Evidence for Learning: Within-class achievement grouping

Within-class achievement grouping

A summary of the research evidence on within-class achievement grouping in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of within-class achievement grouping on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on within-class achievement groupings. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of within-class achievement grouping interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2020. 

Within-class achievement grouping is described as the practice of recognising the diverse abilities and individual learning needs of students and placing them into smaller groups based on factors such as achievement, levels of interest and ability (Davidson, 2009). This can occur through several teaching approaches, such as splitting the class into small groups, giving individual learning activities, or modifying curriculum materials based on perceived ability (Masters, 2010; Mills et al, 2014), thereby allowing teachers to matching task difficulty and better support student learning needs to improve student learning outcomes (Norton, 2017).

Evidence from Australia and New Zealand indicate that teachers were generally positive and supported the use of within-class achievement grouping as an instructional strategy in subject areas such as mathematics. A study by Johnston and Wildy (2016) examined grouping practices and its effects on students’ academic, social and psychological learning outcomes in the Australian secondary school context. They reported that teachers in their study preferred the use of within-class achievement groupings as it allowed for a greater level of targeted teaching to fit a smaller range of achievement levels within the groups. Similarly, Hornby & Witte (2014) found that mathematics teachers in New Zealand believed that within-class achievement groupings increased teacher ability to engage in targeted teaching practice, which enabled different student groups to make progress towards academic benchmarks, meet parental expectations, or allow for more able students to be challenged or extended while maximising the use of school resources. However, teachers have also been reported to not support of achievement grouping as instructional practice, even though its use is prevalent in primary mathematics classrooms in New Zealand (Anthony & Hunter, 2017).

The practice of within-class achievement grouping has also been reported to increase disparity between groups of students. Zevenberger’s (2005) investigation of mathematics classes in Australia found that students in high achievement groups reported high-quality teaching and a sense of empowerment, whereas those in lower achievement groups reported low-quality teaching and a sense of disempowerment. Similarly, a later review of international literature examining the effect of setting on non-academic measures including Australian data (Belfi, Goos, De Fraine & Van Damme, 2012) show that achievement groupings are slightly beneficial for the wellbeing of students who are academically strong and very detrimental for the wellbeing of weaker students. Yet, another Australian study by Vialle, Heaven and Ciarrochi (2005) investigated the relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement in 65 high-ability secondary students and found no differences in measured self-esteem between gifted and non-gifted students (mean of .745 for the gifted group, .781 for non-gifted), as well as a statistically non-significant correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement for the gifted group (r=.020).

Overall, existing research reporting on the practice of within-class achievement groupings in Australia and New Zealand are sparse and inconclusive, despite its noted prevalence in mathematics classrooms. While benefits to both teaching practice and student learning are purported for the use of within-class achievement groupings as a pedagogical approach, it is important not to disregard its potential impacts on student self-esteem and educational equality, particularly for students in lower performing groups.

Anthony, G., & Hunter, R. (2017). Grouping practices in New Zealand mathematics classrooms: Where are we at and where should we be? New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 52(1), 73 – 92.

Belfi, B., Goos, M., De Fraine, B., & Van Damme, J. (2012). The effect of class composition by gender and ability on secondary school students’ school well-being and academic self-concept: A literature review. Educational Research Review, 7(1), 62 – 74.

Davidson, H. (2009). Ability grouping. Psychology of Classroom Learning: An Encyclopedia, 1 – 4.

Hornby, G., & Witte, C. (2014). Ability grouping in New Zealand high schools: Are practices evidence based?

Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 58(2), 90 – 95.

Johnston, O., & Wildy, H. (2016). The effects of streaming in the secondary school on learning outcomes for Australian students – A review of the international literature. Australian Journal of Education, 60(1), 42 – 59.

Masters, G. N. (2010). Teaching and learning school improvement framework. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Mills, M., Monk, S., Keddie, A., Renshaw, P., Christie, P., Geelan, D., & Gowlett, C. (2014) Differentiated learning: from policy to classroom. Oxford Review of Education. 40 (3), 331 – 348, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2014.911725

Norton, S. (2017). Mathematics engagement in an Australian lower secondary school. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 49 (2), 169 – 190.

Vialle, W., Heaven, P. C., & Ciarrochi, J. (2005). The relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement in high ability students: Evidence from the Wollongong Youth Study. Australasian Journal of Gifted Education, 24(2), 17 – 23.

Zevenbergen, R. (2005). The construction of a mathematical habitus: Implications of ability grouping in the middle years. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(5), 607 – 619.

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Achievement grouping; ability grouping; within-class achievement grouping; within-class ability grouping; homogenous grouping.