By geraldford (Fickr: Sojiji Meditation Cushions)
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, I discussed active listening and it’s fundamental importance in leadership, yet noted how difficult it is to maintain as a daily practice.

In fact, I concluded, the “reality is that the work of being a truly alive human being is truly difficult to turn into a daily practice. And that’s probably the real work of any kind of “leader” worth their salt.”

A recent article on The Atlantic by Christine Gross-Loh entitled “Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?” elucidates some further thought around the importance of daily practice:

The smallest actions have the most profound ramifications. Confucius, Mencius, and other Chinese philosophers taught that the most mundane actions can have a ripple effect, and Puett urges his students to become more self-aware, to notice how even the most quotidian acts—holding open the door for someone, smiling at the grocery clerk—change the course of the day by affecting how we feel. . . . 

While all this might sound like hooey-wooey self-help, much of what Puett teaches is previously accepted cultural wisdom that has been lost in the modern age. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do,” a view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility in a person. 

I love that quote from Aristotle tied into the idea that small, mundane actions can have profound effects on our own psyche.

I thought about this in relation to our past discussions on this blog on the principle of obliquity, and it made me think about the inevitable annual SMART goals we are so often asked to set as professionals. These goals can be useful for focusing our thought and purpose at the outset of a year, to be sure, but the notion that we could possibly predict how we will grow within the chaotic course of a rollercoaster school year is laughable.

How much better would it be to set oblique goals, focused on tangible, mundane, concrete acts that we can perform daily!

In such spirit, I have established two personal daily practice goals, which I believe will do more to establish my “leadership” trajectory than anything else:

  • To sit in meditation each morning for at least 15 minutes
  • To intentionally conduct active listening with at least 1 person each day
These practices sound deceptively simple, yet could have profound implications.
Writing those goals is easy. Implementing them daily—or merely a few days a week—is much harder.