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Improving engagement and raising attainment through mixed ability grouping and cooperative learning

Written By: Rosalyn Mark
8 min read
Cooperative Learning and mixed ability grouping to improve engagement and raise attainment

In recent years, there has been much interest in the potential benefits of both group work and of mixed attainment grouping, but also recognition that these are hard to get right and that they may also have negative consequences. In this article, the author reflects on a piece of action research she undertook to understand whether using cooperative learning structures, with pupils sitting in mixed ability groups, led to all pupils making good progress.

 Action research in action

In my action research project, I was keen to consider the following question: If pupils sit in mixed ability groups and I use cooperative learning structures, will they all make good progress?

In line with Hattie’s (2012) observations, I had noticed lower ability children in my class not participating fully from the start of lessons and then sitting back passively, anticipating the support of an adult. Others lacked confidence, needing more time to process answers or were fearful of making mistakes. They had developed ‘learnt helplessness’ (Hattie, 2012, p.112), gave up on challenging tasks and, instead, searched for distractions. I knew these pupils should be the focus of my attention.

Initially, when I explained to the class that I had been doing some reading and research over the holidays to become a better teacher, I asked them – in groups – to outline how they felt about working in groups in order to establish their perceived views of the pros and cons. This was not a wholly positive experience as children argued over who was writing, what to write and generally disagreed amongst themselves. Their comments included: ‘others may not let you do the work’; ‘you might lose your temper (get annoyed) and hurt people’s feelings’; ‘some people try to take control’; ‘you don’t get the work done’; ‘you can’t always use your ideas’; ‘there are too many ideas’ and ‘you have to work with boys/girls’. Additionally, some children expressed a preference for working independently and others acknowledged that sometimes people are left out of group work. During the task, I noticed that some children were indeed being left out; sitting back and allowing others to do the work for them, while others simply dominated their group.

During this project, I kept notes. I wrote a diary of what I was doing in my class and made myself stop at times to observe what was happening and to exchange brief observations with my TA about what she was noticing. Away from the class, I reflected upon these observations. At the end of the project, I distributed attitude surveys with a variety of question styles. I then interviewed a small selection of children in order to find out some of the reasons behind their answers.

I rearranged my class into ‘mixed’ ability teams of four. My reading had suggested that teams of four allow pupils to work most effectively (Lou et al., 1996), or even form pairs first and then join up to form teams of four – maximising expectation of participation (Kagan, 2007). Being in groups of four also meant pupils have easy access to each other and it allows for flexibility – sometimes pupils can work with their ‘shoulder’ partner, and at other times with their ‘face’ partner. Equally, the task might require that they work as a team.

Opportunities were planned for children to ‘find out’ about each other, and through a framework of various structures, which I taught and modelled, children created team names and hand-shakes (Kagan, 2007). In thinking through lesson objectives, I choose particular structures e.g. ‘Numbered Heads’, which created opportunities for children to talk about their learning and to coach each other, recognising the potential positive effects of peer tutoring – both for the tutor and the person being tutored (Hattie, 2012).

Across the curriculum, I encouraged pupils to share their thinking with their ‘shoulder partners’ and then with their opposite pair because I had read that ‘A good way to build awareness and improve thinking skills is to have students talk about what is going on inside their heads when they are approaching a task … asking questions, which encourages thinking and reinforces understanding, it is more effective than the common approach of giving praise.’ (Marshall, 2007, p. 197).


At the end of the two-term project, I conducted a survey using a five-point Likert Scale (strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree) to gather pupils’ opinions. I focused both on my class – a split Y3/4 class, which consisted of 26 children (Y3 included 8 girls and 4 boys, in Y4 there were 9 girls and 5 boys, five children had SEN) and a Maths set consisting of mainly Y4 children; with 14 boys and 15 girls.

I used a mixture of closed questions for children to rank using the Likert scale such as ‘working cooperatively requires me to think and process ideas more than in a usual classroom’ and more open ended questions, asking pupils to consider which skills they felt they had developed whilst using cooperative learning structures. Of course there are limitations to self-report surveys, but the results suggested that attitudes hadsubstantiallyimproved. 91% of pupils agreed – with 67% strongly agreeing – that working cooperatively encouraged them to test out their ideas with teammates; 95% agreed it required them to think and process ideas more than they would in a usual classroom; 91% agreed that cooperative learning had helped them to make better than expected progress; and 62% strongly agreed that it had helped them to learn about others.

Pupils enjoyed the variety of cooperative learning structures and were more positive about working in teams. Indeed, 86% recognised that it had developed their abilities to work in different teams. Their preferences for particular structures included Numbered Heads … ‘because everyone gets involved’; Round Robin … ‘because it gets everyone interacting in the group’; Pairs Compare and Rally Robin … ‘because I got some ideas down.’

