Usage of Mixed Ability in Social Studies

            Usage of Mixed Ability, Collaborative Learning Groups in Social Studies Classes

by Deidre Swoope

Creating interesting content that deepens critical thinking for social studies courses in high school is a daunting task. Middle and high school students express no interest in learning about the past because they see little impact of past events on their lives in the present. Students are often taught history through lecture and memorization of names, dates, and events. Little to no emphasis is placed on the ideas surrounding the names and dates. While the memorization of names and dates are important, creating lessons that allow students to develop a personal attachment to the historical content gives students a deeper understanding of the ideas surrounding the names and dates to be mastered.  Collaborative learning groups are an effective tool that creates both a social and emotional connection to the learning material. 

Collaborative learning is very effective in developing critical thinking and social skills amongst middle and high school students. Students learn to work together to reach a common academic goal. Students are placed in groups and are asked to complete an assignment as a group. Students learn to take responsibility for their own learning process. Additionally, they share in the responsibility in the learning of others in the group. This fosters a sense of community and gives students the opportunity to share in the success of the group. Students participate in deep discussions. This teaches each student the process of thinking critically (Parker 1979).

There are many reasons and instances where cooperative/collaborative learning is appropriate to use in the curriculum. Collaborative learning is appropriate when there are mixed ability students in a class. It is beneficial for students to work in mixed ability groups so that they can bring their individual abilities into the group to collaborate on ideas in order to reach a common goal. One particular item of research focuses on "project-based learning or active learning.” Active project based learning requires students to work in groups to create a report or other product. This is exceptionally good for students of all abilities. In a situation such as this, students work together toward a common, specific goal. 

Another item to use in the curriculum is "group study methods."  When students work in groups, they work together to "help one another master a relatively well-defined body of information or skills." Group study situations are very helpful for students because students are able to draw from a large body of ideas from group members." Students are responsible for achieving or exceeding group goals as well as group accountability. When students are able to reach a goal, such as a grade on a test, they feel the necessity to work toward group and individual accountability (Slavin 2015). Collaborative study groups provide opportunities for higher achievement levels. Cooperative teams retain information longer than students who work individually because they are working toward a collaborative purpose. 

A study conducted among students enrolled at Western Illinois University (Gokhale 2005) determined the effectiveness of working collaboratively in learning groups. Forty eight college students were broken into two groups of twenty four. Both groups were instructed to complete a worksheet. The project consisted of two parts. Students listened to a 50 minute lecture and given a worksheet. One group of students completed the worksheet individually, while the other group collaboratively as a group. The study found that students in the collaborative learning group performed significantly better on the critical thinking test than students who completed the assignment individually.

In my own classroom, I have noted how well students absorb material when utilizing cooperative learning groups. When assigning projects, the key factor has been awarding individual grades for group work. Built in to most of my group assignments is a rubric that combines a teacher evaluation, self-evaluation and group member evaluation. Each group member anonymously scores the other members. The final grade is an average of the three grades. Students are surprisingly honest about their peer’s level of participation. Most importantly, students are remarkably honest about their own performance as well. 


Gokhale, A. A. (2005). Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking. Journal of Technology Education, 7(1). doi:10.21061/jte.v7i1.a.2

Parker, S. T. (1979). : Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. L. S. Vygotsky. American Anthropologist, 81(4), 956-957. doi:10.1525/aa.1979.81.4.02a00580

Slavin, R. E. (2015). Educational Psychology: Theory and practice. New Jersey: Pearson.

Deidre Swoope is in her twelfth year of teaching. She began her teaching career in Decatur, Alabama. She was previously assistant professor of History at Oakwood University and currently teaches US, African American and World History at Oakwood Adventist Academy. She believes that teaching is reciprocal and everyone has experience that is invaluable to those around them.