Each week, we highlight education research conducted by teachers. This week, Catherine Perkins, head of chemistry at Deyes High School in Liverpool, explains how she explored the way students were affected by working in groups of similar and mixed abilities.
Catherine Perkins wanted to examine whether the most able students in her class worked better in groups of mixed or similar ability. She observed them over the course of 20 lessons in different scenarios and tracked their progress.
Perkins wanted to ensure that she was running practical sessions that maximised students' learning potential.
Perkins selected the top eight learners and assigned them a letter from A to H. Student A was identified as the most able, with a target grade of 6a and a prior attainment level of 6c. The remaining high-ability students in the study had targets of 6a or 6b, and the rest of the class had targets of 5a to 6a.
The first scenario consisted of similar-ability group work, with students placed together based on their initial target levels. At the end of this, Perkins analysed the results.
She then implemented the mixed phase, in which high-ability students acted as the leaders of groups. At the end of the unit, Perkins analysed her students' results again and compared them with the previous scores.
In the first unit, Perkins noticed that her class was more competitive. The selected students thrived, along with the others. In a lesson on filters and light, for example, a group of middle-ability students produced level 7 work.
During the mixed-group unit, the learners who were most vocal (rather than most able) became leaders - and Perkins says that fewer students met the criteria for level 7 as a result.
Overall, high-ability students exceeded their targets when working in groups with similarly able classmates. Student A achieved a 5a in the end-of-unit test after mixed ability grouping but a 6b working with similarly able pupils.
This trend also applied to other highly able students (B to H). Although Student B improved slightly in the mixed-ability group, they improved even further in the similar ability setting - advancing from a 6b to a 7c overall. Student H went from a 6c in the mixed group to a 7c in a similar group, and the most improved class member - Student F - progressed from a 5b to a 6a.
Perkins says she now has a clearer idea about how to form effective working groups. She hopes to undertake more research across other year groups.
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