K-12 Classrooms: Research Review of Multigrade, Multiage, Combination Classrooms

I don't usually delve into K-12 classroom-based research to any great extent. However, as my daughter's elementary school is starting a "redesign" process—and I heard arguments on both sides of the multigrade-classroom issue—I thought perhaps I'd give a quick look at the research available.

I had hoped that this would be a quick review, where I would find one or two definitive research reviews in scientific refereed journals, but unfortunately, the research base is rather frail and unclear.

Still, I think the following review does provide some wisdom about how to think about multiage classrooms.


Extent of Review             

I did a moderately quick review—not an exhaustive review—of a couple dozen recent research articles on multigrade classrooms.

This review was conducted in September and October of 2010.


Major Conclusions (See More Specific Recommendations Further Below):

The research, although being too scant and too difficult to interpret to make definitive recommendations, generally suggests that multigrade classroom approaches are not likely to produce results that differ substantially from single-grade classrooms.

Specifically, it is likely that the quality of the learning methods utilized and the teacher’s performance in the classroom makes more of difference than whether a multigrade or single-grade approach is utilized.

Multigrade teaching is generally considered more difficult and onerous than single-grade teaching.

If a multigrade approach is utilized, then it should be utilized with due diligence—providing teacher support and development, utilizing team teaching, encouraging many diagnostic opportunities (so that learning can be tailored to learner’s current levels), and so forth.



Researchers and practitioners use many labels for multigrade education, including the following: multigrade, multiage, mixed-age, vertical grouping, combination, composite, double-grade, split-grade, dual-age, hyphenated, nongraded, etc. These terms are often confused, redundant, etc., making researching and thinking about related issues difficult. In this report, I will use the following terms:

  • Single-grade classrooms are comprised of one grade.
  • Multigrade classrooms are comprised of two (or more) grades.
    • Combination Multigrade classrooms are multigrade classrooms that are utilized for logistical reasons.
    • Pedagogic Multigrade classrooms are multigrade classrooms that are utilized for pedagogic (learning-related) reasons.

Sometimes multigrade classrooms are created because of logistical reasons such as declining or uneven enrollments (Veenman, 1996; Burns & Mason, 2002; Mulryan-Kyne, 2007).

Sometimes multigrade classrooms are created for philosophical and pedagogical rationale. There are strong advocacy groups for pedagogic multigrade classrooms. Some of this advocacy is at odds with the research—in the sense that they claim overwhelming benefits for multigrade classrooms when the research is more balanced and uncertain (I noticed this myself in reviewing the research, but also see Burns & Mason, 1997).

It can be helpful to view classes on a continuum from single-grade classes, to combination multigrade classes, to pedagogic multigrade classes (See Mason & Burns, 1997). While many different arrangements are possible, we can talk in generalities as follows:

  • Single-grade classes have students only from one grade.
  • Combination multigrade classes have students from two (or more) grades and one teacher who teaches them.
  • Pedagogic multigrade classes have students from two (or more) grades but are taught by a team of teachers. Pedagogic multigrade classes also tend to be more focused on providing learners individually-tailored learning content than either single-grade or combination multigrade classes.

Teachers in combination multigrade classes are less likely to receive the support and structure they need than teachers in pedagogic multigrade classes (Mason & Burns, 1997).

Multigrade classrooms are not aberrations, but are used throughout the world, and are likely to continue and grow in use in the future (Mulryan-Kyne, 2007).


Quality of Available Research:     

Unfortunately, it seems that much of the available research is tainted by methodological weaknesses. Specifically, it appears that more experienced teachers tend to teach multi-age classrooms—so that when advantages appear in the educational results, those advantages may be due to teacher experience as opposed to the multi-age classroom itself. In addition, more affluent students are the ones who tend to be taught in multigrade classrooms—so that when research results show advantages, those could be due to socio-economic and educational advantages of parents as opposed to the multigrade classrooms.

Quotes from the Research:

“Effective research in the area of multiage education is still in its infancy.” From Kinsey (2001).

“The literature on multigrade teaching is relatively sparse, some of it anecdotal in nature and/or of poor quality.” From Mulryan-Kyne (2007).

