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Student Learning Groups: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Updated 01/2014

OK kids, we are going to be learning in groups today! Each group needs a math checker, a presenter, a writer/editor, and an illustrator. You decide who does what. You will be reviewing the best ways to solve polynomial problems.

Please pull out the instructions and the rubric for this assignment. As a group, your task is to create a one page, step-by-step process that some one could follow to arrive at a solution...

...You have 15 minutes to complete this task according to the rubric that I have handed out.

Ready, set, go!

The teacher then spends the next 15 minutes roving about the classroom, reviewing the progress of each group, and asking probing questions to help the individual groups clarify their thinking.

Grouping sounds so easy. What we don't see in the above example is how the teacher has organized students in the groups in order to achieve the best results. Some educators firmly believe that a teacher must mix the groups so that students of all levels are represented in each group (heterogeneous grouping of students), while others believe that a teacher must organize the students by ability levels (homogeneous grouping of students). Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock, in their familiar work, Classroom Instruction That Works, explain that there are advantages to both methods depending on what the teacher wants to do.

Identifying Purposes

If the purpose of the group learning activity is to help struggling students, then the research shows that heterogeneous groups may help most. On the other hand, if the purpose of the group learning activity is to encourage medium ability groups to learn at high levels then homogeneous grouping would be better.

I learned this as a teacher when one of my gifted and talented students told me in confidence that she really hated being in heterogeneous groups (she said it differently of course) all the time because by default, the other members of the group expected her to be the leader, organize things and do all of the work.

This was my "tipping point" because it made me realize that I wasn't grouping students for increased learning. I was using grouping mainly as a discipline management tool and that in actuality my attempt to increase student engagement had completely backfired. By always making sure that the "smart" students and the struggling students were equally divided in the groups, I was actually limiting the student participation to the defacto leaders of the groups.

Deciding Which is Best

Because of this epiphany, I remember vowing that I would further differentiate my teaching by also seeking ways to give the upper-level students challenging and engaging learning activities. I promised to stop using the "good kids" in the hopes that some of their "goodness" would rub off on the other students. An interesting thing happened when I ability grouped the students. New leadership structures formed, and students who had never actively participated in groups before, all of the sudden demonstrated skills and creativity that I never knew they had.

Students are smart and they can easily figure out what we are really doing. Students, in our classrooms, know when they are being grouped to mainly tutor and remediate less capable students and... most of the time they resent it. We can also "tick them off" when we form groups solely for discipline purposes by placing the calm, obedient students in each group to separate and calm down the unruly ones. My daughter Mercedes, who falls in both categories above, stated that when teachers do this to her, she doesn't learn and it is not fun for her or the other students. Perhaps more often than not, students are savvy enough to play along when they recognize that the grouping is nothing more than a routine way to spend the time and has no real learning purpose at all.

If given a choice, students prefer to learning in groups of their peers and friends (homogeneous groups), but they also appreciate getting to know and learn from other members of the classroom. This requires that we trust students to make good decisions and we hold them accountable for following the norms of learning in groups.

Effective learning in groups must have at least the following elements (Marzano, et. al, pages 85-86):

  • They must include every member of the group
  • Each person has a valid job to perform with a known standard of completion
  • Each member is invested in completing the task or learning goal
  • Each member is accountable individually and collectively

Remember that the desks are not attached to the floor and we can mix things up in heterogeneous and homogeneous groups in interesting and creative ways: eye color, left or right handedness, preferred pizza toppings, number of siblings, music preferences, gender, nationality, hair length, shoe laces, genetic traits, learning styles, etc.

How do your students find success in group-learning?

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Danielle Strickland:

You are correct about letting students choose the groups sometimes. I remember a study done with junior high aged students. They allowed the students to eat whatever they wanted to eat from a table that contained all the sweets, goodies, fast foods, ice cream etc... stuff that is bad for you, and it also contained good food, vegetables, breads, meats, potatoes, fruits etc...the good stuff. After a week, the students started choosing the good stuff more than the bad stuff. Especially if you tell the students before hand (prime the pump) "You might want to look for students with a writing talent to be in your group" or something like that.

More detail:...Research shows that having any group is better than no group. So that is a start. Next, if the learning activity is challenging and difficult, you may want to consider homogenous groups (see Jacks forest navigation example). If the activity is review, or spiraling old information, then heterogeneous groups will help fill in the gaps for all students.

Don't forget that you can group creatively which gives different reasons to perform. For example. If you ask the students to stand in the corner that represents their personal thoughts on a topic, for example, What is the best pizza topping?...then those four groups come up with a creative way to market their favorite topping on pizzas. This is homogenous grouping by pizza topping, but heterogeneous according to skills, etc...

