When High Achievers and Low Achievers Work in the Same Group: An Article Review

Learning by Unlearning

In 2008, The British Psychological Society published an article entitled When High Achievers and Low Achievers Work in the Same Group: The Roles of Group Heterogeneity and Processes in Project-Based Learning.  As put by the authors Cheng, Shui-fong, & Chan (2008), “the present research investigated the roles of group heterogeneity and processes in project-based learning.”  This was done with the intent to further understand the effects of grouping in project based work, in order to determine how best to optimize both self efficacy and collective efficacy.  At the crux was the hypothesis of an interaction effect between student achievement and group processes on efficacy.  In order to test this hypothesis, variables ranging from group gender distribution, to group size, to group processes were reviewed; this in order to determine which had the most prominent positive relationship to self efficacy and collective efficacy.

Linear modeling was used to investigate the relationships between variables, and group members were categorized by low, average, and high achievers.  Yet, it was the individuality of the learner, when taken into account in the interpersonal learning environment, which gave the research team their richest data.  Many current understandings about learning provide strong support for classrooms that recognize, honor, and cultivate individuality (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 18).  This was the case when the team discovered their learning around groupings and project-based work led them to emphasize the interactions of learners, as opposed to the effects of grouping itself.  On average, findings about the effects of homogenous and heterogeneous groupings were varied and inconsistent across studies (Cheng, Shui-fong, & Chan, 2008, p. 3).  This was because the assumption that optimal grouping is as heterogeneous as possible across skill levels was simply not the focus when looking to continue to improve both self efficacy and collective efficacy.

Grouping for Excellence

The specifics of what is meant are the keys to incorporating these findings into the concepts surrounding differentiated instruction.  Group processes of high quality include at least four elements: positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation, and social skills (Cheng, Shui-fong, & Chan, 2008, p. 3).  These elements are those that lead to a foundation of solid interpersonal communication, group interaction, and – most notably – group cohesion.  While varying levels of skills, gender, and size are all taken into account in the differentiated classroom, what must be emphasized as per the research are the dynamics which shape the interaction among group members.  The brain learns best when it can come to understand by making its own sense out of information rather than when information is imposed on it (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 19).  Both homogenous and heterogeneous groupings come with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Where homogeneous groupings, on average, keep each level of achiever firmly planted in their preexisting classification, and heterogeneous groupings are decidedly not without the consequence of potentially stifling the high achievers for the gain of the improvement of low achievers; looking beyond the groupings alone allow for a differentiated classroom that can have communities of learning within that thrive.

The Rules of the Game

In order to bring this concept from the theoretical to the practical, the various elements discussed must be incorporated into the classroom.  Heterogeneity usually is a one-size-fits-all endeavor where the learning plan swallows some learners and pinches others (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 22).  So while the concept of heterogeneity is still favored to homogeneity, the aforementioned elements of high quality group process must be integrated.  Positive interdependence deals with ensuring that each group member is reliant on other members of the group to serve particular functions or roles in order to achieve the collective goal.  This can be incorporated into the classroom via assigning particular roles to members of a team, or to members of a class.  Individual accountability deals with maintaining a group grade, yet also ensuring that each team member is tasked with a particular portion of each project.  When considering both positive interdependence and individual accountability, these factors begin to allow the class to see beyond their differences, and instead focus on how they will work together to achieve individually assigned components of the work.

Equal participation deals with ensuring that those individually assigned components from the element of individual accountability are assigned in a way where they are equal among the group.  Social skills deals with the abilities of each team member to interact with the remaining group, and include traits such as communication, decision-making, trust-building, and conflict management (Cheng, Shui-fong, & Chan, 2008, p. 4).  When emphasizing these elements in the classroom, work that stems from equity among group members, in a group environment where collaboration reigns and conflict is managed to a minimum, the emphasis can then be on the content, process, and product by which the lesson is completed.

We need to begin our investigation of how to differentiate instruction for a diverse student population (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 24).  While the Tomlinson text discusses additional assumptions around differences in student characteristics, the article under review is to add that components of each student as a member of the group can therefore contribute to the success of the instruction’s differentiation as well.  When put into practice, group work that emphasizes positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation, and social skills can have the potential to create a learning environment where not only is self efficacy increased, yet collective efficacy is both emphasized and increased as well.

– Justin

Cheng, R., Shui-fong, L., & Chan, J. (2008). When high achievers and low achievers work in the same group: The roles of group heterogeneity and processes in project-based learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(2), 205-221.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. ASCD. Alexandria, VA.

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