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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Learning Groups: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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

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Jack Drury's picture
Jack Drury
Professional Development Consultant - Leading EDGE

I agree that the type grouping you select "depends." It depends on the knowledge, skill, and disposition levels of the students and it depends on what you are trying to accomplish. I'll give you a real-life example from early in my wilderness leadership career. I wanted to give an authentic final map and compass exercise of navigating up a trailess, heavily forested mountain. I knew if I had heterogeneous groups that the more skilled students would lead the way and the less skilled students would just follow. I created homogenous groups based on skill. I had to have faith that even the "weakest" group would still find their way up the mountain. They did...1 1/2 hours after all the others. They had a tremendous learning experience that couldn't have been matched in a heterogeneous group. This experience helped me think about grouping in the classroom and realize that one type of grouping does not fit all situations. Over time I try to use a variety of grouping strategies including heterogeneous, homogeneous, and random. It is also important to consider what your heterogeneity and homogeneity is based on. Don't always base it on the same thing.

Danielle's picture
Danielle
Fifth grade teacher, Rock Springs, WY

I have used grouping of students for several different reasons. I have my students always sitting in teams, usually consisiting of four students. Their home team is one of mix ability levels, heterogeneous teams. They do most of a lot of work with this teams. However, many times during our day, they are up moving around and finding new teams. There are times when I dictate the new teams, based on ability levels creating homogeneous teams. But, there are also times when I have students create teams based on shared interests. I feel that varying the teams frequently is a way for my students to be able to work with every in the class, as well as getting a different perspective. I feel that both types of grouping are effective ways to pair students up.

I have been lucky enough to attend several Kagan Cooperative Learning trainings that talk extensively about grouping students. And according to their teachings, it is valuable for students to work with students of different levels, as well as students at similar levels. They outline practices that encourage students to work together and how to best facilitate this in the classroom. I enjoy seeing my students work with everyone in the room at one point or another throughout the school year. It helps build a great class community.

Shelise Blakeney's picture
Shelise Blakeney
3rd grade teacher from Prince George's County, Maryland

I have grouped my students using heterogeneous and homogeneous groups.In my school students are grouped in homogeneous reading and math classes. The homerooms are homogeneous. My homeroom students are usually seated in groups. I base the groups on ability and behavior. Some students just can not be together and I try to keep them separated. I make sure that students who need extra guidance are seated near or next to students who are willing to be a peer tutor. The student who needs the guidance is able to pick up habits from their peer.
When students are grouped in heterogeneous groups they are excited to show others different problem solving strategies that they have learned that others may not have fully grasped. I like the idea of randomly grouping students based on different interest. I will surely use this when grouping students in the future.

Danielle Strickland's picture

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.

Jackie's picture
Jackie
12 grade teacher from Georgia

I think using both styles of homogenous and Heterogeneous groups is necessary to be successful in the classroom. As a 12th grade teacher many times i allow students to choose their groups to complete projects and assignments. As we know students pick their friends over anything but what I have noticed over recent years is students are beginning to move outside of just picking their friends and find a group that will share the work and complete the assignment and in some isolated cases pick someone they know needs help/guidance. When reviewing for test, quizzes, and final exams I find myself assigning Heterogeneous groupings to help those students who are struggling and I have observed my students using this opportunity to help each other. So depending on what the activity is being complete will dictate whether using homogenous and Heterogeneous is appropriate.

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

Jack:

One of the things that you described in your wonderful example is that sometimes we have to trust the students. We have to be willing to take a risk that the students will make the right choices, and that the students will figure things out the right way. Some times they do not...amazingly, most of the time they are successful. As educators, we sometime let the failures guide our decisions. There is never going to be a failsafe method and it makes no sense to punish all students because of a few who abused your trust. Well stated--use the groups to enhance learning as the primary goal.

Thanks for your great example. I would have liked to been a fly on the wall to watch the group's collaboration and leadership process. You are absolutely correct--it was irreplaceable learning.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote] 1I think using both styles of homogenous and Heterogeneous groups is necessary to be successful in the classroom. As a 12th grade teacher many times i allow students to choose their groups to complete projects and assignments. As we know students pick their friends over anything but what I have noticed over recent years is students are beginning to move outside of just picking their friends and find a group that will share the work and complete the assignment and in some isolated cases pick someone they know needs help/guidance. When reviewing for test, quizzes, and final exams I find myself assigning Heterogeneous groupings to help those students who are struggling and I have observed my students using this opportunity to help each other. So depending on what the activity is being complete will dictate whether using homogenous and Heterogeneous is appropriate.[/quote]

Mike Rulon's picture
Mike Rulon
Consultant, Instructional Coach, Turn-around Facilitator

Even though this does not fit every situation... it works most of the time, and that is group students based on the complexity of the content or skill and the gap in knowledge or misconception.
If the elements are lower cognitive complexity then lean towards homogeneous, this allows you to create tasks specific to the group and allows you time to spend more time with the groups struggling the most. If you use heterogeneous groups with low level complexity then the only option for the group is a tutoring situation, which should be used sparingly.
If the complexity is high then heterogeneous groups, as long as the activities invite high level cognition and discussions then the struggling students will benefit,by letting them hear someone else's thinking, and the discussion will move the more experienced learner ahead through reflective practice.

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

Jackie:

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.

Good thoughts!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]1I think using both styles of homogenous and Heterogeneous groups is necessary to be successful in the classroom. As a 12th grade teacher many times i allow students to choose their groups to complete projects and assignments. As we know students pick their friends over anything but what I have noticed over recent years is students are beginning to move outside of just picking their friends and find a group that will share the work and complete the assignment and in some isolated cases pick someone they know needs help/guidance. When reviewing for test, quizzes, and final exams I find myself assigning Heterogeneous groupings to help those students who are struggling and I have observed my students using this opportunity to help each other. So depending on what the activity is being complete will dictate whether using homogenous and Heterogeneous is appropriate.[/quote]

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