What is the typical classroom seating arrangement? Are students seated in neat rows, in a U shape, in small groups of 4 or 5, at tables or at desks?

Teachers have long recognized the power of grouping students together for a variety of reasons: to collaborate with each other on a project, for cooperative learning opportunities, to work with a small group of students on a particular skill and more. But how do teachers decide how to group students together, and when is a particular grouping structure best given the learning or task at hand?

Students can be grouped in pairs, triads, in groups of four or five, in heterogeneous or homogeneous groupings. Let's explore some of these grouping configurations and consider when, why and how to use them to maximize student learning.

Heterogeneous vs. homogeneous groupings

The question of whether to group students by ability levels is an interesting one and extends to the school level as well as the classroom level. Some schools have found it desirable to cluster students based on various factors, such as achievement levels or English proficiency levels.

The danger in this scenario, of course, is tracking students into lower grouping configurations that often suffer from lower expectations and the inability to escape to higher groups or levels of achievement. Some argue, however, that by grouping students together with similar needs, the teacher can more efficiently target those needs the students have in common and help the student to achieve at higher levels.

The consensus in the education community is to have classrooms that are heterogeneous, wherein each student can learn from other students in the class. This is by far the most common scenario in schools today. Within these classrooms, then, how are students grouped or seated?

Both heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings have their place in the classroom. The general recommendation is to use heterogeneous groupings as a default. Seat students near peers that vary in levels of achievement, proficiency, gender, etc.

For example, consider seating students in groups of four. These groups can be seated in a variety of formats: four students at a small table, four desks pushed together, or students seated in rows that have been designated as a small group that will work together in specific scenarios.

These heterogeneous groups should include one student that is high achieving, two students that achieve at an average level and one student that is lower achieving. The idea is that each student benefits from having the other students in the group. The richness of ideas and perspectives, as well as the shared learning help to benefit each student in the group.

Students in these groups can work together on a variety of tasks, including reading to each other, working with cooperative learning structures or group projects, as well as working independently. The teacher can then pull homogeneous groups of students for a variety of purposes.

Homogeneous groupings are a great way to help specific students with skills they need to work on. For example, you may have a group of high-achieving students come together to review their writing and expand on a particular aspect that you are working on, such as adding a counter claim to argumentative writing, increasing the number of citations, adding depth or details to the setting or characters, etc.

Another groups of students may need clarification on a particular skill in math. You might pull together a group of English learners with a particular proficiency level to preteach vocabulary. There are many reasons you could and should create homogeneous groupings.

It is important to keep in mind that these groups should be flexible groupings; students can enter and exit these groupings for a variety of reasons. Homogeneous groupings should reflect a particular need of the group of students. Because students have varying strengths and areas of need, these groupings should change to reflect those needs or strengths.

Random vs. intentional grouping

When grouping students either homogeneously or heterogeneously, consider the technique you will use to group them. In the past, teachers sometimes had names for the various leveled groups, and students quickly figured out who were the top students in the class and who were the lowest.

With flexible grouping strategies, students can be pulled into small groups for a variety of reasons. Teachers can simply call students by name to join a flexible, homogeneous group.

For random grouping of students, a multitude of tools and techniques exist to help teachers. Technology and simple-made or purchased tools are effective, as are simple techniques that do not require additional preparation. Several apps exist that can help with sorting and grouping students. Once a teacher has input the names of the students, the app will randomly sort students into groups of a designated number at the press of a button.

If technology use is limited in your classroom, other tools can be used. For example, teachers can create word cards with vocabulary words related to the area of study.

The teacher begins by writing a vocabulary word on an index card or similar slip of paper. On subsequent cards, the teacher writes synonyms, antonyms or otherwise related words. The students must then find the other students in the class who have the words that are related to their own word. Teachers may need to provide some vocabulary instruction on the related words if students are not familiar with them.

As an additional scaffold, and as an instructional activity, teachers can also color-code the words. Students with the same colored word need to find each other and discover how the words are related. Once students are in these groups, they can engage in other activities as well.

Teachers can also purchase collaboration cards to help them group students. These cards contain numbers, shapes, vocabulary and/or math problems that can be used to group students. For example, a teacher might say: "If you have a number 1 on your card, meet over here. All of the 2s will meet in this area,” and so forth. The teacher might have students group by shapes such as "circles meet with squares, and stars with triangles."

Teachers can also simply give specific criteria to group students randomly. For example, teachers might ask students to stand up and find someone in the room that has a similar color or style of shirt or shoes, has a birthday month adjacent to their own (December birthday can meet with someone with a November or January birthday), a similar number of siblings or other criteria.

Another technique is to have students go to one of the four corners of the room based on interest. For example, students can go to a corner that represents a favorite topic, author, vacation destination, future occupation interest, mathematical concept, cardinal direction, etc.

Each of these techniques requires that the teacher has a specific purpose for grouping the students. The purpose will dictate the number of students or participants per group.

Pairs, triads or groups of four or more

For students' "home" group, where they sit together for the majority of the time, it is recommended to have groups of four. With a group of four students, you can have two pairs or enough students to engage in a lively brainstorming activity where there are enough people to present a variety of ideas.

When the group gets to five students, the group may tend to split into two smaller groups of one pair and one triad, or a student may be too far away physically to hear everyone and may feel left our of the conversation. With groups of three, the conversation might be limited in scope.

That is not to say that triads are not an effective grouping size; triads can be beneficial for a variety of reasons. Triads serve the purpose of having more students participate in conversation at any given time. Because the group is smaller, more opportunities to take turns talking or sharing ideas exist.

Students can also be given specific roles, and at times only three roles are desired. For example, one student might be assigned to be the reader, one the writer and one the reporter. Roles can then be switched throughout the exercise.

Many teachers are familiar with pairing students, especially using the "Think-Pair-Share" technique or "Turn and Talk." These simple techniques can be used throughout a lesson to increase student interaction. Having students work in pairs has the benefit of 50 percent of the students in the classroom talking at the same time.

Having students practice a speech, review a set of vocabulary words or content concepts, make a prediction, or share a personal connection benefits students by having only one person to speak with. Connections or predictions can then be shared in small groups or with the whole class.

With any grouping strategy or technique, it is important to teach students how to interact with each other meaningfully. Simply having students talk in a group may not help them to reach the objectives for the lesson. In these scenarios you may have a student who dominates the conversation, for example, if specific structures are not put into place.

In order for students to have meaningful conversations, you will need to establish guidelines for who talks at what time, as well as the purpose of the conversation. Students might brainstorm a topic and randomly list ideas or they might take one idea and build on it in their group.

For more ideas on increasing language use through interaction opportunities in the classroom, please see this article.