Flexible grouping is a data-driven teaching practice. With this practice, you put students into temporary groups to work together for only as long as is needed for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. The groups can be heterogeneous (made up of varying skill levels) or homogeneous (made up of the same skill level). The groups change often based on the learning objective and students’ needs or interests.
If you’re like most teachers, putting students into groups is an important part of your day-to-day classroom life. That concept of grouping dates back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, when teachers grouped students by age or ability.
In today’s inclusive classrooms, we know age and ability don’t correspond neatly across subjects. Students have different strengths, interests, and needs depending on the content area, specific lesson, or even the time of day. Few students engage at the exact same academic, social-emotional, or linguistic level every day. That’s where flexible grouping comes in.
What is flexible grouping?
Flexible grouping uses a mix of heterogeneous groups (made up of students with varying skill levels) and homogeneous groups (made up of students with similar skill level) to help students achieve a learning goal. The size of the groups can vary — from two or three students in a small group to up to six students in a larger group.
Students work together, often with the guidance of a teacher, only for the length of time necessary for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. That makes it different from static groups that don’t change based on students’ needs, acquisition of skills, or knowledge.
Flexible grouping is driven by data. You can use data you already have about students to group and regroup them to meet their evolving needs. The data doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be as simple as observing students’ work during a lesson. In doing so, you may see that some students could benefit from more practice in a small group before moving on.
A key component of flexible grouping is that while all students are working toward the same learning goal, the work addresses students’ varying learning needs. The work is engaging and important for all students, but the task or how they show what they’ve learned may look different for each group.
Why use flexible grouping?
Flexible grouping is a powerful and effective practice for improving learning. It allows your students to get the right support, in the right way, at the right time.
When flexible grouping is part of the classroom routine, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about one or more students working with the teacher on a specific project. Students who struggle don’t feel singled out or embarrassed. Because groups change frequently and aren’t based on ability level alone, all students have the chance to get to know and work with each other. In fact, according to research, all students in classrooms that use flexible grouping show academic gains.
Benefits for students
Not being pigeonholed. Flexible grouping allows for regrouping for different content areas. That’s beneficial to students who learn and think differently because they may have challenges in some content areas and not in others. For instance, a student who struggles with reading but not math can be grouped with other students who have similar support needs in reading. That student can then be regrouped for math.
Feeling valued. Students bring their own skills, talents, and life experiences to the group. In flexible groups, students see that everyone adds value to the learning community. This follows the culturally responsive teaching philosophy of identifying students’ assets and using them to create student-centered instruction. Working in student-led groups means that non-academic strengths, like leadership skills, are important, too.
Ownership of work. With flexible grouping, students develop ownership of and responsibility for their own learning. All of this is good preparation for higher education or work, where teams often rely on people with different skill sets to manage the different tasks of a project.
Language practice. Flexible grouping is particularly beneficial to . It gives them more chances to interact with classmates who speak English fluently and to practice both academic and interpersonal language. Students can also be placed in groups with other classmates who speak the same home language. In those groups, they can discuss content or concepts before sharing their ideas in English.
Benefits for teachers
Building a team-oriented culture. Flexible grouping helps build a positive, team-oriented culture in your classroom. Knowledge and practice become more fluid as students are constantly learning from others in the room instead of just relying on you.
Efficient opportunities for students to practice. Flexible grouping is a way to provide additional support without having to find time or change your daily schedule to pull students aside. In small groups, you can give students practice opportunities at their instructional level and increased feedback.
The opportunity to collect data. Because flexible grouping depends on data, it also gives you a routine for data collection. When students are working in groups, you can collect observational data, as well as more formalized data. For instance, you may ask students to take pictures of their work at the beginning, middle, and end of the lesson. Or you can have an exit ticket for all students, which asks students to do things like:
- Summarize key points from the lesson
- Show how they can use what they learned to solve a problem
- Answer an essential question based on the lesson
- Identify questions they may still have
All of this data can help you make adjustments to your instruction in the moment. It also helps you tailor your future instruction, which might include switching up your groups the next day.
What do flexible groups look like?
Flexible groups come in all types and sizes. They can:
- Include partners, small groups of a couple of students, and large groups of up to six students
- Be heterogeneous (made up of varying abilities) or homogeneous (made up of the same ability)
- Be teacher-led or student-led
- Be assigned or self-selected
- Last for just one lesson or for a few weeks, depending on the purpose of the activity, learning goals, and data
In elementary grades, this might look like students rotating among different learning stations, working in guided reading groups that change from week to week, or engaging in a “turn and talk” with different partners each time.