“There is considerable evidence that principals, in an effort to reduce the burden on multigrade teachers, place more able, more independent, and more cooperative students in multigrade classes.” From Mason and Burns (1996). Note: This is relevant in that good results in comparison to single-age classrooms may be due to having better students in the class.

No studies in which students were randomly assigned to experimental and control groups were found.” From Veenman (1995). Note: While such random assignment is the gold standard in research, it is difficult to implement in the classroom.

“Because of the lack of distinction between combination and multiage/nongraded classes and the omission of important studies and methodological considerations, it appears that researchers have drawn overly optimistic and erroneous conclusions about the effects of combination classes.” From Mason & Burns (1997).

Conclusion based on Quality of Available Research:

These methodological weaknesses make firm conclusions difficult. Tentative conclusions are still possible.


Teaching is Often More Difficult in Multigrade Classrooms:            

It appears that teaching in a multigrade classroom is more difficult than teaching in a single-age classroom. This conclusion comes from those on all sides of the debate, so it is a fairly strong conclusion.

Quotes from the Research:

“It is commonly stated in the literature that multigrade teaching is more difficult than single grade teaching” From Mulryan-Kyne (2007).

“Multigrade classes hold instructional potential for some, but they are potentially onerous for most. Indeed, we argue that multigrade classes lead to a negative instructional effect and that they increase teachers' stress and may jeopardize teachers' motivation and commitment to teaching.” From Mason and Burns (1996).

“Most teachers, when asked about their feelings toward and organizational and teaching strategies for combination classes, responded negatively and preferred not to teach them.” From Mason and Burns (1995).

“The professional knowledge and skills that are relevant and necessary to teaching effectively in single-grade contexts are also relevant and necessary for effective multigrade teaching… However, many of these skills need heightened emphasis in the context of the preparation of teachers for multigrade teaching.” From Mulryan-Kyne (2007).

“[Teachers] report that these classes require more planning, are more difficult to teach, and diminish instruction and curriculum coverage.” From Mason & Burns (1997).

“We concluded that the difficulties teachers face in multigrade classes are centered around five problem areas: (a) the efficient use of instructional time, (b) the design of effective instruction, (c) classroom management, (d) the organization of independent practice or learning, and (e) the formulation of clear and collectively agreed-upon goals for making the multigrade school work.” From Veenman (1996).

“…multigrade teachers pressed for instructional time and the mastery of basic skills (e.g., reading, writing, and mathematics) might neglect science, social studies, and other subjects, which would lead to negative achievement effects in these areas.” From Mason & Burns (1996).


Academic Achievement Results from Multigrade Classrooms:

In the two most credible recent reviews of the research, the findings have shown no differences in academic achievement between multigrade classrooms and single-grade classrooms (Veenman, 1995; Mason & Burns, 1997). However, because of the likelihood that this research is tainted in having better students and teachers in multi-grade classrooms, it is possible that multigrade classrooms produce “at least small negative effects” (Mason & Burns, 1997).

Separating the results for combination multigrade classrooms and pedagogical multigrade classrooms is difficult because researchers haven’t always noted this difference. In Veenman’s (1995) review, both combination and pedagogic multigrade classrooms produced non-significant results—in other words, they were found to produce the same academic results as single-grade classrooms. However, as Mason and Burns (1996) pointed out, Veenman didn’t take into account some important potential biases. Mason and Burns write: “We conclude that multigrade classes have at least a small negative effect on achievement as well as potentially negative effects on teacher motivation.”

Unfortunately, in Mason and Burns (1997) follow-up research review, they only focused on combination multigrade classrooms—NOT pedagogic multigrade classrooms. Their results on combination multigrade classrooms were consistent with Veenman’s in finding no statistical differences, but they warned that “all things being equal, combination classes have at least small negative effects.” Such a negative outcome was found in a 2008 study of combination multigrade classrooms in California (Sims, 2008).

Conclusions on Academic Achievement:

The research is not definitive because there are factors that have not really been teased out as of yet.

In terms of academic results, the tentative conclusion is that multigrade classes on average are probably no better and no worse than single-grade classes, but if they are different from single-grade classes, they may be slightly worse.


