Heterogeneous Definition in a Classroom

Some educators support the case for mixing students of varying ability

Classroom full of teenage students
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Heterogeneous groups in educational settings include students from a wide range of instructional levels. The practice of assigning mixed groups of students to shared classrooms stems from the education precept that positive interdependence develops when students of varying achievement work together and help each other reach educational goals. Heterogeneous groups contrast directly with homogeneous groups, in which all students perform at roughly the same instructional level.

Examples of Heterogeneous Groups

A teacher may deliberately pair low-, medium-, and high-level readers (as measured by reading assessments) together in a heterogeneous group to read and analyze a given text together. This type of cooperative group can improve outcomes for all of the students as the advanced readers can tutor their lower-performing peers.

Rather than putting gifted students, average students, and special-needs students in separate classrooms, school administrators may divide students into classes with a relatively even distribution of abilities and needs. Teachers may then further divide the group during instructional periods using either the heterogeneous or homogeneous model.

Advantages of Heterogeneous Grouping

For students of lesser ability, being included in a heterogeneous group rather than pigeonholed into a homogeneous group reduces their risk of being stigmatized. And labels that classify academic skill can become self-fulfilling prophecies as teachers may lower expectations for students in special-needs classrooms. They may not challenge those students to perform well and may rely on limited curriculum that restricts exposure to concepts some students could, in fact, learn.

A heterogeneous group gives advanced students a chance to mentor their peers. All members of the group may interact more to help each other understand the concepts being taught.

Disadvantages of Heterogeneous Grouping

Students, parents, and teachers may prefer to work in a homogeneous group or be part of a homogeneous classroom. They may see an educational advantage or just feel more comfortable working with peers of similar ability.

Advanced students in a heterogeneous group may at times feel forced into a leadership role they do not want. Rather than learning new concepts at their own speed, they must slow down to assist other students or curtail their own study to proceed at the rate of the whole class.

Students of lesser abilities may fall behind in a heterogeneous group and end up criticized for slowing the rate of the whole class or group. In a study group or work group, unmotivated or academically challenged students may end up ignored rather than assisted by their peers.

Management of a Heterogeneous Classroom

Teachers need to remain aware and recognize when a heterogeneous grouping does not function properly for a student at any level. Teachers should support advanced students by supplying additional academic challenges and help students who fall behind get the assistance they need to catch up. And students in the middle of a heterogeneous group face the risk of getting lost in the shuffle as the teacher concentrates on the special needs of students at either end of the spectrum.