Heterogeneous groups in educational settings are groups that include students with a wide variety of instructional levels. Heterogeneous groups stem from the education precept that a positive interdependence can arise from students with varied learning levels working together and helping each other to reach an instructional goal.
Heterogeneous groups can be contrasted directly with homogeneous groups in which the students are all at the same instructional level.
Examples of Heterogenous Groups in the Classroom
When organizing a reading group, the teacher deliberately has low, medium, and high readers (as measured by reading level assessments) work together in a heterogeneous group to comprehend and analyze a given text together.
Students may be assigned for the year to a classroom that is a heterogenous group.
Rather than placing gifted students, average students, and special needs students into separate classrooms, they may be included in a classroom that includes students of a relatively even distribution of abilities and needs.
Advantages of Heterogenous Grouping
For students of lesser abilities, there is usually an advantage in being included in a heterogenous group rather than homogenous group. They don't have the risk of being stigmatized as part of a less-able group. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as teachers have lower expectations and may not challenge students to perform well. The students may also be given a curriculum that has few challenges, so they are not exposed to concepts they could, in fact, learn.
A heterogenous group gives advanced students a chance to be a mentor to their peers. All members of the group may interact more to help each other understand the concepts being taught.
Disadvantages of Heterogenous Grouping
Students, parents, and teachers may prefer to work in a homogenous group or be part of a homogenous classroom grouping.
They may think there is an educational advantage or they may feel more comfortable working with peers of similar ability.
Advanced students at times feel they are forced into a leadership role they do not want when they are part of a heterogenous group. Rather than being able to learn the new concepts at their own speed, they are expected to assist other students or are held to learning at the rate of the whole class.
Students of lesser abilities may fall behind in a heterogenous group and end up stigmatized for slowing the rate of the whole class or group. In a study group or work group, they may end up shunted aside or ignored rather than assisted.
A teacher needs to identify when the heterogenous grouping isn't working for any level of student. They need to support the advanced students by supplying additional challenges and ensure the students who are falling behind are given the assistance they need to catch up. There is a risk for the students in the middle as well, who may not get the individual attention they need due to the teacher's concentration on the students at either end of the spectrum.