Student Engagement

Student Learning Groups: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous?

Whether to form groups with students of similar or mixed ability depends on the purpose of the learning activity.

August 2, 2011         Updated January 2, 2014
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“OK, kids, we’re 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’ll 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 someone 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 who gives these instructions 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 explain in Classroom Instruction That Works (first edition) that there are advantages to both methods, depending on what the teacher wants to do.

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Identifying Purposes

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

This was a tipping point for me, 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 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 de facto 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 hope that some of their “goodness” would rub off on the other students. An interesting thing happened when I grouped the students by ability. New leadership structures formed, and students who had never actively participated in groups before all of a sudden demonstrated skills and creativity that I never knew they had.

Students are smart and can easily figure out what we’re 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, said that when teachers do this to her, she doesn’t learn and it’s 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 hold them accountable for following the norms of learning in groups.

According to Marzano, Pickering and Pollock, effective learning in groups must have at least the following elements:

  • The work must involve 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—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.