In middle school and high school, this might look like collaborative learning groups in which students have clearly defined roles, like being the facilitator or timekeeper.
How do I put flexible grouping into practice?
1. Define the learning objective for your lesson to determine what type of groups you need.
Start with a clear idea of exactly what skills or concepts you want students to master. This will help you in two ways. First, the learning objective will help you be more intentional about what groups to create, including which students belong in the group and the size of the group. Second, with the end goal in mind, you can create checkpoints to monitor each student’s progress and adjust groups when necessary.
Tips for planning
- Schedule time for group work in your lesson plans.
- Plan how you and your co-teachers (or other support staff) will work together during a lesson. You can maximize flexible grouping instruction when you have more educators in the room to lead learning or circulate to support groups.
- Plan to work with small groups and have work stations during independent practice times.
- Try out flexible grouping with your students for short periods of time or to complete quick activities so they can practice. Give them feedback on what went well.
- Incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices into your flexible grouping lessons.
2. Review data to decide which students to group together.
Once you have your learning goal in mind, you can turn to student data to guide your decisions about how to group students. For instance, reviewing the exit tickets from a previous day can show you which students didn’t fully master the learning objective. You can then group them together to practice that skill. Or the responses to an equation on the board can help you form groups for the day. The students who understood it can move on and those who didn’t can be grouped to get more support and practice.
Tips for using data to form groups
- Review your students’ learning profiles.
- Know your students’ interests.
- Evaluate how previous groupings went.
- Draw on several sources of data, including:
- Formal assessment data, like information from the most recent standardized testingInformal observations of studentsStudent self-assessments or questionnaires, like exit tickets from the previous lessonPre- and post-testing around specific skillsUniversal screening data (such as DIBELS or other reading assessments) Data from (RTI) programs Review of student writing
- Start class with a Do Now and end with an exit ticket. They’re great sources of data for future lessons.
- Use data to identify student successes or misconceptions to address during upcoming lessons.
3. Set guidelines for how the groups will interact.
Work with your students to create expectations for group work. For example, you might set the expectation that small groups have a timekeeper, a note-taker, and someone to be in charge of the materials. You might also outline only one person in a group speaking at a time and that all group members have a chance to speak during the work time. Clear expectations are critical to effective groups.
Tips for group work
- Use prompting and pre-correcting strategies to establish group behavior expectations and student roles.
- Create a visual of the roles and expectations for each type of group.
- Post directions.
- Create visuals to support students with language needs.
- Create a place for small group materials.
- Color-code folders or baskets.
- Determine set times for each group activity and provide time reminders for students to remain on task.
- Assign a group member to be a materials manager.
- Arrange furniture so that there is a whole group learning area and specific areas for small group work.
- Teach routines for transitioning into small group work.
- Teach students how to have meaningful conversations with each other (known as Accountable Talk®). Using these strategies provides a framework for interactions as well as prompts and precise language for how they are expected to speak with each other.
4. Prompt students to reflect.
Build in time at the end of a lesson for students to talk about what they learned. Did they meet the learning goal? What lingering questions do they have? How effectively did their group work together? What could they do better next time? Students can reflect in a whole group discussion, via an exit ticket, or as part of the group’s assignment. This debriefing process can help you make decisions for the next groups you’ll form, like which students may have the same unresolved questions or misunderstandings.
Tips for debriefing
- Use metacognitive strategies to ask students to reflect on their own learning. What advice would they give themselves for next time? What do they need to improve?
- Ask students to tell you what they want more practice with.
- Talk through how and from whom students got help when they needed it, and whether they feel they needed more support.
- Ask targeted questions to gauge how well your students achieved the learning goal.
- Ask students to give you specific feedback about what they may need in the future to be more successful learners.
- Use the principles of UDL to give students multiple ways of sharing feedback. For example, students who need more time to process their thoughts can provide feedback later through a Google Doc or paper feedback form.
How can families support this at home?
Families may be more familiar with the idea of ability grouping than flexible grouping. If that’s the case, they may be confused when their child comes home talking about moving from group to group.
To head off confusion, you can explain at back-to-school night or in a class email or newsletter that you’ll be using flexible grouping. Emphasize that students will not change groups just when they need extra help — they’ll switch groups as they make progress, too. Let families know that you’ll keep an eye on how students are doing academically and with whom they work well. That will help you put them in groups and in turn, help students grow.
Now that you know more about flexible grouping, how do you plan on using grouping differently in your classroom? Try it out and see how flexible grouping helps you meet the needs of all learners.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Kristen L. Hodnett, MSEd is a clinical professor in the department of special education at Hunter College in New York City.