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

Sources

Bennett, T. (2015). Group Work for the Good. American Educator. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/ae/spring2015/bennett

Channon, S.B. (2017). What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups. SpringerLink. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-016-9680-y

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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/130001/abstract

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 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301277968_Spaces_That_Signal_Identity_Improve_Workplace_Productivity

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010). Scaffolds for Learning: The Key to Guided Instruction. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111017/chapters/Scaffolds-for-Learning@-The-Key-to-Guided-Instruction.aspx

Levi, D. (2001). Group Dynamics for Teams. Sage Publications, 322 pp. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.840.9487&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Pentland, A.S. (2012). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

Rock, D. and Grant, H. (2016.). Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter

Slavin, R. (1988). Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198810_slavin.pdf

Wang, Z. (2013). Effects of heterogenous and homogenous grouping on student learning. Chapel Hill. Retrieved from https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:ac391807-1cca-447e-801d-d65183945ad0

Yee, V. (2013.). Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor With Educators. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/10/education/grouping-students-by-ability-regains-favor-with-educators.html

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 https://goo.gl/z6zDwJ

The Pre/Trans Fallacy in Public Education

In a post a while back reflecting on teaching the whole child, Will made an observation on what it means to teach the whole child that really resonated with me:

When we talk about teaching the whole child, we’re talking in part about teaching with an understanding that children are fluid beings who grow and develop constantly. In some way, then, the whole child includes who the student was, who they are, and who they will become. 

When politicians use “students first” language, pitting our students against the adults they will become, they negate the whole child, fetishizing students’ youthful selves and devaluing their grown-up selves. In environmental terms, it’s like saying we must prioritize acorns over trees. Shouldn’t we just take care of the whole forest, and defend it against those who want to slash, burn, and subdivide?

This idea of “fetishizing” youth reminded me of something completely tangential, but perhaps bearing some relevance to the broader concern here with holding up children as idealized pawns in ideological warfare. Ken Wilber, a controversial contemporary philosopher, has written about what he calls the “pre/trans fallacy,” in which he points out a potential pitfall in our thinking on nonrational states of being. He delineates nonrational states into “prerational,” such as infancy, Freudian drives, and myths, and “transrational,” which refers to spiritual, metaphysical states beyond rationality. He believes that the danger lies in confusing these two states, such as Jung elevates prerational mysticism to divine insight. Conversely, Freud portrayed transrational spiritual states as a regression to infancy. In other words, according to Wilber, in much of our thought there is little distinguishing between truly elevated states of consciousness (such as those states discussed by Sufi poets and Zen masters) and those states that precede the development of intelligence, or that operate at a minimal level of intelligence. When discussing spirituality, Wilber cautions against distortions of both “reductionism” (such as Freud’s take on religion in The Future of an Illusion) and “elevationism” of spiritual understanding (much of Romantic thought, the New Age movement et al).


At some level, this conflicted ideation of nonrational states can be viewed in the manner we talk about children, as Will pointed out. By prioritizing “acorns over trees,” and ideologically putting “students first” at all costs, we imply that childhood is an elevated state of being, rather than a developmental stage prior to adulthood that requires guidance and nurturing. Though this may seem like quibbling, the way we talk about children and childhood can reveal a deep problem in the manner in which we approach education.

Children require nurturing and guidance in developing sound of body and of mind and with the character and knowledge to face the problems and challenges of their society. It is our job as adults to provide that direction, nurturing, and guidance. Furthermore, it is our job to provide healthy eating options, and create positive learning spaces in which children are exposed to diverse experiences, access to abundant light and green spaces, and ensure students are provided with the academic and social knowledge they require to comprehend their world and make informed choices. Yet if we were to believe that childhood is some elevated state of being, we may instead allow children to do whatever it is that they so choose, as if all they require are boundless options, such that they could direct their own learning and “discover” all that there is to know. Though this may seem like a straw man argument, this sort of mystical thinking about childhood is evident in more extreme strands of inquiry-based learning, constructivism, and ideas about schools in which children are on completely individualized tracks, sift through activities and discover underlying concepts, or interact randomly with different resources.

Teaching is a craft that requires careful channeling of childrens’ innate talent, curiosity, and will towards planned and sequenced targets of learning. The best inquiry-based lessons are grounded in a deep understanding and mastery of the content by the teacher, who has carefully modeled, planned and structured the activities. It is this deep understanding and mastery that is often most obstructed by the policies, structures and schedules of our public schools (such as an unconscionable lack of paid planning time), and most ignored by education reformers who focus on external mechanisms rather than upon curriculum and school and community contexts.

Successful schools that nurture children and provide a strong curriculum are not harsh, militaristic environments. On the contrary, they are environments that abound in niches for sharing, learning, and positive social interactions.

As adults, we have for far too long absconded from our duty to provide warm nurturing and clear guidance and direction to children, and hidden behind political or theoretical abstractions that result, in the end, in the anemic drivel that is the typical curriculum of public schools, and the cold, alienating environment that constitutes many school contexts.

Perhaps if we recognize that we must “take care of the whole forest,” as Will suggested before, rather than reducing or elevating any one component of a school ecosystem, we can resist the urge to fetishize children and focus instead on how to best support those children that have been given unto our care to love and educate.