How to Group Students Into Classrooms to Increase Overall Learning

Most principals and teachers know that classmates can affect a student’s learning, but they do not know how to arrange students across classrooms to optimize all students’ learning.

In their recently published paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Ming Ming Chiu, Bonnie Chow, and Sung Wook Joh’s (2017) study of 208,057 fourth-grade students in 40 countries showed that both classmate attributes and their distribution are linked to a student’s reading test scores.

On average, a student has higher reading test scores when classmates are from advantaged families (parents with better schooling, jobs, or incomes), have better reading attitudes, or have higher test scores. Chiu, Chow, and Joh argue that a student learns more when classmates are from privileged families, have more education materials (books, computers, etc.), and experiences (attend plays) to share.

The authors propose that classmates with better reading attitudes serve as role models for students with poorer reading attitudes to imitate. The authors also argue that classmates with more knowledge and skills can share them to help other students learn more.

When students with similar past reading test scores are placed into the same schools (streaming), current reading test scores are higher, consistent with teachers customizing their instruction for their students with similar aptitudes. However, when students with similar past reading test scores are grouped into the same classes within a school (tracking), current reading test scores are lower. This suggests that teachers do not prepare multiple lesson plans for different students with different abilities in similar courses.

Instead, when high- and low-achieving students were mixed together in classes within a school, they had higher reading scores, consistent with more help opportunities in which both the recipient and the helper learn more. On one hand, help recipients can benefit from the helper’s new information. On the other hand, when helpers explain ideas or answers to a classmate, they often elaborate or re-organize their knowledge to help the classmate understand, thereby improving their own understanding.

Furthermore, schools that mixed students with different family backgrounds or different reading attitudes into the same classroom had higher overall reading test scores. The authors propose that mixing students from different family backgrounds (schooling, jobs, or incomes) aids their learning from one another’s varied and diverse experiences.

The results are consistent with the view that mixing students with different reading attitudes helps them recognize classmates’ sharp differences in attitudes and positive and negative consequences (contrasting cases), which can help students appreciate the benefits of positive reading attitudes and thereby imitate them to learn more.


  • Chiu, M. M., Chow, B. W.-Y., & Joh, S. W. (2017). Streaming, tracking and reading achievement: A multilevel analysis of students in 40 countries. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(7), 915–934.

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Note: This article is in the Educational Psychology, School Psychology & Training topic area. View more articles in the Educational Psychology, School Psychology & Training topic area.

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