Social/Emotional Results from Multi-age Classrooms:

Veenman’s (1995) research found that a majority of combination multigrade classes performed no better than single-grade classes in terms of attitudes towards school, self-concept, and personal and social adjustment.  Mason and Burns (1997) examination of combination multigrade classes found similar non-significant affective benefits.

For pedagogic multigrade classes, however, Veenman (1996) found a “very small” effect, showing slight benefits for pedagogic multigrade classes in terms of attitudes towards school, self-concept, and personal and social adjustment. Again, because of the potential biasing effects in terms of student and teacher selection, these results could be due to bias instead of any benefits for pedagogic multigrade classes.

Conclusions on Social/Emotional Results:

The research is not definitive because there are factors that have not really been teased out as of yet.

In terms of social/emotional results, the tentative conclusion is that multigrade classes on average are probably no better and no worse than single-grade classes. If there are very small benefits, they might be obtained in well-designed pedagogic multigrade classrooms—as opposed to logistically-driven combination multigrade classrooms.


Do some Students Benefit More than Others from Multigrade Classrooms?             

Although this was beyond the scope of my review—I did come across one recent study that dealt specifically with the question of how different types of students might be affected by a multigrade approach (Ong, Allison, & Haladyna, 2000).

First, it should be noted that in this one study, multigrade classrooms tended to outperform single-grade classrooms for all students, regardless of their background. Given that as background, the study found the following:

  • It found no differences between boys and girls.
  • It found that regular students seemed to benefit more from multigrade classrooms than disadvantaged students (that is, Title 1 students).
  • It found that overall non-Hispanic students seemed to benefit more from multigrade classrooms than Hispanic students.

Caveat: This was just one study and should be evaluated with caution.


Overall Recommendations Regarding Multigrade, Multiage, Combination Classrooms:         

The scarcity, frailty, and equivocation in the research make strong recommendations impossible. Instead, I offer these tentative ideas for consideration:

1. It is likely that the quality of the learning methods utilized and the teacher’s performance in the classroom makes more of difference than whether a multigrade or single-grade approach is utilized. Given this, it appears that choosing a multigrade approach would be acceptable, though the following points should also be kept in mind.

2. If a multigrade approach is utilized, then it should be utilized with due diligence—providing teacher support and development, utilizing team teaching, encouraging many diagnostic opportunities (so that learning can be tailored to learner’s current levels*), and so forth.

* Recent research indicates that teachers, tutors, and other learning professionals tend not to be very good at providing instructional explanations at learner’s appropriate levels—but that they can improve on this by specifically being informed of their learners’ level of understanding (Wittwer, Nückles, & Renkl, 2010).

3. Multigrade teaching seems to offer the possibility for alternative methods of learning, including group work targeted to different developmental levels. On the other hand, multigrade teaching by itself is no guarantee of good teaching methodology.

4. It should be recognized that multigrade teaching probably has costs associated with its use. Specifically, teachers may have to invest more effort and care in the process and may have a tendency to tradeoff other desirable educational goals.

5. In some forms of multigrade teaching, especially those that utilize team teaching, teachers have to learn the skill levels (in each discipline) of many more students. Because one of the most important aspects of teaching is providing learners with just the right level of instruction, this may cause students to be underserved at first as the teacher learns their students' skill levels. One way to ameliorate this problem is for students entering a multigrade cycle to be diagnosed through testing, problem solving, and other performance metrics early on. This “slow-start” issue has a flip side—because multigrade classes stretch into two (or more) years, students in subsequent years will probably experience accelerated learning due to deeper understanding of each student by teachers and hence better instructional scaffolding.

6. Teachers with less experience may be especially unprepared for multigrade teaching. With experience, teachers learn how to automate aspects of their classroom performance so that they can utilize their limited working memory capacity to focus on supporting their learners in learning (for example, differentiating their instruction, etc.). Newer teachers will be unlikely to provide the necessary instructional scaffolding to perform at a high level.

7. Students who have behavioral problems or who are less competent in learning may make the task of multigrade teaching more difficult. This may suggest that extra effort and guidance in the early grades is warranted or that a multigrade approach should be delayed until a time when most students are ready to engage fully in the process.


