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Using Effective Instructional Strategies: Grouping and Differentiated Instruction
Using Effective Instructional Strategies: Grouping and Differentiated Instruction

What We Know

Research suggests that grouping students based on their academic and affective needs can be a valuable tool for instruction. The arrangements of students should be for short-term activities and students' progress must be monitored to ensure that they are appropriately placed. More than grouping, however, content has a greater effect on student achievement (Mosteller, Light, & Sachs, 1996). The implication of the research is that quality instruction is organized around essential concepts, principles and skills that are the goals and focus for all learners (Tomlinson, 1999).

Assessment through different means, including journals, class discussions and test scores, allows teachers to determine at the start of a unit or lesson an appropriate entry point for each student. The need-based arrangements should remain fluid, so that evidence of an individual student's progress or difficulty results in a change in grouping for that student (Cotton, 1995; Kame'enui & Simmons, 1998).

Research has shown that long-term ability grouping or tracking for struggling learners yields inequity. Diminished expectations, simplified materials and discussions and negative labeling curbs students' motivation and self-esteem, resulting in performance that is lower than when students receive appropriate support within heterogeneous groups. Yet a significant number of studies indicate that advanced learners do benefit from homogeneous groups when a combination of acceleration and enrichment is provided (e.g. Kulik & Kulik, 1997; Delacourt et al, 1994; Shore et al, 1991). However, Kulik and Kulik (1997) also found that for students at all ability levels, curricular differentiation for different groups--not ability grouping--has a positive impact on student achievement. The best practice, then, is differentiated instruction for all learners. A differentiated classroom shifts from class to small group to individual work regularly. Need-based grouping arrangements are used for practice and reinforcement. Other activities that tap a variety of learning modalities and incorporate heterogeneous cooperative learning groups, however, are equally important (Tomlinson, 1999).

It is important to note that learners benefit from an appropriately high level of challenge and skill, particularly when the problems and concepts are perceived by students to be interesting and necessary (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen, 1993).

Key Terms

Grouping is the practice of organizing students into small groups to provide instruction.

Differentiated Instruction describes instruction differentiated according to learner needs.

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