Grouping Students for Effective Learning

Many educators have a natural aversion to grouping students by ability level. Granted, leveling in a traditional sense by dividing entire grade levels of students into high, medium, and low groups is an ineffective practice. That’s because learning is too fluid for single-level groups. Kids will master some ideas faster than others. Even within a content area, students will learn one concept quickly and struggle with others.

Many schools address this diversity through teacher collaboration as part of their professional learning community (PLC). It may be helpful to recall the critical questions that Rick and Becky DuFour believe should guide the work of educators:

  1. What is it that we want students to be able to know and do?
  2. How will we know when our students have mastered those outcomes?
  3. How are we going to monitor progress toward those outcomes?
  4. What will we do as a school when students don’t master the outcomes or need extended study?

I cannot overstate the importance of creating time to allow for structured dialogue among teachers about student learning. I’ve seen too many school leaders trying to establish the components of a PLC without addressing the culture of a learning organization. You simply must carve out time to give teachers the opportunity to analyze student portfolios and collaborate about the data they yield. Otherwise, PLCs become a burden for teachers and another “hoop to jump through” without a change in the culture of community learning. I recall one elementary principal who remarked, “it was amazing the amount that learning increased in the building when we stopped talking about ourselves and started talking about the kids.”

With that culture of collaboration established, teachers can begin sorting for specific lessons by asking questions in the spirit of the Dufours’ critical questions: Which students appear to have mastered the concepts? How can we work together, creating small flexible groups to support students at all levels of understanding? How can we check for mastery incrementally and how will we adapt our groups in order to meet the individual needs of students?

For example, suppose a group of fourth grade teachers has decided that composing text with: a) a beginning, middle, and end; b) a logical sequence of events; and c) sentence variety is an essential outcome for their students. They might begin by establishing exactly what they expect to see from their students at the present time in the school year  and then develop a rubric that would help both teachers and students understand what mastery looked like.

After spending time teaching students about writing they would collect student work and use their rubric to assess student mastery. After analyzing the data, the teachers could decide if there were students who needed extra help in writing. Teachers particularly adept in teaching writing or who have a special passion for teaching writing might work with small groups of students in need of remediation (or enrichment, for that matter).

In this case, grouping is based on student progress toward a mutually defined outcome rather than a collective “make the grade or else” type of leveling. Key to this type of leveling is regular intervention times when this kind of grouping can occur and appropriate assessment at intervals to ensure flexibility of the group for students to move in and out as they master concepts.


About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
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11 Responses to Grouping Students for Effective Learning

  1. Heidi Siwak says:

    I agree with many of your suggestions concerning grouping. Flexibility is key. Groups should be reformed regularly and based on needs. I do think that students must be involved in the development of Success Criteria, that teachers should not be creating rubrics without the participation of students. If they are included in the assessment planning process, they have a much better understanding of how assessment occurs and become more skilled at self-assessment. They learn to reflect on their own learning process, identify areas of strength and weakness and even develop plans for improvement.

    • mprater says:

      You are absolutely right, Heidi. Students need to be involved in the assessment process at every stage, including the planning and creating of rubrics. Also involved in analyzing their own outcome data and setting personal goals. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Joanne Simmons says:

    Enjoyed this! I like the shift from ability grouping to ‘needs grouping’. I also agree with Heidi about the inclusion of students in creating Success Criteria. I believe Success Criteria works differently than a rubricby focussing students on the ‘goal’ rather than the ‘range of achievment’. I’m finding using Success Criteria to be more practical when working directly with students; as an assessment AS learning tool. It’s seems lately that rubrics are moving to a place at the ‘End’ of learning to be used to analyze larger bodies of work. Not sure if this is the thinking everywhere or just something happening locally?

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for the comments, Joanne. I like the idea of Success Criteria, involving students at the front end of the learning process so they can take ownership in the process. You’re right, rubrics are more appropriately used at the end of a “chunk” of learning, although they might certainly be part of an overall formative assessment process.

  3. Jill Lazzari says:

    My name is Jill Lazzari and I am currently enrolled in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I agree with you 100% that teachers need to have more time to evaluate their students and see which students might need more help than others. I think the student/teacher ratio is getting out of control and teachers get so overwhelmed that by the time they notice that a student is behind it could be too late. I like the four questions that the DuFour’s believe should guide the work of educators and I agree that every educator should look at their class and ask the same questions. Therefore, I believe your blog would be very helpful to teachers and these methods should be taken into consideration by all school systems.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your kind comments, Jill. It sounds like you are on your way to become a very effective teacher. And I like the look of your blog! Keep up the good work, have care and compassion for kids, and never lose your spark. Let me know if I can help you in any way.

  4. My name is Gina Phillips and I am currently enrolled in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I am a mature student and I have a parental perspective on working in groups. I like what Joanne Simmons says “shift from ability grouping to ‘needs grouping’” – perhaps by switching the groups you can get a different perspective on the student’s progress. Sometimes the students may become complacent in their groups. A change can tilt things so a teacher can view the learning process in a different format.

    The other view I have is watching my daughter’s history teacher and her English teacher collaborate on a project. I can tell you that the students learned so much more by watching their teachers collaborate as a group than they had ever learned working in groups themselves! Just an interesting outcome – and something the teachers were pleasantly surprised to find out!

    I found this to be intriguing. I will be commenting on my EDM310 blog in 2 weeks. Feel free to view my entire blog at the address below! I have also left the address of our class blog! We are very busy future teachers!

    You may find me at:
    Twitter – @DixeGirl
    Blog –
    Class Blog –

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your comments, Gina. I agree that collaboration is a key for effective teaching, whether it be teachers collaborating about student learning, administrators collaborating with teachers, or teachers collaboraitng with students. Gone are the days when we simply spew forth knowledge and “give them the opportunity to learn.” We now sense the responsibility that we as professionals have to ensure that kids learn. By the way, your blog looks great. You future teachers keep up the good work, okay? Folks like you let me know that our profession is in good hands.

  5. Patricia Radford says:

    Hi my name is Patricia Radford and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I have to agree with you on this blog post to. Teachers need to evaluate how a student is doing on a particular area of a subject, besides just as a whole.

  6. mprater says:

    Thanks for your comment, Patricia. My best wishes for your continued success as you pursue the greatest profession in the world.

  7. James Dunnam says:

    My name is James Dunnam , I am a Secondary Education Student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I have enjoyed reading your education blog again. I think teachers collaborating is a good idea because they can learn from each other and make improvements. Students working in groups together can learn from each other as well. However, not every student learns the same way or at the same rate and adjustments may have to be made. I agree with you that our school systems need to allow enough time for teachers to be able to analyze and evaluate the progress of each and every student. As I am perusing my degree in education, I am learning that teaching is a very important job. I am also learning that there is a lot involved in being an effective teacher. I know that I will face many challenges, but I believe the rewards will be worth the effort. Thank you for your expertise.

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