Research References:

Burns, R. & Mason, D. (2002). Class composition and student achievement in elementary schools. American Educational Research Journal, 39 (1), 207-233.

Burns, R. B., & Mason, D. A. (1998). Class formation and composition in elementary schools. American Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 739-772.

Kinsey, S. (2001). Multiage Grouping and Academic Achievement. ERIC Digest, January 2001.

Mason, D. A., & Burns, R. B. (1995). Teachers' views of combination classes. Journal of Educational Research, 89(1), 36-45.

Mason, D. A., & Burns, R. B. (1996). "Simply no worse and simply no better" may simply be wrong: A critique of Veenman's conclusion about multigrade classes. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 307-322.

Mason, D., & Burns, R. (1997). Reassessing the effects of combination classes. Educational Research and Evaluation, 3(1), 1–53.

Mulryan-Kyne, C. (2007). The preparation of teachers for multigrade teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23(4), 501-514.

Ong, W., Allison, J., & Haladyna, T. M. (2000). Student achievement of 3rd-graders in comparable single-age and multiage classrooms. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 14(2), 205-215.

Sims, D. (2008). A strategic response to class size reduction: Combination classes and student achievement in California. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(3), 457-478.

Veenman, S. (1995). Cognitive and noncognitive effects of multigrade and multi-age classes: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65, 319-381.

Veenman, S. (1996). Effects of multigrade and multi-age classes reconsidered. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 323-340.

Wittwer, J., Nückles, M., & Renkl, A. (2010). Using a diagnosis-based approach to individualize instructional explanations in computer-mediated communication. Educational Psychology Review, 22(1), 9-23.


Some of the articles reviewed but not cited:

Song, R.  Spradlin, T. E., & and Plucker, J. A. (2009). The Advantages and Disadvantages of Multiage Classrooms in the Era of NCLB Accountability. Education Policy Brief, 7, 1-7. Published by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy of Indiana University.

Why not cited:
This article is not from refereed journal so it may not have been fully vetted. Also, there are hints of bias in the article, for example, (a) providing invited proponents of multiage classrooms to describe its value, without providing a similar counterpoint, and (b) talking about the lack of good research but then plowing ahead with a list of the “benefits (perceived and real)” of multiage classrooms—so in a real sense the article ignores the research by plowing ahead to benefits. Still, I wouldn’t discount this article completely. Its research review seems good when it is limited to reviewing the actual research. Also, it makes recommendations that are mostly consistent with the findings contained in this review, so I can’t dismiss their conclusions. The bottom line is that this review does not add anything to a review of the research, and, because it is not vetted in a refereed journal and appears slightly biased, I think it safer not to cite it as separate evidence.

Hoffman, J. (2003). Multiage teachers beliefs and practices. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 18, 5-17.

Why not cited:
This article looked at only 4 teachers, all who had chosen to be teaching in multiage classrooms. It was really a descriptive research project and did not look at actual learning outcomes. No single-grade teachers were examined so we don’t really know how different results with single-grade teaching might be.

Linley, L. (1999). Multi-Age Classes and High Ability Students. Review of Educational Research, 69, 187-212.

Why not cited:
This article was a review of other reviews, not a review of research studies itself. Also, it focused only on high-ability students.

Gerard, M. (2005). Bridging the gap: Understanding young children’s thinking in multiage groups. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 19, 243-250.

Why not cited:
This article utilized an incredibly biased research design. It took one classroom at one school that used multiage grouping and compared it on standardized exams with the national average.

Mariano, S., & Kirby N. (2009). Achievement of Students in Multigrade Classrooms Evidence from the Los Angeles Unified School District. From the RAND Education Working Paper Series (WR-685-IES).

Why not cited:
This article is not from refereed journal so it may not have been fully vetted. It also uses somewhat opaque statistical methods to estimate findings, not looking directly at actual comparisons between multigrade and single-grade classrooms. I must admit that I don’t fully understand all the statistical employments utilized (for example, “doubly robust regression,” “non-parametric generalized boosting,” “the Kolmogorov-Smirnov (K-S) statistic”). Thus, I may be missing the full implications of the research employed.