Is Multi-Age Grouping Beneficial to Middle School Students?

Is Multi-Age Grouping Beneficial to Middle School Students?

What is the rationale for multi-age grouping? How is it defined and what are its characteristics? Are there academic benefits from such an organizational configuration? Are there affective benefits for students? Is classroom climate affected by multi-age grouping? Are there problems and concerns associated with multi-age grouping? These are the types of questions that formed the basis for this research summary of multi-age grouping in the middle level.

Types of Multi-Age Grouping

Multi-age is a term commonly used today to describe mixed-age groups. In most cases where this term is applied to the grouping pattern, it is driven by pedagogical rather than economic reasons (McLaughlin & Doda 1997). Miller’s (1996) definition clarifies the meaning of multi-age for the purposes of this research summary: “I use multi-age to mean two or more grade levels that have been intentionally blended together to improve learning” (p.12). Multi-age differs slightly from ungraded or non-graded grouping, which does not differentiate between different grade levels and does allow for students’ continuous progress through the curriculum (McLaughlin & Doda 1997).

Multi-age grouping may be implemented for institutional or pedagogical reasons by the administration of the school, but the outcome is that students are able to interact across age groups and have long-term relationships with other students and teachers. In a multi-age middle school program students from more than one grade level learn side by side. The oldest students eventually move on and are replaced by a new group of younger students each year.

Looping is a popular elementary school practice somewhat similar to multi-age grouping. However, in looping, students from a single grade level remain with the same teacher for more than one school year. At the end of the time, the teacher loops back to the same grade as at the start. It is an old notion, reminiscent of the one-room schoolhouse. Why is this concept emerging again? Robert Lincoln at Tolland Middle School, Tolland, Connecticut, is hoping that a two-year experience with the same teachers and students remaining together can produce improved relationships and increased academic time. Allowing teachers and students to work together for more than one year has many potential advantages: long lasting, trusting relationships, fewer classroom management problems, and teacher accountability for student growth. “Because they know they will see each other again in September, it is hoped that positive parent teacher relationships, and home/school partnerships will be formed.” (Lincoln, 1997).

Developmental grouping is a form of multi-age grouping. Students are grouped by developmental indicators, regardless of grade level. Based on the work of Eichhorn (1966), this plan encourages the formation of communities in a middle school that share common developmental needs and concerns in a mixed-age setting. For example, Spring Hill Middle School in Spring Hill, Florida was designed to accommodate this developmental philosophy. The students were organized into learning units or communities with the fifth and developmentally younger sixth graders in one unit, the next group housed older sixth and younger seventh graders, and the third community contained older seventh graders and eighth graders. Each child spent two years with the same group of teachers and peers (Eichhorn, 1966).

Research on Grouping and Academic Achievement

Research on multi-age grouping at the middle level is scarce. The majority of the research on multi- age classrooms has been at the elementary level. Reviews of the research by Ansah (1989), Slavin (1984), Miller (1990; 1991), Pavan (1992), Gutierrez and Slavin (1992), and Veenman (1995) are particularly valuable resources. Ansah (1989), reviewed the literature specifically for the relationship between multi-grade grouping and academic achievement. Miller (1990, 1991) summarized the findings of quantitative and qualitative research summaries on multi-age grouping. His work included data from rural schools. Slavin (1984) and Gutierrez and Slavin (1992) differentiated the “Joplin” grouping plans in which students are regrouped for reading with grouping plans that mix students across ages for some or all of their classes and use small group or whole class instruction strategies, and “individualized” instructions plans. Pavan (1992) described the use of multi-age classrooms as a set of instructional practices, such as cooperative learning and peer tutoring, not just an organizational plan. Veenman (1995) incorporated international studies in his review of literature while he distinguished between multi-age classrooms and multi-age grouping.

The research findings provided both positive and neutral effects of multi-age and multi-grade grouping. Ansah, (1989) found that some children seem to benefit from multi-grade classes while others seem to do better in single-grade classes. There was evidence that educators who are faced with declining enrollments are taking another look at ways in which children should be grouped. But, citing a Canadian study conducted by Brown and Martin (1989), Ansah noted no differences in achievement between students and their matched counterparts. Ansah also noted findings that suggest multi-grade grouping does tend to be associated with better self-concept and attitude toward school (Pratt, 1983).

