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?
When I first investigated this, a particular passage from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book, Guided Instruction: How to Develop Confident and Successful Learners, struck me:
“. . . 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, Fisher and Frey suggest that new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should instead be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to.
But I later came across another study by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Femke Kirschner, and Jimmy Zambrano, “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory,” that contradicts this. Instead, Kirschner et al. suggest that working as a group creates a collective working memory, and that therefore group tasks should be more complex.
They state, “… learning in a team is more effective than individual learning if the complexity of the to-be-learned material is so high that it exceeds the limits of each individual learner’s working memory.” They furthermore suggest that greater complexity will make the task more engaging for the group: “Collaboration will occur when the task is complex enough to justify the extra time and effort involved in collaborating with others.”
Therefore when assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.
So we’re engaging groups of kids in complex tasks. Now 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.
A recent study by P. Karen Murphy et al., “Exploring the influence of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping on students’ text-based discussions and comprehension” provides useful guidance for teachers in deciding between homogenous vs. heterogenous grouping:
“. . . teachers’ goals and expectations for small-group discussions should guide their decision to compose the groups homogeneously or heterogeneously. For example, if teachers desire to focus on enhancing students’ basic comprehension or if they desire to support students’ engagement in the discussion, they may find that grouping the students homogeneously is more advantageous for low-ability students. Alternatively, teachers should employ heterogeneous ability grouping if their focus is on building students’ high-level comprehension of the text.”
In other words, group homogeneously to engage low-skilled students; group heterogeneously to deepen comprehension.
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 overall findings 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
- When assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.
- 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 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
Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F., and Zambrano, J. (2018). From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11412-018-9277-y
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
Murphy, P.K., Greene, J.A., Firetto, C.M., Li, M., Lobczowski, N.G., Duke, R.F., Wei, L., Croninger, R.M.V. (2017). Exploring the influence of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping on students’ text-based discussions and comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 51, 336-355 Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X17302540
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.