Evidence for Learning: Within-class achievement grouping

Within-class achievement grouping

Low impact for very low cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Within-class grouping (also known as within-class achievement grouping) means organising students within their usual class for specific activities or topics, such as literacy or mathematics. Students with similar levels of current achievement are grouped together, for example, on specific tables, but all students 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 students’ current capabilities, so that all students have an appropriate level of challenge.

Within-class grouping can involve the use of other approaches such ascollaborative learning or targeted strategies (see reading comprehension strategies).

Although within-class grouping is sometimes described as ability grouping’, we refer here to achievement’ rather than ability’, as schools generally use measures of current performance, rather than measures of ability, to group students.

In the UK, within-class achievement grouping tends to be more common in primary schools than in secondary schools. In primary schools this may involve students grouped together on specific tables, but this is typically not the case in secondary schools. The research evidence does not examine the effect of students working in groups, but rather the effect of students being grouped by achievement which may, or may not, involve them working in groups.

1. Within-class achievement 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 achievement 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 achievement grouping on students with low prior achievement and carefully monitor engagement and attitudes to learning.

4. One advantage of within-class grouping might be flexibility in grouping arrangements. Students progress at different rates so regular monitoring and assessment is important to minimise misallocation and ensure challenge for all students.

The average impact of the within-class grouping is about an additional two months progress over the course of a year.

Within-class achievement grouping may also have an impact on wider outcomes such as confidence. Some studies from the broader evidence base conclude that grouping students on the basis of achievement may have longer term negative effects on the attitudes and engagement of low achieving students, for example, by discouraging the belief that their achievement can be improved through effort.

  • The benefits of this approach are more apparent for primary age students (+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.

As with setting and streaming, evidence suggests that disadvantaged students can suffer from lower teacher expectations which increases their chances of being grouped with lower prior achievers. If groups are not arranged flexibility, and the impact of grouping on student engagement and motivation not monitored, within-class grouping could have negative effects for disadvantaged students.

One recent study commissioned by the EEF found that schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students seem to be more likely to use whole-class teaching with upper primary students, as opposed to within-class grouping. This finding was not consistent across other levels of schooling however.

By adapting teaching to students’ needs and prior knowledge, teachers may be able to support, stretch, and challenge students’ learning more effectively.

Effective implementation of within-class grouping approaches might include:

  • Effective use of assessment to identify students’ prior knowledge and understanding, and potential barriers to learning.
  • Grouping students flexibly so that students know ability is not fixed.
  • Adapting teaching to the needs of students, providing targeted support to students who are struggling.
  • Reframing questions and lesson content to provide greater scaffolding or stretch and challenge students 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 students may suffer from a lack of confidence leading to lower engagement, and subsequently achievement.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Overall, the median costs of implementing within-class grouping are estimated as very low. The costs associated with within-class grouping arise from the production of any additional resources (e.g., scaffolds or prompt sheets) that are provided to groups with differing levels of prior achievement.

This cost estimates assume that schools are already paying for teacher time, assessment methods, and potentially IT software to monitor student needs and achievement. These are all prerequisite costs of implementing within-class grouping, without which the cost is likely to be higher.

The security of the evidence around within-class achivement grouping is rated as very low. Only 22 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.

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.

Evidence strength
Number of studies22
Review last updatedAugust 2021