How can we group our students more effectively?

Grouping students is a seemingly simple and straightforward process, but in reality, it is quite complex, and emerging research about group dynamics is shifting the conversation. It’s no surprise that Google spent significant time attempting to assemble the perfect team, and project managers across the world are constantly strategizing about how the make-up of their teams are impacting results.

I have some suggestions on how to determine what grouping strategies will work best in your classroom.

 Reflect on your current strategies

When thinking about grouping, it is helpful to conduct a quick reflection on your current grouping strategies, by considering the following questions:

  1. What is the main goal of grouping students?
  2. Do you utilize the same grouping strategy for each lesson? How many different strategies do you employ?
  3. What is your most common method of grouping students? Skill? Personality? Modality? Student choice? Independence readiness? Interest? Background? A combination of any of these?

Another essential question to reflect on is: 

  1. Are you willing to explore new ways of approaching student grouping and make challenging adjustments in your classroom?

If the answer is yes, please read on for some new strategies for implementing grouping.

What is the primary goal of grouping students?

This question should drive all grouping decisions, so let’s explore ways to be strategic when grouping our students.

Grouping strategies can be broadly split into two categories: Heterogeneous vs. Homogeneous.

Heterogeneous Grouping – This grouping strategy may be most effectively employed if diversity helps the group achieve a goal.

Example: When a group must produce, present or solve a problem, diversity within the group is proven to boost creativity and improve results. Assuming each group is given the same task, diverse groups ensures higher quality across the class. 

Homogeneous Grouping – If each group is meant to accomplish a different goal or perform a different task, then we can craft the groups to strategically exploit strengths or address learning opportunities that each member of the group has in common.

Example: When students exhibit differences in ability/skills, it makes little sense to push some students further than they can handle, or hold others back from a challenge. Furthermore, we might identify students who are more analytical and give them a task allowing them to use those skills to the greatest effect or do the opposite and push them out of their comfort zone by getting them to do something creative.

Determining the most appropriate grouping for a particular exercise

One of the first questions we should ask is “What do I hope to accomplish with my student groups?”.

The next question is, “What is the nature of the activity?”

What do we hope students will achieve from the activity? Is it creative in nature? Manipulative and hands on? Reflective? Critical thinking and problem solving? Are we hoping to instill empathy in the students? Independence and accountability? Do we look for some students to model for other students? Are you grouping for a Project Based Learning (PBL) lesson? 

How will student interactions facilitate desired outcomes based on the nature of the activity?

Since each activity has different desired outcomes, we should group each one accordingly. So if an activity is critical thinking in nature, you might employ a heterogeneous group of mixed skills and backgrounds to take advantage of different approaches to the problem. If the activity is creative in nature, we could ensure each group has at least one creative and one analytical student. 

Not every grouping has to be homogeneous OR heterogeneous. For example, consider an activity in which each group is set by skill level (or grade level) — while each group may be the same skill level, that does not mean you can’t mix them up according to personality or background. 

Applying and reviewing new grouping strategies

Using digital formative assessment to group students by skill or grade-level

Pre-assessment is underutilized and underappreciated, but it can be used to help group your students according to their abilities. Quizalize does this quite well since you can give students quizzes that are tagged to your curriculum, and students are automatically grouped based on their performance. Furthermore, Quizalize can track cumulative mastery performance using Mastery Dashboards to facilitate grouping based on long-term data collection.  

Utilize questionnaires to learn more about your students – especially at the beginning of the year

Many teachers give back-to-school questionnaires, but they are rarely used to help with grouping strategies and tend to be a token introductory activity on Day 1. If you’ve already given your students a survey, why not dig them up and create groupings according to the list of methods shown here:

  • Personality
  • Modality
  • Interests/Hobbies
  • Background
  • Independence readiness
  • Writing skills
  • Anything else you can think of!

If you haven’t provided a survey yet, or are looking for more ideas, check out these examples from Education World.

Technology will never replace teachers

Let’s face it, technology will never become so sophisticated that human teachers will become obsolete. No one knows your students better than you do. However, technology can generate data that can be helpful in our instruction.  

  • Use formative assessments like Quizalize to gain insight on student ability levels for individual skills or entire topics and subjects.
  • Provide questionnaires and obtain student feedback to gain insight into who they are, where they come from, and what interests them.
  • Most importantly, be in tune with your students on a personal level. LINC, The Learning Innovation Catalyst advocates for a strong student voice in your classroom as doing so increases student accountability and ownership, while also facilitating an immersive classroom experience. This puts you in a better position to understand your students and group them most effectively.

Final thoughts and conclusions: so how is this related to generativity? 

LINC employs cycles of reflecting, tinkering, and growing.

So, what did we do here?

Stage 1: We reflected on our current methods, beliefs, and student grouping practices. 

Stage 2: We acknowledged that we could be more strategic in our grouping of students and learned about how we can determine the most effective groups for any given activity.

Stage 3: We’ve asked questions and explored different ways to group students. We presented tools to aid in grouping decisions and we are ready to try new strategies.

Stage 4: Now we must evaluate our new strategies and reflect on our new beliefs and practices (back to Stage 1).

I hope you will give some of these strategies a try. Feel free to contact me at chris.merryman@zzish.com with any questions.

About the Author: 

Having earned his Master’s degree in education, Chris Merryman has championed digital formative assessment for 8 years as a teacher in New Jersey. After moving to London and working with Zzish to engineer and deploy Quizalize, he gained insight from hundreds of teachers all over the world about what is possible, and most effective, regarding formative assessment in the classroom.