Combatting inequality in heterogeneous classes

Tracking and ability grouping cause inequitable segregation of students and are being eliminated from schools. As this occurs, however, educators must find feasible and effective instructional methods for mixed-ability classes. Many teachers are finding that increasing the participation and achievement of the poorest students is difficult even with cooperative learning techniques. Wide disparities in achievement mean that some students are perceived as more capable in schoolwork and, therefore, more helpful to their groups than others. Students who are not perceived as capable interact significantly less in groups and continue to achieve less. Research reveals that popularity, as well as perceived ability, affect students’ interactions.

With this in mind, researchers Elizabeth G. Cohen and Rachal A. Lotan, Center for Educational Research, Stanford University, tested two techniques to reduce the differences in expectation and participation between students in cooperative groups. Teachers participating in this study were trained for two weeks during the summer at Stanford University.

Because high rates of interaction have been shown to raise achievement scores, these teachers were taught a classroom management system designed to ensure that students spend a lot of time talking and working together. Also, they learned to use two techniques aimed at increasing the participation of the lowest-achieving students. One technique involved discussing the many different intellectual abilities needed to complete the complex projects assigned to groups. These projects were designed to require a broad range of abilities, not just conventional academic skills. The groups had to use problem solving, reasoning, hypothesizing, visual and spatial thinking, careful observation, precision in work and interpersonal skills. The teachers stressed that no one has all these abilities, but that everyone has some of them. The goal was to establish a mixed set of expectations for each student rather than uniformly high or low expectations.

Focus on competence of low-expectation students

The second technique was aimed at drawing attention to the competence of individual low-expectation students. Teachers were taught to use specific, valid observations of skills rather than unconditional praise. Therefore, teachers had to wait for a low-achieving student to perform a task well. Projects requiring very diverse abilities, including non-verbal ones, are necessary for enabling such students to show their capabilities. To be effective in changing expectations, the teacher has to emphasize why this ability is important to the task at hand. Making competence relevant to the task helps students to be regarded as valued resources for the group.

In Cohen and Lotan’s study, 13 second- through sixth-grade classrooms with an average of 27 students each participated. Large proportions of these students were from minority and low-income backgrounds. Two classrooms were made up of predominantly Southeast Asian immigrants while nine were largely Hispanic and two were mixed. Academic skill levels ranged from grade level to an inability to read or write in any language. This study compared the 67 most popular and academically successul students with the 61 most socially isolated and academically weakest students.

All 13 elementary classrooms used the same curriculum along with a system of classroom management designed to maximize interaction between students. All teachers were trained to use the two techniques aimed at increasing the expectations and, therefore, the participation and interaction of low-achieving and less popular students in cooperative activities.

More equal levels of students interaction

The study’s aim of increasing the interaction of low-achieving students did not adversely affect the level of interaction of high achievers, who continued to participate at a significantly higher rate than low achievers. However, these techniques enabled teachers to produce more equal levels of student interaction as well as significant gains in achievement for the lowest-achieving students. Generally, the higher the rate of interaction in a classroom, the greater the interaction of lower-achieving students. Although teachers were trained to publicly acknowledge good performances of low-achieving students, they tended to point out both high- and low-achieving students who demonstrated competence.

Cohan and Lotan conclude that teachers were able to create more equitable expectations through the use of tasks that require more than routine academic skills. By encouraging student interaction, by explaining multiple abilities and by singling out students’ particular skills, teachers helped low-achieving students interact and achieve more. In the classrooms, where teachers used these techniques most frequently, the students with lowest expectations participated at the same level as students with the highest expectations. Cohen and Lotan believe that these techniques were successful because they were used in conjunction with complex instructional tasks and a climate conducive to interaction.

Teachers report that they were surprised that they did not need to discuss multiple abilities often or to point out an individual student’s demonstrated skill or ability more than once or twice. They found that students’ expectations for themselves and others were modified more easily than expected and that increased expectations tended to persist. Teachers said they were particularly gratified to see changes in low-achievers after they had pointed out competence. They also reported that using these techniques made them more aware of the intellectual abilities of their low-achieving students. They conclude that these strategies are practical to use and effective for mixed-ability, elementary classrooms.


“Producing Equal-Status Interaction in the Heterogeneous Classroom”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 32, Number 1, Spring 1995, pp. 99-120.

Published in ERN May/June 1995, Volume 8, Number 3

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