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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

Melissa Rankin's picture
Melissa Rankin
9th-10th grade English, 12th grade Gov and Econ, HS Speech & Journalism

Most of my groups are randomly designated (I use UNO cards a lot). The only time I group students either heterogeneously or homogeneously is when they are completing longer term projects. I find it is best to allow them some input into how they are grouped for major projects. I generally ask students to list 3 people they would like to work with and 3 people they would prefer not to work with. That way everyone works with at least one person they want to be with, and I can avoid conflicts I might not have been aware existed.

JTGates's picture
JTGates
Our organization (www.hoennycenter.org) studies how kids teach each other.

Thanks for opening this topic. The sharing was interesting and helpful, and I will pass along this URL to our Professional Partners Network. However, while everyone commented on how the groups were organized, neither the lead author nor the commentators mentioned anything about prepping the kids to actually do the work. Kids are teaching each other well, if these groups are actually working to raise achievement, and group members are improvising when they're not loading all the work on one or two members. They need and deserve some preparation. See www.hoennycenter.org for more on this. Also, it was unfortunate that the lead article did not mention the long-time leaders in research in cooperative learning, David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson of the U. of Minnesota. Their work (and that of some others) is the ground that Marzano, McTighe, and others stand on, whether or not they give the Johnsons the credit they deserve.

PShafer's picture
PShafer
8th Grade Math Teacher

Ben,

Thank you for posting such an insightful look at the idea of grouping in the classroom. I have always been a teacher who groups students heterogeneously, but I must admit that I have not given it a lot of thought until I read your post.

After reading your post, I now think there is a time and a place for each type of grouping, and it depends on our goals for the day and how well our students work together. On days that I have students grouped together for an activity that is reviewing on the day before a test, for example, I will most likely to continue using heterogeneous grouping for most of my classes. Students can often be the best teachers, and if I am simply trying to make sure that all students understand the material that will be on the test, this still makes the most sense to me.

However, on any other group assignment, I am going to attempt homogeneous grouping. After reading your explanation, I believe that this method will improve participation across the class. Have you ever tried altering the assignment for different groups? I plan to modify the assignments to ensure that the highest groups are challenged, while the lowest groups are not completely lost.

I expect this to be a process of experimentation in the next few weeks in the classroom. I look forward to finding a system that is perfect for my classroom. Thanks again for getting me to re-think a process that I have never given a second thought in the past.

Kay Butler's picture
Kay Butler
HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

Most of the discussion here helped to reinforce my understandings of variety in grouping based on ability, interest, and learning styles in order to differentiate content, process, and product! This was great review before the test . . . implementing it in my classroom in less than two weeks! :) Thanks for all the great suggestions and references / websites! :) One thing I do is encourage my students to send me an email or see me outside of class (before school or during lunch) if there is a problem with one of their team members that I don't catch. They know that I will keep their information confidential, but I will use it to help remedy the problem discreetly. Usually, I try to help the students resolve these types of issues themselves.

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

Kay:
You are correct. Creative grouping is a natural differentiation tool. It allows students to participate at their skill level and at their strength and at their learning style. The only thing the teacher has to do is to set up the groups and "train" the students in the best way to get things done in groups. Don't forget there are different types of groups too-- they can have formally assigned roles, ad-hoc roles or be totally informal. It all depends on what you want the students to learn. Most of all have fun with groups, and help your students to be successful and also have fun with groups.

Thanks for all you do for your students!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Most of the discussion here helped to reinforce my understandings of variety in grouping based on ability, interest, and learning styles in order to differentiate content, process, and product! This was great review before the test . . . implementing it in my classroom in less than two weeks! :) Thanks for all the great suggestions and references / websites! :) One thing I do is encourage my students to send me an email or see me outside of class (before school or during lunch) if there is a problem with one of their team members that I don't catch. They know that I will keep their information confidential, but I will use it to help remedy the problem discreetly. Usually, I try to help the students resolve these types of issues themselves.[/quote]

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

PShafer:

Thanks for being open to improve your effectiveness as a designer of wonderful learning activities (i.e. teacher). Yes, it is quite effective to create homogenous skill groups and give each group a different assignment. When I taught junior high English, I found that it was especially effective if the product were combined into a class project. We did a newspaper and each group chose what they wanted to do in the newspaper (Choice is a big part of differentiation). Each group had an editor and either reporters, columnists or op ed writers. It worked like a charm, and each group felt they contributed to the whole newspaper, even though the levels of contribution were different.

Good luck with your grouping!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX
[quote]However, on any other group assignment, I am going to attempt homogeneous grouping. After reading your explanation, I believe that this method will improve participation across the class. Have you ever tried altering the assignment for different groups? I plan to modify the assignments to ensure that the highest groups are challenged, while the lowest groups are not completely lost[/quote]

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

DarrellM

Good thoughts, but are we allowed to think that some students are more important than others?

In our national economy, don't we depend on gifted and talented people to provide innovation in every aspect of our lives? Just imagine what we would have if we really supported gifted and talented education in public and private schools!

We all realize that some students do not have the skills to "create" or "solve". That doesn't mean that they cannot develop those skills as late bloomers, so we keep the door open for them and do not exclude them from learning and exposure to new ideas. But Darrell, you hit the nail on the head-- what are we doing with the kids that are superstars-- are we pushing them to greater heights, or are we blunting their interests, desires and passions by making them help all of the other students?

That is why homogenous groups by skill level are important for those students. We know we don't get better by playing tennis players worse than ourselves-- we have to be challenged. It is the same with the gifted students, and frankly Gifted and talented in elementary and junior high, pull out program or other wise, do little for these students. Often they learn that being gifted means more of the same work, not different work. In secondary schools, students (and their parents) get them out of heterogeneous classes by enrolling in pre-AP, AP, and Honors classes (pretty much homogenous).

Thanks for getting me on my soap box. I will probably ruffle a few feathers. Hmmm...I should write about GT and see what kind of response I get.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]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.[/quote]

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

There are advantages to many different ways of grouping students. One thing I sometimes do is do a mini-quiz (1 or 2 problems) before grouping students. This way I get a clear idea on where everyone is on the subject matter we are working on. Then, I create homogeneous groups with the high and medium students, while I pull the lowest performing students for some guided instruction with me. This seems to work very well to make sure that all of my students are getting the support and challenge they need to be successful.

Sacha
www.luria-learning.blogspot.com

Denise's picture

I totally agree with you Colleen that varying groups is essential to developing trust amongst your students. I like your idea of an "issue" box. I use something similar, a "suggestion" box. I ask them to use their opposite hand to write if they are afraid I will know their penmanship or suggest that they use the computer to write their suggestion and print their response. Another way I have done grouping in high school is to group them on their musical interest or their favorite artist. Anyways, I wanted to comment to your post as a supportive WaldenU colleague who understands the importance of improving student learning....:-)

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