Within-class grouping (also known as within-class attainment grouping) means organising pupils within their usual class for specific activities or topics, such as literacy or mathematics. Pupils with similar levels of current attainment are grouped together, for example, on specific tables, but all pupils are taught by their usual teacher and support staff, and they usually all follow the same curriculum but at different levels of difficulty.
The aim of this type of grouping is to match tasks, activities and support to pupils’ current capabilities, so that all pupils have an appropriate level of challenge.
Although within-class grouping is sometimes described as ‘ability grouping’, we refer here to ‘attainment’ rather than ‘ability’, as schools generally use measures of current performance, rather than measures of ability, to group pupils.
1. Within class attainment grouping has a positive impact, on average, of 2 months additional progress. The evidence strength, however, is very limited and there is variation behind this average.
2. It is important to carefully consider which content is appropriate for within class attainment grouping. While the impact in maths was positive, studies that measured literacy outcomes found no difference, on average.
3. Consider the impact of within class attainment grouping on pupils with low prior attainment and carefully monitor engagement and attitudes to learning.
4. One advantage of within class grouping might be flexibility in grouping arrangements. Pupils progress at different rates so regular monitoring and assessment is important to minimise misallocation and ensure challenge for all pupils.
The average impact of the within-class grouping is about an additional two months progress over the course of a year.
Within-class attainment grouping may also have an impact on wider outcomes such as confidence. Some studies from the broader evidence base conclude that grouping pupils on the basis of attainment may have longer term negative effects on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining pupils, for example, by discouraging the belief that their attainment can be improved through effort.
There is some limited evidence around within-class attainment grouping in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Two qualitative studies conducted in South Africa highlighted a positive impact of this pedagogical approach on learners’ achievement, suggesting it may help teachers to tailor their teaching to students’ specific need. However, they warned it creates a differential learner achievement levels within the same classroom, enabling some students to outshine others. Meanwhile, students in low ability groups may develop a feeling of inferiority, and a defeatist attitude where they accept the notion of being slow learners and do not put in any effort to change that. Importantly, evidence reviewed dealt solely with within class ability grouping. Other grouping techniques such as heterogeneous grouping have not yet been investigated.
The benefits of this approach are more apparent for primary age pupils (+3 months) than secondary (no overall impact), though the overall number of studies in secondary schools is small.
Impact appears greater in mathematics (+4 months) than for other subjects.
By adapting teaching to pupils’ needs and prior knowledge, teachers may be able to support, stretch, and challenge pupils’ learning more effectively.
Effective implementation of within class grouping approaches might include:
- Effective use of assessment to identify pupils’ prior knowledge and understanding, and potential barriers to learning
- Grouping pupils flexibly so that pupils know ability is not fixed
Adapting teaching to the needs of pupils, providing targeted support to pupils who are struggling
- Reframing questions and lesson content to provide greater scaffolding or stretch and challenge pupils further
- Carefully monitoring the impact of groupings on engagement and motivation.
The evidence indicates higher impacts, on average, for mathematics. It is particularly important that teachers consider appropriate content for within class attainment grouping.
Within-class grouping interventions may be used as often as teachers require in their daily practice. Within-class groupings might be used as a temporary process for specific tasks, or a more regular routine in which seating plans are orientated around prior attainment outcomes. This latter approach should be implemented with caution, as without flexibility to move between groups some pupils may suffer from a lack of confidence leading to lower engagement, and subsequently attainment.
The cost of implementing within-class attainment grouping will be moderate. It will mostly entail cost of professional development of teachers and the administration costs involved in monitoring the attainment of learners to determining groupings.
The security of the evidence around within class attainment grouping is rated as very low. Only 23 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The topic lost an additional padlock because a small percentage of studies have taken place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
Local evidence from SSA on the impact of within class attainment grouping on learners’ attainment is very limited, with no experimental studies on this type of intervention. This review is based on two qualitative reviews conducted in South Africa.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.