Student Grouping: Setting or Mixed Ability? AN UPDATE

In Evidence in Education, Research Evidence by Alex Quigley4 Comments


Very recently I asked the question about the thorny topic of student grouping:

Is it better to group students based on their prior ability, in mixed ability groupings, or something in between?

I went on to share some evidence from the EEF Toolkit, which is broadly critical of setting by ability models, whilst also citing Chris Husbands’ blog on the evidence and a large Metlife survey from America that showed US teachers could struggle with mixed ability grouping models.

I posed the following questions for when we tackle such a decision in schools:

– What teachers are securing the best student outcomes and what are they doing in our specific context and subject domain?

– What are the best methods and approaches for within-class groupings? What does the evidence on good ‘cooperative learning‘ (group work) say and can I leverage ‘peer tutoring‘ effectively?

– Given the spread of ability in groupings, either by setting or mixed, how do I best use oral and written feedback to improve learning?

– Are the issues I am trying to tackle with our grouping questions about learning difficulties/challenges in our subject/school, or are they about behavioural problems? How do these two issues interrelate in my context?

– How will I help students better understand what learning looks like in my subject domain (metacognition)? 

– How will I ensure my students are highly motivated to learn in our context? How crucial is student motivation in my context?

– In a mixed ability model, how are our ‘high starters’ still challenged in class and beyond?

– How will I ensure all students have mastered the content and what will I do if small groups haven’t done so, without holding back those who have (mastery learning)?

Now, an important update has just popped into my inbox in the form of the excellent IEE Best Evidence in BriefNewsletter (I do recommend you sign up if you haven’t already). It cites a new article from Cambridge University article entitled, ‘Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on ‘ability grouping’ in England: a discourse analytic account’. It identifies some reasons for the poorer progress of students in lower ability groups:

  • Misallocation to groups;
  • Lack of fluidity of groups;
  • Lower quality of teaching for low groups;
  • Low teacher expectations for low groups;
  • Pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment applied to different groups;
  • Pupil perception and experiences of “ability” grouping, and impact on their learner identities; and
  • These different factors working together to cause a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interestingly, setting by ability has been conflated with high academic standards, as opposed to mixed ability. Perhaps the large scale EEF trial on setting and mixed ability teaching, of which Huntington is part, can adjust stereotypes and common conceptions of students grouping in the minds of both parents and teachers. It would certainly prove no easy fix, but the finding will be very interesting.


If you are interested in debates and trials related to student grouping, then get yourself over to Huntington School in York on the 9th of July for ResearchEd York – get your tickets HERE!




  1. It’s a difficult issue. It feels like grouping students according to current performance *ought* to work from an efficiency perspective (note I am careful not to say *ability* here), and I am sure with careful planning and attention to progress, attitudes and self-efficacy, differential grouping can be made to work. I think what the evidence suggests is that by default it tends not to do this. Moreover, despite our best intentions, it appears to disadvantage those whose current attainment is in the lowest third of the distribution, particularly over time. It is easy to construct a narrative as to why this might be the case, such as that it affects students efforts and self-efficacy such that their progress reflects the category to which they have been assigned (a self-fulfilling prophecy as you say) however we don’t know for certain what the causal mechanisms are and how they might be changed, or whether they are an inevitable feature of such grouping arrangements.

    A piece Jo Boaler wrote with Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown in 2000 (available here: ) makes uncomfortable reading and it would be useful to know if young people’s experiences in sets are still like this more than 15 years later. I think without understanding the impact of our organisational decisions on students’ perspectives of their learning we may feel we are addressing the potential negative consequences, but may still fail to do so.

    So I’d add to your list of questions “How are we getting feedback from students about the organisational and grouping arrangements that we decide are in their best interests?”

    Boaler, J., Wiliam, D., & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ experiences of ability grouping-disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. British Educational Research Journal, 26(5), 631-648.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the great reply Steve. Yes – it is a valuable question to add. ‘Student voice’ is often written off as tokenistic, or it proves so, but given the emotional nature of grouping (indeed learning), then trying to dig under the motivations and drivers of student attitudes, concurrently with teacher biases and habits, then we may move forward. When it comes to student confidence or effort, it is so hard to enact a policy that is best for the majority. I hear a lot of teachers and school leaders say, “we have and it works for us because…”, or “we know the research on setting says…but it is right for us because…” Whether those judgments and decisions ever really emerge from systematic student feedback is probably doubtful.

    2. Really interesting reflections – thank you. As part of our project ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’, we are going to be asking students about their experiences of grouping (setting and mixed attainment) via questionnaire surveys and focus groups. We’ll be reporting on this further on – anyone interested can follow us on Twitter @groupingstudy or via our website

  2. Pingback: Student Grouping: Setting or Mixed Ability? AN UPDATE – art + education + museums

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