Gutierrez and Slavin (1992), Pavan (1992) and Miller, (1990) found that children in non-graded classrooms fare as well or better than children in single-graded classrooms on standardized measures of achievement. Pavan’s review (1992) found that students in multi-graded settings did as well as, or outperformed, students in single-graded classrooms. This is noteworthy because many have challenged the view that students in multi-grade settings could achieve at a par with students in traditionally graded classes. Veenman (1995) conducted an analysis of 56 international studies of the cognitive and non-cognitive relationship of multi-age classrooms and achievement. He concluded that the effects were neutral.

Research on Multi-age Grouping and Social/Psychological Outcomes

The most profound findings in the survey of the research of multi-age educational grouping is the positive impact on self esteem and a feeling of bonding within the group when students work together for more than one year. Way (1979) studied the effects of multi-age classes on achievement and self-concept. No significant differences were found between multi-age and single-age classes in achievement, but the students in multi-age classes had higher mean scores on tests for self-concept. Specifically, the practice yielded benefits for students in the affective domain. Pratt (1993) concluded that multi-age classrooms are “socially and psychologically healthy places” because they promote “children’s friendships and provide extended contact with adults and peers of varying ages.” (p.114). These studies tended to associate better self-concept with a positive attitude toward school. Miller (1989) concluded that neither academic performance nor social relationships and attitudes were negatively affected by multi-age grouping. For affective issues, students from the multi-grade settings outperformed single-grade students on more than 75 percent of the measures tested (Miller, 1989, p.13). Another outcome of this sense of community in multi-age classes is that fewer students have discipline referrals (Pavan, 1992).

Multi-age settings where older children have the opportunity to tutor younger children have produced promising outcomes. Pratt (1983) summarized evidence from both experimental and ethnographic research on the merits of multi-age groupings in the affective and social skill areas. He concluded that both the younger students and the tutors benefited from the experiences. French, Waas, Stright, and Baker (1986) found that in the multi-age/multi-year structures more students had the opportunity to be leaders, including older students who otherwise might not have assumed leadership positions.

Miller’s (1991) review of qualitative studies suggests that most teachers believed that teaching in a multi-age classroom was more difficult than teaching in a single-grade situation, and that it required special preparation in unit production, classroom organization, and individualizing and differentiating curriculum. Some teachers were concerned about the demands of teaching different ages and developmentally different students in the same classroom. It is an opportunity for teachers to present and develop a curriculum articulated across the years and it can provide what Miller (1995) calls “social and academic continuity” (p. 94). Teaching multi-age students for multiple years provides teachers with the opportunity to get to know their students and the students’ families better than does teaching students in a one-year cycle.


At this time, individuals must draw their own conclusions about the degree to which the research on multi-age grouping is educationally valuable at the middle level. Current research findings about the academic benefits of multi-age grouping at the middle level are inconclusive. The academic findings are generally positive or neutral, rather than negative. Current research does conclude that multi-age grouping provides affective advantages. It enhances students’ self-esteem, decreases behavioral referrals, reduces the effects of labeling, encourages the formation of close communities, and leads to social and academic continuity. Generally, specific research between these types of affective variables and academic achievement is positive, thus increasing the likelihood that future research at the middle level will solidify the relationship between the multi-age process of grouping and student achievement. The critical variable in achievement research is usually the nature of the instructional process, not the nature of the organizational process. Studies that control for instructional processes within multi-age grouping settings and single-age grouping settings are needed before conclusive evidence is available about the impact of multi-age grouping on achievement in the middle school.

