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Instructional Practices

Advantages and Disadvantages of Homogeneous Vs. Heterogeneous Groups in Education

5 Min Read
Students in classroom at group desk

When setting up a classroom exercise or activity, you’re often required to arrange students into groups. Is it better to put them into heterogeneous groups, which comprise students of differing ability, or homogeneous groups, which contain students of similar ability? This article offers a brief introduction to the advantages and disadvantages of homogeneous and heterogeneous groups to help you consider when you might choose one type of grouping over the other.

Disadvantage's and Benefits of Heterogeneous Grouping in the Classroom

Benefits for below-grade-level students

Let’s start with the benefits of heterogeneous grouping, the first of which is the advantage they offer below-grade students. In a group that has a mixed ability, these students have the opportunity to follow the lead of their peers, picking up things that they may not learn from you. They could also feel more confident speaking up about their confusion with a smaller group of their peers than they would in your presence in front of the whole class.

Benefits for at-grade students

At-grade students also benefit from being grouped with their above-level peers. Working closely with others can help land small kernels of knowledge that may further their understanding and progress. In the same way, accelerated students can learn a thing or two from at-grade students. If they’re exposed to a slightly different perspective or method, it can deepen their own understanding of a subject.

Benefits for above-grade students

Heterogeneous grouping in education, on the other hand, can benefit more above-grade-level students by giving them opportunity to assume a leadership role within their group. Students have an innate understanding of their abilities as compared to their classmates and naturally tend to guide the direction of an exercise when asked to do so. In a best-case scenario, such students are empathetic to their struggling classmates and do their best to help them along. Better still, there’s a chance they’ll know how to best communicate with another student, especially if they’re friends, and could find ways to convey information in a way they’ll understand. In any case, such groups are a great opportunity for talented students to develop their soft skills, like interdependence and leadership.

Disadvantages for above-grade students

While some above-level students relish the opportunities and responsibilities of heterogeneous groups in the classroom, others may feel it’s holding them back.

Disadvantages for at-grade students

For students at grade level and below is that there’s a chance they’ll take a back seat in heterogeneous groups and let their more gifted classmates do all the work. This is especially the case if the more capable students have strong personalities, a focus on finishing the task as quickly as possible, and are dismissive of their peers’ abilities and contributions.

Benefits of Homogeneous Grouping in the Classroom

Everyone at their own pace

The first benefit of homogeneous grouping in education is that there’s greater scope for everyone to perform the task or exercise at their own pace. Surrounded by peers of roughly their own ability, a lesson can become less stressful and more fun!

Assignment difficulty is scalable

Another major benefit of homogenous grouping is your increased ability to change the difficulty of the assigned exercise according to each group’s ability. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that you’ve split your class into three groups — one, two, and three — where group one contains above-grade-level students and group three contains below-grade-level students. After setting out an exercise, you come to find that while it’s stimulating enough for group two, it’s too easy for group one and too difficult for group three.

With the homogeneous grouping of students, you can make the exercise more difficult for group one, adding elements that will stretch and challenge them so they get more out of it. For group three, meanwhile, you can give students a clearer path to progress. Better yet, with groups one and two occupied, you can devote more of your attention to group three, giving them a little more time to understand the exercise. Whether it’s through a more challenging variation of the exercise or having more pieces fall into place after spending more time with you, homogenous groups enable every student to learn more.

Choosing Between Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Grouping

The type of grouping you choose in the classroom depends on the learning outcome of the exercise and what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to create an environment that elevates struggling students and helps them develop the independence and teamwork skills that come from less reliance on the teacher, the heterogeneous grouping of students is best. However, it’s good to think through how you can keep at-grade-level and above-grade-level students engaged in the lesson.

If it’s important for the students to take as much away from the actual exercise, and you’re prepared to change the task parameters to make it more challenging or accessible, then homogeneous grouping in the classroom is the way to go.

Chances are that you’ll have ample opportunity to use both grouping methods and see which one works best.

If you don’t yet have a preference, or even if you do, it’s a great idea to switch between the two to see how your students respond. Doing so will allow you to get to know your students better. You’ll be able to observe how they respond in various scenarios with different classmates and styles of grouping. It can be even more enlightening if you keep track of your observations in a journal so you can build on your experiences, do more of what worked well, and cut back on what didn’t.

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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