Publications & Resources

Short Circuits or Superconductors? Examining Factors That Encourage or Undermine Group Learning and Collaboration Among High-Ability Students

May 2001

Noreen M. Webb, Kariane Mari Welner, and Stephen Zuniga

Peer-directed small-group collaboration is featured prominently in debates about good classroom instruction and in the promotion of school reform. Although many cooperative learning methods advocate grouping students heterogeneously in order to maximize the diversity of perspectives, skills, and backgrounds, past research shows that while heterogeneous grouping generally benefits low-ability students, it does not necessarily benefit high-ability students. This study investigates the effects of group ability composition (homogeneous vs. heterogeneous) on group processes and outcomes for high-ability students completing science performance assessments. The results show that group ability composition does not have straightforward effects on achievement. While high-ability students working in homogeneous groups uniformly performed well, high-ability students in some heterogeneous groups performed better than high-ability students in other heterogeneous groups. The quality of group functioning served as the strongest predictor of high-ability students’ achievement. High-ability students in groups that were responsive to group members’ need for help and did not engage in debilitating social behavior performed well, whereas high-ability students in groups with poorer functioning did not. Whereas homogeneous groups consistently showed beneficial group functioning, only some heterogeneous groups exhibited these traits. These results show that achievement of high-ability students cannot be predicted from a simple homogeneous-heterogeneous grouping contrast and that the level of groupfunctioning provides the key to understanding group performance.

Webb, N. M., Welner, K. M., & Zuniga, S. (2001). Short circuits or superconductors? Examining factors that encourage or undermine group learning and collaboration among high-ability students (CSE Report 541). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST).