What is Academic Teaming?

4th Grade Students

4th grade students interacting with their peers. Academic teaming allows students to become comfortable asking for help and helping others. Students have increased their academic and language skills.

Student-led academic teaming is a daily instructional model which involves students organized into small, diverse teams with clear protocols for engaging in standards-based academic work, as defined in the book The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming (Toth & Sousa, 2019). Academic teaming brings student ownership to the forefront through shifts in lesson-planning, classroom routines, instructional strategies, roles of the teacher and students, and expectations for students. Learning becomes a joint responsibility between students and educators, creating a more effective learning environment and a more enjoyable classroom and school culture. As students work with their peers for most of the lesson, academic teaming is the engine of learning. The teacher’s role shifts to designing rigorous tasks and providing mini-lessons on foundational content and skills, so students can then take responsibility for their own learning.

Unlike a student group, which is teacher-directed, an academic team is student-led, ultimately functioning with little direct guidance from the teacher. Academic teams are designed to empower students to take ownership of their own and their peers’ learning through a student accountability system and structures for peer support. Teams gradually take on some of the responsibilities traditionally held by the teacher, such as personalizing the learning to ensure learning is accessible and equitable among all team members and supporting their struggling peers. As students learn to self-regulate their behavior and rely on themselves and their peers for academic learning, teachers then have more time to focus on tracking the student learning. Teachers are freed up to provide additional support to those students not making progress to the lesson learning target, preventing achievement gaps before they happen. Through the student-led academic teaming model, all learners can thrive and experience high-quality rigorous instruction even in large general education classrooms. Students go beyond traditional peer interactions that ask them to pair up and process information they have learned from the teacher’s instruction—in academic teams, they can generate new learning and deepen understanding through authentic collaboration with their peers. Academic teaming is designed around four enabling conditions that originated from scientific research on successful teams, a concept which distinguishes academic teaming from other grouping strategies. Academic teaming operationalizes these four enabling conditions—defined team; roles and clear norms of conduct; clear and compelling purpose; and a supportive environment—as detailed in depth in The Power of Student Teams.

Academic teaming brings student ownership to the forefront through shifts in lesson-planning, classroom routines, instructional strategies, roles of the teacher and students, and expectations for students.

4th Grade Students

4th grade students. This year, these students are leaders in their schools and classrooms. The SEL skills they have learned through academic teaming have increased.

Student-led academic teaming can address a wide array of crucial issues including social and emotional learning, 21st-century skills, growth mindset, and equity and access. Academic teaming ensures that students’ “soft skills” development is not separate from the pursuit of cognitive rigor and academic standards—social, emotional, and cognitive learning are one combined effort. In studying academic teaming through the Learning Sciences International Applied Research Center, we have seen engagement skyrocket as students have the opportunity to share their thinking, respectfully challenge the thinking of their peers, and elevate their learning in teams. Academic teaming creates a classroom environment where students must develop their social and emotional skills, such as effective communication, around academic content. Time and again we have observed students who were once shy and non-participating become active communicators and valuable contributors to their teams. In their teams, students experience academic safety with their peers as the social bonds of the group mature. Their oral language skills and academic vocabulary develop more rapidly as their participation increases. Contrast this to many classrooms where students compliantly listen to the teacher with less verbal participation time.

Schools for Rigor High Schools

High school students who engaged in academic teaming through Schools for Rigor had a 37 percent improvement in reading and a 26 percent improvement in mathematics over the gains otherwise expected compared to matched control students.

Subgroup Gap Closed

Black students, students with disabilities (SWD), and English learners (EL) who engaged in academic teaming through Schools for Rigor reduced the achievement gap compared to matched control students.

Academic teaming has proven results, including a 10,000-student research study of a large urban district that implemented teaming and saw academic improvements of up to 37% over the gain otherwise expected compared to matched control students, as well as narrowing achievement gaps for ELL students, students with disabilities, and black students by 4-7%. Other data includes negative behavior referrals declining by 37% at a middle school and graduation rate gaps closing by over 20% at a high school. For evidence on how academic teaming increases equity and access for diverse student populations—including English Language Learners, students with special needs, students who have struggled behaviorally or academically, and students from low socio-economic households—see these figures and read the full case studies here. Educators who prioritize these results for their own students will want to learn how academic teaming can help them realize student outcomes not possible through traditional instruction.

North High School Graduation Rates

Des Moines Public School District, Des Moines, Iowa

The gap in graduation rates between special education students and general education students nearly closed after one year of academic teaming through Schools for Rigor.

Walnut Middle School Behavioral Referrals

Grand Island Public School District, Grand Island, Nebraska

Negative behavioral referrals declined by 37 percent and positive behavior referrals increased threefold after one year of academic teaming through Schools for Rigor.