Author’s note

McLaughlin and Doda address multi-age grouping in Chapter 6 of NMSA’s 1997 publication What Current Research Says to the Middle Level Practitioner, edited by Judith Irvin. Their chapter, entitled “Teaching with Time on Your Side: Developing Long-Term Relationships in Schools,” is an excellent summary of the research about long-term relationships in middle schools, including multi-age grouping. We encourage readers of this Research Summary to read the McLaughlin and Doda chapter.Staub and Peck (1995) identified five outcomes of inclusion for non-disabled students: 1) reduced fear of human differences accompanied by increased awareness, 2) growth in social cognition, 3) improvements in self-concept, 4) development of personal principles, and 5) warm and caring friendships. A common concern of parents of non-disabled students is, “Will non-disabled children lose teacher time and attention?” as a result of inclusion. A study by Hollowood, Salisbury, Rainforth, and Palomboro (1994) indicated that the presence of students with severe disabilities had no effect on levels of allocated or engaged time. They also reported that time lost to interruptions of instruction was not significantly different between inclusive and non-inclusive classrooms.

  • Ansah, V. (1989). Multi-grouping and academic achievement. (ERIC Document ED315163).
  • Brown, K., & Martin, A. (1989). Student achievement in multi-grade and single grade classes. Education Canada.
  • Eichhorn, D. H. (1966). The middle school. New York: Center for Applied Research in Education.
  • French, D. C., Waas, G. A., Straight, A. L., & Baker, J. A. (1986). Leadership asymmetries in mixed-age children’s groups. Child Development, 57(5), 1277-1283.
  • Gutierrez, R., & Slavin, R. E. (1992). Achievement effects of non-graded elementary schools: A best evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 62(4), 333-334.
  • Lincoln, R. D. (1997). Multi-year instruction: Establishing student teacher relationships. Schools in the Middle, 6(3) 50-52.
  • McLaughlin, J. H., & Doda, N. M. (1997). Teaching with time on your side: Developing long-term relationships in schools. In J. Irvin (Ed.). What current research says to the middle level practitioner. (pp. 57-71). Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
  • Miller, B. A. (1996). A basic understanding of multi-age grouping. The School Administrator, 53(1), 12-17.
  • Miller, B. A. (1989). The multi-grade classroom: A resource handbook for small rural schools. Portland: Northwest Regional Educational Lab. (ERIC Document ED320719).
  • Miller, B. A. (1991). A review of qualitative research on multi-grade instruction. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 7(2), 3-12
  • Miller, B. A. (1990). A review of quantitative research on multi-grade instruction. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 7(1), 1-8.
  • Miller, W. (1995). Are multi-age grouping practices a missing link in the educational reform debate? NASSP Bulletin, 79(568), 27-32
  • Pavan, B. N. (1992). The benefits of non-graded schools. Educational Leadership, 50(2), 22-25.
  • Pratt, D. (1986). On the merits of multi-age classrooms. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 3(3), 111-115.
  • Pratt, D. (1983). Age segregation in schools. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (ERIC Document ED231033).
  • Slavin, R. E. (1988). Synthesis of research on grouping in elementary and secondary schools. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 67-77.
  • Veenman, S. (1995). Cognitive and noncognitive effects of multi-grade and multi-age classes: A best evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(4), 319-381.
  • Way, J. (1979). The effect of multi-age grouping on achievement and self-concept. (ERIC Document ED174593).
Research Summary Coordination/Preparation

This Research Summary was developed by the staff of the Middle Level Leadership Center (MLLC). The mission of the Center is to provide research and service to middle level education. To accomplish that mission, Center staff members work with national organizations, such as National Middle School Association, to disseminate research information about middle level education. MLLC is a program in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia.


The authors of this research summary were:

Kathy Unrath, MLLC research assistant
Tara Robertson, middle school teacher and MLLC research assistant
Jerry Valentine, Professor and Center Director


The authors wish to thank Dr. Nancy Doda of National-Louis University, Dr. Joanne Arhar of Kent State University, and Dr. Rebecca Hines of Southeast Missouri State University for serving as reviewers of this research summary. They both provided valuable suggestions in the refinement of this summary.


User Input

The authors of this summary have attempted to review all primary research available through mainstream research sources. Anyone with significant research, not cited in the existing summary and pertinent to the topic, can send a copy of said research to the Middle Level Leadership Center, 218 Hill Hall, University of Missouri for review and consideration in the update of the research summary.

Copyright 1999 National Middle School Association. Used on NCMLE web site with permission of NMSA.