Ways to Group Students (and when to use which)

Group work is a regular activity in many secondary classrooms.  It offers many benefits, including collaboration and cooperation.  Students show increased learning in well-structured group work, related to the discussion of content and problem-solving.  There are also benefits in division of tasks into parts, time management, and general communication skills.

Group work, because it includes the need for additional communication and coordination of ideas can take longer to complete than individual work.  As such, it’s important to consider how the structure or design of a project, and the desired end goal.  Plus, different assignments of group members can affect the success of the project, and the learning for students.


There are many ways to group students to help achieve the goals of group work, or to accommodate individual student needs.

  1. Random or patterned grouping.  Students are assigned a group based on where they sit or their alphabetical position in the class.  Perhaps the teacher numbers off: 1, 2, 3, 4 and all the students who were numbered a 1 gather to form a more or less random group.
    • PROS: Quick and easy.  Allows students to work with new individuals that they may not have worked with before.
    • CONS: Does not take into account ability, interpersonal relationships, or student interest
  2. Student-selected groups for same content work.  Students pick their group members, selecting those they want to work with.
    • PROS: Students will likely have already established positive communication with their group, lowering the barrier.  They may be familiar with each others work preferences and easily assign roles they’re ready to complete.
    • CONS: Students may have trouble staying on topic.  Students may not move out of their comfort-zone to take new positions, unless pushed.  May result in uneven groupings or teacher-assigned filler members in groups, resulting in some happy groups and some enthused groups.
  3. Students select the topic or content of the group.  Students are assigned the group based on interest, which may be set-up before hand with rated-choices or assigned on the fly.
    • PROS: Students may be engaged with content that is of interest to them, and work with other students who share that interest.
    • CONS: Students may try to game the results to end up with friends.  Students who have only one favorite may end up in a group that is not of much interest, thus negating the advantage of having choice.  Lacks ability grouping.slide2
  4. Ability Grouping: After review of the grade book or selected assessments, students are placed in ability groups with similarly leveled students.  Project requirements or roles would be differentiated to ensure each group is challenged appropriately at their level.
    • PROS: Students are appropriately challenged with modified group work and requirements, which may increase on-task work for high-achievers taking advantage of the challenge.
    • CONS: Additional time required for differentiation of materials and tasks.  Final projects not uniform during presentation, with a risk of struggling student groups appearing to be “easy work” and high-achieving students having “busy work.”
  5. Mixed-Ability Grouping: After review of the grade book or selected assessments, students are put into groups with students of different levels, usually high-achieving students placed with struggling students, with the goal of the high-achieving student supporting the struggling student.
    • PROS: the struggling student may get additional, individualized support from their classmate.  The high-achieving student may benefit from review and teaching the content to a classmate.
    • CONS: If used regularly, the high-achieving student(s) may feel stifled.  Rather than getting to be challenged and explore, they are placed in a teaching role they may not want or care for.  Condescension or frustration may hamper collaboration.  The high achieving student may take over parts of the project to just get them done to their standard.slide3
  6. Group of One: Select students may be permitted to work solo while the rest of class is assigned in groups.
    • PROS: Supports students with barriers to successful group work.  Barriers may include: attendance issues, anxiety issues, bullying or other contentious relationships, or ability well beyond classroom range (very high or very low compared to other students).
    • CONS: Student lacks the opportunities for collaboration or communication growth (assuming they would not be excluded or bullied in a group).  Should be used sparingly, but considered as a valid option.

Ultimately, no one grouping strategy should be used for all group work.  As with other education choices, the type of group should align with the outcomes and activity.


Speaking of Group Work, one of my favorite real-world writing activities is the group Company Project.  Great fun, and requires the sort of collaboration that any business would need.  (And since we’re on the subject, for this project, I usually allow self-selected student groups.  One of the few times they get to!)


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