Open-ended team building activities had provided opportunities for children to help and support each other. We were creating an environment of mutual support and trust, where children felt known, accepted and included. By modelling various social roles i.e. Encourager, Coach and Focus Keeper; relationships substantially improved and pupils were more accepting and showed a lower rate of rejection when creating new teams. Pupils were becoming part of a community of learners, and some of the less engaged children were developing their confidence and self-esteem; they were willing to share their ideas and were proud of their achievements.

Using Rally Coach, where one child tackles the problem with his/her partner watching, checking, coaching, praising, then switching roles, had allowed children to get formative feedback whilst they were solving the problem: immediate and supportive correction. Although a few of the more able children did feel as though the process had slowed them down, they were accustomed to racing through tasks to complete them – more familiar with a traditional classroom. In contrast, discussions and jottings from the lower attaining children showed that they had enjoyed the opportunity of working alongside others and felt that the support they had been given was worthwhile and had helped them to learn. This fitted in with earlier ideas I’d read about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD) wherein children are presented with tasks that they cannot do alone, but could achieve with a little coaching (MacBeath and Dempster 2009, p.13).

Pupils recognised that in using Cooperative Learning Structures, they had developed a range of other skills.  67% identified that their listening skills had improved; 72% cited increased confidence; 62% stated improvements in concentration; 76% recognised that they were better at ‘piggy-backing’ (listening to others and developing their ideas) and 57% felt that they had developed the skills of being able to encourage others.

When asked to reflect on what they enjoyed about working in teams, many recorded that if they got stuck on a problem, they could immediately ask another person, they can ‘get coached’: ‘she did not just tell me the answer, she helped me to get there.’ Others stated simply that they had fun. Some children suggested that as a team they had ‘more ideas’ and liked being able to ‘talk with others’ and that working in teams had helped them ‘get to know more people’. Another child made the comment that she liked having people to ‘encourage me and to be there for me.’ A child who really struggled to share his ideas and to take on board others’ ideas commented that he had become more flexible. A boy with low self-esteem recorded that working in teams had helped him to learn. Another Y3 girl commented that working in teams had helped her to ‘concentrate and listen.’ This was a much more positive picture than at the start.

When asked about drawbacks, some pupils identified that they didn’t get as much done; it was tricky to concentrate. A high-achieving Y4 child was concerned that working in teams meant that ‘sometimes people steal your ideas.’ However, she also noted that it allowed her to develop the skills of ‘piggy-backing’ on others’ ideas and taking them further. Two boys, who had been identified as causes for concern at the start of the year because both appeared to be quite passive, reported that cooperative learning was a ‘good idea’ and saw no drawbacks to working in teams.

Pupil responses had notably changed during the project. There was more engagement from all children, and they had developed a broad range of other skills. They knew each other well and were generally much happier to work alongside anyone. All children made progress, with some pupils across the ability range making better than expected progress. In addition, several pupils’ handwriting had significantly improved simply as a result of sitting next to another and emulating thosewho demonstrated a fluent, joined style (Kagan 2007 p4.7).

In terms of attainment, since there was no control group, any consideration of results needs to take into account that improvements may have been caused by factors other than the new approach. However, when comparing the data in the summer term, using formal assessments against the half-term assessments in October, many of the higher attaining pupils in Y3 and Y4 had made 6 points of progress with lower attaining Y3 pupils making between 4-6 points progress.


The project demonstrated the importance of designing activities and posing questions which encourage pupils to talk in pairs and to compare ideas within their teams. The structures set out by Kagan (2007) provide a clear framework and build in skills of turn-taking so that pupils learn how to interact.  They allow for and encourage positive interdependence yet individual accountability; equal participation and maybe most importantly simultaneous interaction.

Hattie (2012, p. 71) argues that children ‘can be cruel to those who exhibit a ‘do not know’ approach so classrooms need to be carefully structured where students can work together to work out what they do not know so they can invest in progressing more efficiently and effectively to the success of a lesson.’ I witnessed the importance of pupils getting to know each other and building a sense of trust between themselves so that errors were tolerated, even welcomed. And pupils, who had appeared to lack focus, were now engaged, exchanging ideas, learning and were more confident about speaking out and explaining their ideas.

  • Hattie J (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers. London: Routledge.
  • Johnson DW et al. (1994) New Circles of Learning. Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
  • Kagan S and Kagan M (2009) Kagan Cooperative Learning. Calle Amanecer: Kagan Publishing.
  • Kohn A (1993) Punished by Rewards. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Macbeath J and Dempster (2009) Connected Leadership and Learning – principles for practice. London: Routledge.
  • Marshall M (2007) Discipline Without Stress, Punishments or Rewards. California: Piper Press.
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