Heterogeneous student groups: how do you deal with them?

Do you notice different levels of ability amongst students when you lecture or guide them? This education tip gives you several practical suggestions on how to respond to that heterogeneity. 

What are 'heterogeneous student groups'? 

Different student characteristics can be the cause of a heterogeneous group. These may be differences in prior knowledge, study skills, interests, preliminary training, performance level, language skills, motivation, socio-cultural context, (work) experience, etc. Remember that differences are not always noticeable, and they don’t always surface immediately. Seemingly homogeneous groups can also be very diverse. Try to figure out how the group is composed and what the nature of the differences is.  

How do you deal with general heterogeneity? 

Of course, the heterogeneity of student groups must not only be a focus of individual lecturers, but it must also be considered from an overall training perspective. If significant differences jeopardise the achievement of the course competencies or study programme competencies, you should raise your concerns within the programme so overarching measures could be considered to better deal with the heterogeneity. However, as an individual lecturer, you can also have an impact by addressing as many students as possible. You can respond to differences by varying content, teaching activities and study materials

Variation in content 

  • Make sure that students with different prior knowledge and background don’t feel ignored. In addition to a common supply of study materials and learning activities containing the basic study material, provide opportunities for students to obtain additional explanation and revision, or more in-depth analysis and extension. Make it clear to the students what the core of the material is and what involves extension or broadening. You can do this, for example, by clarifying your expectations of the assessments. 
  • Give examples from different settings. This way, students with different interests and prior knowledge feel included. You can also ask students to present their own case studies or examples from their own experience or reference framework. You can have students with different prior knowledge work in pairs to come up with an answer to a question. 
  • You can introduce and discuss theory from different angles. You can also invite a guest speaker or expert, or let students speak from their experience or perspective. 
  • If you want to go one step further and respond strongly to the differences, then organising interdisciplinary group work that appeals to the strengths of each student may be a suitable option for you. 

Variation in teaching activities 

  • Provide sufficient variety in teaching methods during your teaching activities. 
  • You can create variety by asking questions, creating interaction, providing room for discussion, in addition to theory also paying attention to applications and exercises, telling a small anecdote or giving examples. 
  • Other options are blended learning or flipped classroom. These methods have the advantage that students are given a chance to acquire certain content at their own pace. However, think carefully about which material is suitable for students to go through independently in advance and which should be dealt with in class.  

Variation in study materials and media 

  • Mix up your study material. Make it clear what content and materials are needed to achieve the course competencies of your course unit, and what is additional content and materials intended for extension or more in-depth learning. For example, you can specify which exercises are extra or provide a list of articles for supplementary reading. 
  • You can also vary by offering the study material through different media. For example, you can use the board for exercises, a video or knowledge clip for instructions or theory, a PowerPoint presentation to clarify the structure of your lecture, etc. 

UDL or universal design 

The above tips for differentiation align perfectly with the principles of Universal Design for Learning  (UDL) or universeel ontwerp (UO). UDL/UO aims to make the learning environment accessible to everyone as from the initial design so that adjustments are not necessary afterwards. 

UDL/UO is a concept that originates from architecture. It assumes that when a building is accessible to users with disabilities, the building is also easily accessible to a large group of other people. For example, making a platform accessible to wheelchair users makes it also more accessible to the elderly, small children and strollers, less mobile people, etc. 

The concept is also applied to other areas such as education. Similarly, the objective is to take the diversity of your student audience into account when you design your learning and teaching material and consider the nature of your teaching activities, and to make them as accessible as possible. That way, later adjustments and exceptional measures can be reduced. However, this does not mean that students with disabilities lose their entitlement to reasonable adjustments (see the Education and Examination Code, Art.25 §2). 

The SIHO (Steunpunt Inclusief Hoger Onderwijs) has developed a guide with concrete tips to make learning and teaching materials in higher education digitally accessible. 

How do you deal with heterogeneity due to differences in prior knowledge? 

With significant differences in prior knowledge amongst the students, you can suggest extra help so those students could catch up. First, you need to determine what information students need to brush up on and by when. Then you offer the students opportunities to close the gap. This can be done in different ways: 

  • Formulate clear expectations to the students. At the start of the series of lectures, make it clear to the students what prior knowledge (the level required from the beginning) you expect in addition to the competencies they need to achieve. Explain what you expect from the students and what they can expect from you. 
  • Provide self-study material. If a minority of students have insufficient prior knowledge, you can give instructions on how to improve. Offer self-study material to boost their prior knowledge at their own pace. For example, you can refer to the material of a course unit on which you build further or books, a collection of articles, videos, lesson recordings, etc. that provide the necessary basic information. If possible, make that material available online. 
  • Let students identify their own prior knowledge. Offer self-tests to identify gaps for your course unit or lecture, and clarify how they can fill those gaps. 
  • Provide opportunities for revision during a contact moment. This gives more students the time to process the study material. 
  • Provide a preparatory assignment to create shared prior knowledge or detect problems. This only works when you discuss the assignment during the lecture and when you attach a clear description and focus to it. Don't ask 'Read this chapter in preparation for the upcoming lecture, but ask 'Read this chapter from this angle'. 
  • Make use of peers. Through peer instruction, students can give each other additional explanation and instruction. Even those who do the explaining learn from this. By explaining the study material in their own words, demonstrating it to others or questioning it, they expand their knowledge and skills. 

UGent Practices

Last modified July 4, 2024, 3:19 p.m.