Within-class grouping in maths
This study is a ‘School Choices’ project. Instead of examining a programme delivered in schools, it examines differences in practice between schools. This particular project, aimed to understand whether within class grouping teaching (either same-attainment or mixed-attainment grouping) is associated with higher (or lower) mathematics achievement compared to whole-class teaching in Year 2, Year 5 and Year 9.
Assessing the effects of grouping students within maths classes
The Institute of Education
Organising your school
Evidence around the impact of within-class grouping approaches on attainment is scarce, particularly for secondary school aged pupils. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit strand on “Within Class Attainment Grouping” describes the evidence as “limited” and little research compares within-class attainment grouping to alternative approaches (such as mixed attainment grouping), other than whole class teaching.
There is also little information on the practises and approaches used in English schools, such as how often pupils are taught as a whole class or in mixed or same attainment groups. This study focuses on within-class grouping approaches compared to whole class teaching, it does not make comparisons between ability grouping within and between classrooms.
This study did not find that any single approach to attainment grouping or whole class teaching was associated with higher academic outcomes than any of the others. It may be that teachers use the approach (or a combination of approaches) that is most comfortable (and effective) for them and their pupils.
Within class grouping seemed to have an association to increased mathematics attainment for Year 2 pupils from low-income background, however this was not reflected in reading attainment and enjoyment of working with numbers (the secondary outcomes of this study). Similarly, disadvantaged or low-achieving Year 9 students that received whole-class teaching seemed to experience a faster improvement in their mathematics achievement. The evidence for this finding remains weak but suggests that further research around grouping practices in mathematics may be worthwhile.
This study was a secondary data analysis that used available data collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study (for Year 2 pupils) and the 2015 round of the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Unlike the trials that EEF often funds, the study does not seek to establish whether grouping “caused” differences in attainment. Instead, is examines whether there was an association between practices and results. There may be other explanations for differences in outcomes between pupils.
The is no evidence of an association between within-class attainment grouping and Year 2 children's mathematics test scores.
There is no evidence that the frequency of using any of the teaching approaches (same-attainment groups, mixed-attainment groups, or using a whole-class approach) is associated with higher mathematics achievement amongst Year 5 or Year 9 pupils (that is, none of the approaches were found to be superior to the others
There is little evidence that the frequency of using different teaching approaches (whole-class teaching, within-class same-attainment grouping, or within-class mixed-attainment grouping) is associated with Year 5 and Year 9 pupils’ self-confidence in their mathematics abilities.
Full project description
Evidence of an association between within-class attainment grouping and pupils’ achievement is relatively weak, particularly for secondary school pupils. Little research is available comparing within-class attainment grouping to alternative approaches (such as mixed-attainment grouping) other than whole-class teaching. Moreover, little is currently known about the practises and approaches actually in use in England, such as how often pupils are exposed to whole-class teaching as opposed to mixed or same-attainment grouping, and whether teachers use one single approach or a mix of these.
This study presents new evidence on these questions within England. The aim of this study was to investigate whether there is any association between within-class attainment grouping and children’s academic achievement in mathematics. The study also looked at pupils’ enjoyment of number work (Year 2), self-confidence, and achievement in reading as secondary outcomes. A key goal of this study was to compare two alternative teaching approaches: (a) whole-class teaching and (b) teaching in (mixed or same) attainment groups, also providing descriptive information on the extent that these different approaches are currently used by teachers in England.
The study focused specifically on Year 2 pupils across the U.K. and Year 5 and Year 9 children in England. The final analysis is based upon 7,899 Year 2 pupils, 2,856 Year 5 pupils, and 3,288 Year 9 pupils.
This is a secondary data analysis project that used available data collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study for Year 2 pupils and the 2015 round of the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for Year 5 and Year 9 pupils. Regression analysis, controlling for children’s prior achievement and a range of other characteristics, was used to explore the association between within-class attainment grouping and children’s achievement.
Due to the observational nature of this study, the results presented in this report refer to conditional associations and are not intended to capture any possible causal links.
The study was conducted by John Jerrim, UCL Institute of Education between October 2019 and November 2020.