Should individual differences be considered in education?

Individual differences are bound to occur within a classroom. This week I will be discussing whether this should be taken into consideration in education and whether action should be taken in order to reduce or to accommodate the variability among students or whether everyone should be educated in an equal manner.

An example of individual variance in education occurs when analysing the effects of gender differences. It has been documented that girls have increasingly performed better than boys in public exam sessions. In 1996, in England and Wales, girls performed significantly better than boys in 15 of the most popular GCSE subjects and in 13 of the most popular A levels subjects.

Today, individual differences are considered in most schools ans in this blog I will be discussing in particular the effects of grouping in education based on students’ academic abilities and whether this is beneficial for the students.

Ability grouping is the practice of creating different groups of students based on their abilities and achievements in order to provide instruction that is specifically relevant to each particular group’s needs. Although ability grouping has become a standard educational practice in most schools, it inspires heated debates extensive research and much controversy. Moreover, according to Huitt (1997) there are two main approaches to grouping:

1.Between-class Ability Grouping

Between-class grouping refers to the system in which students are separated into different classes based on their ability levels (Davdson, 2013). This system is used much more in secondary schools than in primary schools, in fact it has become the standard in most secondary schools today (VanderHart, 2006).

Research does not support this strategy in terms of beneficial learning to all students. It has been found that only the students that are assigned to the top level of the group seem to benefit and that those assigned to the middle and lower ability levels do not (Davidson, 2013). This undoubtedly raises a question of equality. Furthermore between-class ability grouping has been labelled as a tool of discrimination against students who are economically disadvantaged or are members of minority groups. These students are said to often be placed in groups where opportunities for academically based education is significantly limited and vocational training takes priority (Roberts & Inman, 2007).

However, research studies supporting the between-ability grouping system argues that it provides students with appropriate targeted instruction for their specific academic abilities. They also argue that lower-achieving students are able to ask questions without the risk of embarrassment in front of their higher-achieving peers and that the higher achieving students can benefit from more in-depth education, whereas the lower achievers can benefit from more extensive coverage of the core topics. However this raises issues regarding the lower-achieving groups receiving a lower quality of education than the higher-achieving groups (Davidson, 2013).

2.Within-class Ability Grouping

Within-class grouping is the practice of dividing a class of students with diverse abilities into groups based on ability and achievement level.The purpose of this is in order to provide appropriate specific instruction to high achieving students and to provide more assistance to the lower achieving students.This system is used much more often in primary schools than in secondary schools (VanderHart, 2006). 

On the whole, research tends to support within-class ability grouping and find that it is beneficial to the learning of most students. However many research studies also argue against ability grouping because of concern for the psychological and social well-being of the students, especially those that are placed in the lower-achieving groups. This can potentially lead to students feeling unsure of their academic potential, losing their sense of self-esteem and developing a low self-expectation (Davidson, 2013).

After studying both sides of the on-going debate whether individual differences should be classed into separate groups or not I have come to my own conclusion that I do believe that the grouping system is beneficial to students. As many researchers have previously suggested, placing students in groups based on their academic abilities provide the lower-achieving students with the appropriate education that they are able to process whilst providing the higher-achieving students who have shown to have more academic ability with more in-depth coverage of the course content (Davidson, 2013).


Davidson. H. (2013). Ability Grouping. The Gale Group. Retrieved from on February 2013.

Huitt, W. (1997). Considering individual differences. Educational Psychology Interactive.Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from on February 2013. 

Roberts, J. L., & Inman, T. F. (2007). Strategies for differentiating instruction: Best practices for the classroom. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

VanderHart, P. G. (2006). Why do some schools group by ability? Some evidence from the NAEP. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 65(2), 435–463.


6 thoughts on “Should individual differences be considered in education?

  1. I found your blog very interesting to read and reminded me of the ability grouping when I was in primary school. Certain students were taken out of class every day for an hour or two in the afternoon in order to improve their literacy/maths skills. We also had ‘houses’ or ‘group colours’ which I know realise were for the level of our abilities.

    I feel very strongly that this type of grouping of individual differences does not improve children’s self-esteem, nor does it promote equality. The only thing it may do is increase academic achievement, in my opinion. Riding (2007) highlights how individual differences have severe implications on the effects of education interventions and treatments of learning disabilities. WE need to look at these individuals in order to move research forward. Arnot et al (1998) state and quote “blanket statements about girls performing better than boys or vice versa are difficult to justify; reference should always be made to a specific aspect of the curriculum”. I feel that this points to the fact that gender differences are not an individual difference that is talked about or researched in discretion.

    In the research by VanderHart (2006), which you have commented on, has enabled me to point out some realistic evidence of my own. In the school in which I work there is within-class ability grouping, and it allows for these children to have assistance during certain subject work; ie, Literacy – writing, reading and spelling. I think research should be included on socio-economic status and environmental and cultural differences in order to provide greater evidence to support individual differences being considered in education.

