July 31, 2018

How to Use Flexible Grouping for Differentiated Instruction

Ryan Miller
A group of 5 high school students sit at a table working together on a project

Everyone learns differently and at a different pace. With differentiated instruction tactics, such as flexible grouping, teachers can use these differences to better accelerate learning in the classroom.

By using instructional grouping strategies, teachers can encourage students of similar or complementary levels to work together and collaborate on projects, discussions and daily assignments where students learn as a team. Here are some top tips to help you group students like a pro.

Choose a Flexible Grouping Style

Flexible grouping is a teaching “best practice” that allows your students to team up according to their learning level. It gives you the opportunity to focus and zero-in on certain skills and objectives according to student need, making differentiated instruction possible. However, choosing how to level your students, or even which flexible grouping strategy will work best for your lesson, can be daunting. First, know grouping comes in two forms: Homogeneous and Heterogeneous.

Depending on the activity, some educators prefer to mix the groups so that students of all levels are represented in each group (heterogeneous grouping of students), while others prefer organizing the students by ability levels (homogeneous grouping of students). Each approach has its strengths and drawbacks, and the decision whether to form instructional groups with students of similar or mixed ability depends on the purpose of the learning activity at hand.

Is the goal of the activity to ensure everyone is on the same page and can work as a team, or to test different skills? As an educator, use your best judgment to make the activity as useful and helpful as possible.

Benefits of Grouping in Stealth Mode

If you’re going to make heterogeneous groups where students are on different levels, it’s important to be discreet in your differentiation, so students don’t know the difference. Why? Many students who are struggling with a new concept don’t necessarily want their peers to know. These are the students who will do anything to cover up the fact that they are lost in your classroom. It is our job as teachers to ensure that these students feel safe in their learning environment.

How can you make student grouping based on ability less obvious? Google Classroom allows teachers the ability to assign differentiated assignments to specific kids. For example, if a student has an accommodation of limited answer choices on multiple choice quizzes, a teacher can assign the modified quiz via Classroom. The student then opens the quiz just like every other student in the class.

Google Classroom also allows you to CREATE groups within your class. If you have a project to assign, and you would like your advanced students in a group together, when they enter your Google Classroom and click on the project, they are “auto-magically” assigned the right project based on their level. It’s discreet. It’s stealth — and everyone is accessing the work the same way. There is no need to single out any student.

Flexible Grouping Organization Strategies

When it comes to actually grouping students, be sure not to have obvious titles for groups or assignments. We don’t want someone getting a paper that says “low copy” or one group called The Guppies and another called Sharks.

I typically use colors for my group names: it makes groups easier to keep track of and colors are level-agnostic. You can also apply the same colors to future assignments and assessments which keeps things organized. For example, if I had a student “Bob” who was in the orange group, I could place an orange label, sticker, mark, or title on his paper to visually organize and separate it for analysis.

With organization, it’s all about working smarter, not harder! Keep things simple. If you are a visual person, have a seating chart arrangement to keep simple data with checks and minuses on students. If you prefer spreadsheets, create one ahead of time and input data at the end of sessions. If you are a teacher who needs to express their thoughts verbally, take 5-10 minutes during planning, lunch, break, or before/after school to record a video or audio of your observations for the day. Any of these methods can help you keep track of how your students are doing.

Ultimately, with increasing classroom sizes and a broader spectrum of student needs, flexible grouping and differentiated instruction can be a game changer for teachers. Active learning in groups means every member of the group is participating and makes a contribution which can be assessed. Remember there are tools to help! Also, remember that the desks are not attached to the floor—you can mix things up in heterogeneous and homogeneous groups in new, creative ways to keep things fresh and engaging.

Learn more about how to make learning relevant for every student in our
Differentiated Instruction Guide.