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Ability and Instructional Grouping Information

Updated January 28, 2018

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To borrow, nay paraphrase, albeit badly, from Shakespeare, "To group or not to group, that is the question." If you're learning to be a teacher, it's a question that you'd answer best when provided with some fundamentals. Effective teaching, it seems, always comes back to understanding the fundamentals...

Ability grouping, also called by some (erroneously), instructional grouping, is based on the belief that students can be placed into various groups or configurations for teaching purposes is a given in schooling and education. It is done every day in thousands of schools and classrooms. However, students learning to be teachers are often are perplexed about various grouping strategies and techniques, and how effective they are. When asked, many indicate that "cooperative learning" is the way they're going to go when they become teachers. For some reason, a lot of future teachers believe that cooperative learning will be easier to manage than some other grouping or instructional approach. Not necessarily. Placing students into groups to maximize the effectiveness of an instructional technique can be a powerful tool for both teaching and classroom management. Done without planning and careful thought, it can also lead to inefficient, or even destructive use of teacher and student time. The following information and table is adapted from an Eisenhower National Clearinghouse article. It was written by Carol Damian, ENC Instructional Resources. I believe Carol has written one of the most organized and useful summaries about grouping available anywhere, and so it is included here because it represents the "toward the best" theme of the ADPRIMA site.

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Grouping That Leads to Real Learning

Common Characteristics of All Types of Effective Learning Groups

  • Work done in groups is challenging and meaningful.
  • The teacher is always actively involved in the students' learning process, serving as a resource person, questioner, guide, evaluator, and coach.
  • Learning goals and timelines are clearly understood by the students and monitored by the teacher.
  • Groups are heterogeneous, and all students are actively involved.
  • Cooperation is valued over competition.
  • Students have a sense of being able to accomplish more learning together than they can alone.
  • The group process provides a comfort level for discussion and airing questions.
  • Student interaction and social skills are required, but the purpose of grouping is not primarily social. Group time is not "free time" for student (or teacher).
  • Multiple means of assessment are possible (rubrics, portfolios, quizzes, interviews, presentations, etc.). Evaluation can be of the individual student, of the group, or a combination of these.

Three Learning Group Strategies

Problem-Solving Partnerships

Cooperative Teams

Collaborative Groups

Two to three students per group. Three to four students per group. Three to six students per group.
The duration of group work is short (part of a class period to a few days). The duration of group work ranges from several days to several weeks. The duration of group work can be short (days) or longer (weeks or even months).
The specific task or problem to solve is limited in scope (a single problem or question or a limited set) and is usually a challenge or practice activity for students to apply recent learning. The problem or task is clearly defined by the teacher. The task or problem is open-ended and may cover large amounts of course content.
Multiple approaches to solving the problem are encouraged. There is no single "right" way to solve most problems, and all reasonable solutions or answers to the problem are honored

Individual students have an opportunity to explain and discuss their suggested solutions aw well as their misconceptions

New understandings are developed by the individual, by the team, and, finally, by the whole class.

Group and class discussions (and solutions) provide immediate feedback to the student.

A team plan of operation and goals is specified, and teams are highly structured. Each student has a clearly defined role in the team such as recorder, questioner, reporter. The teacher takes time to teach each student role.

Team members share leadership within the framework of specific roles.

All team members must contribute or the team cannot progress. (Teams "win or lose together.") The end product represents the entire team.

The team focus is on cooperation as well as on achievement of goals. Awareness of the group process is as important as completing the task.

Student roles are flexible and may change throughout the project or assignment. Students observe (and help with) other students' work, and critique, evaluate, explain, and suggest ways for improvement.

Open communication and multiple approaches are emphasized. All students are involved in honest discussion about ideas, procedures, experimental results, gathered information, interpretations, resource materials, and their own or other students' work.

Students are constantly aware of the collaborative communication process, as well as the product or goals. They know they can change direction to meet goals.

Links to other information and research about grouping that are useful:

Grouping Students for Instruction in Middle Schools. ERIC Digest.
Tips for Grouping Students
Grouping of Students
Is Ability Grouping the Way to Go---Or Should It Go Away?
Heterogeneous Grouping: Is it an Effective Instructional Arrangement for All Students?
The Organization of Students for Instruction in the Middle School
Why Ability Grouping Must End: Achieving Excellence and Equity in American Education.
An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Alternatives to Ability Grouping: Still Unanswered Questions
Grouping Practices: Effective Practices Research Brief
Distance Education Aptitude and Readiness Scale (DEARS)


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Robert Kizlik & Associates

Boca Raton, Florida