Have fun with this and good luck!

Good thoughts!

Ben Johnson

San Antonio, TX

[quote]Your idea of grouping sounds very close to a literature circle model, I learned about in college. I plan to implement specific jobs within groups as you mentioned. Is it best for you to assign jobs or to have students select jobs? I am working with 2nd graders this year for the first time and have been struggling with how to group my students in seating arrangements. Perhaps for seating, I will use heterogeneous groups. This would provide students with an opportunity to work together as needed. I use an "Ask three before me" policy in my classroom. It is apparent that almost all students know who can give them the right answer. I often tell my students that you are not giving away your answers but helping them find their own. Then for actually group work, I would use homogeneous so that i can provide students with differentiated lessons. Students that need enrichment would complete an assignment that met their learning goals. Students on the other end of the spectrum would receive enrichment in a skill that is weak. Can you provide more specific examples of when to use the two types of groups? I still consider myself a rookie when it comes to teaching.

Amy's picture

I also use both types of groups for different reasons as well. I found that I was having the same reactions from my more obedient children or higher achieving children. Often I will use my homogenous grouping while practicing the Daily 5 schedule taken from the Daily Cafe book written by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. The children are in small group rotations in which they work independently on writing responses to reading, word work, and independent reading while I am able to meet with small groups on reading strategies. While this is extremely convienent when meeting with small groups based on individual needs, an issue that I struggle with often is how to manage the often needy low ability groups. Many times, regardless of how detailed I am with directions my lower homogenous groups will approach me while I'm with other groups for help or direction. This definitely creates a distraction for both the students and myself. I have grouped them heterogeneously with buddies and feel that this can be trying on some students as these rotations are daily. I know that management is a tough concept and also one that I struggle with more than others and I am welcome to any suggestions in this area.

Chris Fancher's picture

Being a PBL school we do 8 to 12 projects each year and students are grouped during each project differently. Plus, add in all of their other subject area in our school and the students are in multiple goupings each day. Therefore, I like to switch it up. With Freshmen I ALWAYS let them pick their own groups for the first project. It is important to have students struggle with the knowledge that their best friend is a non-worker. I also have "Draft Day" for some projects where I will take the top 5 or 6 (or more depending on the number of groups I want) and I take them outside of the classroom. I then give them some ground rules and a time limit and I tell them to come in and tell the class the groupings for the next project. I have grouped with the highest graded students and lowest graded students grouped in "homogenous" (work ethic, numeric grade, research abilities, etc) and the middle of the class grouped a different way.
The important thing to know is that you can group them any way you want! BUT, if there is a grouping that doesn't work with your students don't try it again until the next year. It is more important to do group work than to worry the specifics of how you group.

Rosanna Villa's picture
Rosanna Villa
third grade teacher from San Antonio, TX

Danielle Strickland,

I, too, use the "ask three before me" rule. I have it written on the board as C3B4Me. My students know that if they come to me with a question (and I can tell that they have not asked three before me, I simply point to the writing and they go ask their group/friends). It has promoted social interaction with my students because they learned as the year went on who were the students to seek answers from. They also realized that their best friend next to them might not be the best person to ask about a problem but many someone they don't interact with so much.

I usually group my students depending on the task. If it is just a task to be completed, I let the students choose their group members. If it is a project or assignment that I wish higher-level thinking to occur, then I choose the groups and base them on heterogeneous teams, and often change up the members on a regular basis. I have seen the benefit of moving from both types of groups (heterogeneous and homogeneous) in my classroom. I do not think there is one specific way to group students, just as there is not a specific way to teach children.

One thing I will not change about groups is their "home" group or their group they sit with for the majority of the school day. Their home group is heterogeneous and has students ranging from higher thinkers to my struggling readers. Each group member has a responsibility in the group and I have seen that when EVERYONE in the group has a task, then they do not have time to be off-task but rather busy at all time. My "captains" as I call them is the "team captain" who is in charge of the whole group. Then I have the task manager who is in charge of remembering what needs to be completed and that everyone is doing their work. Then I have a materials manager who is charge of getting the materials need for the assignment/task (paper, red pens, scissors, markers, etc...) and my last member is the quiet manager. They are in charge of making sure the groups is using "six-inch voices" and do not have off task-conversations. I rotate the jobs as I rotate the groups (every nine weeks) and I keep a chart of what task a previous student had and ensure by the end of the year that everyone has done each of the jobs.