    Arnot, M., Gray, J., James, M. & Rudduck, J. (l998) A Review of Recent Research on Gender and Educational Performance, OFSTED research series, London: The Stationery Office.

    Riding, R. (2005). Individual Differences and Educational Performance. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 659-672.

    VanderHart, P. G. (2006). Why do some schools group by ability? Some evidence from the NAEP. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 65(2), 435–463.

  2. Ffion,

    Interesting blog 🙂 This topic really jumped out at me because I think I will forever remember my GSCE maths teacher telling my (2nd tier) class that we would not be able to achieve an A*, because she was simply going to leave out the information needed because we weren’t as quick as the top set. I ended up with an A and will always be bitter about being held back!
    As there is such a hige range of abilities present in the school system, I will focus on the higher end of the spectrum in disscussion with your blog. In terms of between class group ability, like you said, there is strong evidence that this is beneficial to top-grade/gifted students and reports show that the students believe this to be true as well (Adams, Whitsell & Moon 2004). For a teacher to cater the curriculum for every ability in one classroom must be a huge task for within class group ability. It has also been found that when student’s are challenged they perform to the best of their abilities, because deeper processing is occuring. This has been shown to be as simple as varying the settings in which learning takes place (Smith, Glenberg, & Bjork, 1978). Further in support is Bjork & Bjork (1992) ‘new theory of disuse’ model, in which they argue there is a direct link between retrieval strength, the immediate accessibility of some knowledge at any given moment and storage strength (the measure of how many times that knowledge has been accessed over the long term); meaning that making learning too easy can cause an individual to simply skim the information, rather than process and therefore understand it. This may very well be the case in many highly academic students who are placed in within class group ability classrooms, where it has been found they get bored and therefore start majorly underachieving, because they are not being pushed (Kanevsky & Keighley 2003).

    Adams, B., Whitsell, S., & Moon, S. (2004) Gifted Students’ Perceptions of the Academic and Social/Emotional Effects of Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Grouping Gifted Child Quarterly Winter 2004 48: 7-20.

    Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342-353.

    Kanevsky, L., & Keighley, T. (2003). To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honor in underachievement. Roeper Review, 26(1), 20-28.

  3. One wonders why the research suggests that between-class ability grouping is only beneficial to students at the higher end of the ability spectrum. There is evidence to suggest that teacher’s perceptions of student’s ability has a strong influence on their academic achievement (Jussim & Eccles, 1992), research which showed changes in performance based on changing expectations (so the study did not simply demonstrate that teachers accurately assess student achievement rates). In fact, Miller & Turnbull (1986) stated that teacher expectations have a stronger effect on student performance than their actual achievement has on teacher’s perceptions. If you look at this issue from a social constructivist perspective, which states that social perception is powerful, and interchanges based on biases can construct and influence actual reality (Hamilton et al., 1990). Grouping students in this way creates opportunities for these perceptions to shape the reality of student success, and may explain why there it benefits high achieving students but not those in the lower groups. These perceptions are likely to persist on an individual level between students and their teachers, regardless if they are grouped or not. Perhaps this is a matter for a teaching style which encourages students in all subsets to reach their full potential, rather than eliminate ability groups (which, as you state, allows children to learn at a level suited for them).

    Hamilton, D. L., Sherman, S. J., & Ruvolo, C. M. (1990). Stereotype‐based expectancies: Effects on information processing and social behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 46(2), 35-60.

    Jussim, L., & Eccles, J. S. (1992). Teacher expectations: II. Construction and reflection of student achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 63(6), 947.

    Miller, D. T., & Turnbull, W. (1986). Expectancies and interpersonal processes. Annual review of psychology, 37(1), 233-256.

  4. I believe that grouping can work if done correctly, I have been to schools with age grouping and ability grouping and although, yes, an individuals self esteem can be effected I still strongly believe that a separate method for ensuring that all students are treated fairly and with respect can achieve more with ability grouping than with age grouping.

    Piaget’s (1973) theory of cognitive development suggest that neurological changes occur at different time for individuals. Therefore it does not make sense for individuals to learn subjects at the same time and level if not every part of their brain is up to it.

    Thatcher et al. (1987) studied 557 normal children and found that various brain structures developed at different rates.

    As well as this Slavin (1987) studied the effects of the ability grouping approach in primary schools. He found that ability grouping was a success when students were only grouped for a few of the subjects they were taking but left in there regular age groups for the rest of their classes.

    I personally believe that more research should be studied in this area to prove ability groupings worth over age grouping. However I do think that this is a suitable change for educational reform.

    Thatcher, R. W.; Walker, R. A.; Giudice, S. Human cerebral hemispheres develop at different rates and ages. Science, Vol 236(4805), 1110-1113. doi: 10.1126/science.3576224

    Slavin, R. (1987). Ability grouping and student achievement in elementary schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 57(3), 293-336.

    Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1972). The Psychology of the Child (Vol. 5001). Basic Books.

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