I liked how to mention about using the "good kids" because we cannot always rely on these students to be our students of choice. I eliminated the "good kids" answering all the time by using sticks with each student's name on them and I randomly pick out a student from the cup to give me an answer. I watched this particular method used in a classroom but changed it so that I do not put the name back in the cup so it can be chosen again. I do not tell my students this though because them they know that once I call on them they can relax. Instead, I place a little piece of yarn on the inside of the cup to separate the sticks that have been called from those who haven't. My students think that they are all in the same cup and I even tell them "Everyone be on their toes! You never know who might be called!"

Your daughter Mercedes is like a few of my students. I have come to realize which of those students are in my classroom and group them with someone they spend time with (cafeteria, gym, recess, etc...) to ensure they are not easily frustrated. Often my students who perform well in math have struggles in other subjects and I can group them in a way that what is a strength for one is a weakness for another. This ensures that the students do not know I am putting them together to help each other. The rest of my students just get scattered in the mix of the groups.

Great blog and can't wait to read another!

Colleen's picture

When grouping students for an assignment, sometimes less is more. My favorite way to group students is equitable groups. Teaching 3rd grade, it is important for students to learn to work with new people that are not necessarily their best friend or at their ability level; this is what it is like in the real world. I teach my students from the beginning to how to be respectful when working in groups, from participating equally to being nice to partners. I have grouped students by numbers, colors, equity sticks, etc. However, my students enjoy when I use the random group generator on my computer ( My class list is saved so all I have to do is select the amount of groups and the list of names pop up. They get really excited when they see the groups being formed and they know that I am not unfairly grouping them, so I rarely have any arguments.

I also agree with your statements about the smart students. Students know who the smart or hard working kids are in the class so they are usually taken advantage of. If the students are working, teachers should be circulating and overlooking the groups to ensure that one students does the majority of the assignment or that one does nothing. I also have an issue bin available for students. If they have a complaint about someone in their group, they can write a note anonymously and I can address the issue without anyone knowing there was an issue. It is important for students to understand that they are part of an equal learning environment.

I think it is most important to remember to switch things up. Avoid using the same groupings to keep things interesting and engaging in the classroom. By working with new people, you will be surprised with the work your students can do and they will grow from it.

Eileen's picture
7th and 8th grade science teacher, Philadelphia, PA

I have always been pushed into using heterogeneous grouping, because there seems to be a belief that high performance and good behavior are things that will "rub off" from the more able students. I've always felt that this is not case, and have occasionally tried using homogeneous grouping. I've had a lot of concern with hetero grouping, same as what you've seen. The "smart" kid carries the group, because they can't bear the idea of not doing well. The less motivated student is often happy with this state of affairs.

I'm going to go with my gut and use a homogeneous grouping plan with my 8th grades this year, and may extend that to the 7th graders if I see good results. The worst thing that can happen is that it won't work. And here I'd like to quote you: "As educators, we sometime let the failures guide our decisions". Learning to allow failure to work for you is a very difficult lesson for me as a teacher, since I have the burning desire to be right, all the time.

Perhaps I can take away an attitude that failure is also a learning experience for me.

DarrellM's picture

I also teach at a PBL school and have taught every high school grade level. I have used different grouping strategies depending on the circumstances of the project. I believe the fallback stance for most teachers would be a heterogeneous grouping. I believe, depending on the learning activity, we could be hurting more than helping most of the students in a heterogeneous grouping. I will admit that in the 9th grade classes I have primarily used heterogeneous groupings for a variety of reasons. I too have had a number of the higher performing students' question how much they are truly learning in such a grouping. I wonder if we are doing a grave disservice to our higher performers. I understand and agree with statements of raising the "whole boat" but we must not hold anyone back in the process. I am going to experiment more with homogeneous groupings this coming school year. I believe as Ben does, that a homogeneous grouping will allow for new and different styles of leaders to emerge. I learned a great deal from, and enjoyed this blog immensely.

Terry's picture

I have to agree with you on that, although in my experience it didn't matter how the students were grouped, they always managed to let someone else do the work. This was in an educational setting that served at-risk youth who were in an alternative program and tended to gravitate towards peers of the same peer group. It didn't matter the situation, most of them didn't want to put forth the effort to do the work because it was just easier to let someone else do it or just copy. Because after all, school was the furthest thing from their minds, since they felt they had other more pressing matters socially, psychologically, and emotionally to deal with. I do think that using either method of grouping can be beneficial given the circumstances of the situation. You just have to go with what works best for your students.

Mary's picture
3rd Grade Teacher from Maryland

I usually use equitable grouping, and then assign roles for students based on what I want specific students to do. I find that equitable grouping keeps students on their toes. I really like the idea of having students group themselves, and I have done it before for small tasks. How do you keep students on task especially in large class sizes?

Heather's picture
2nd grade teacher from Tennessee

Excellent Blog :)

I agree that there are different ways to group students and normally the students will tell you when a group setting is not working.

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