May 8th, 2013

Helping Students Understand the Benefits of Study Groups


Would your students benefit from participation in a study group? Are you too busy to organize and supervise study groups for students in your courses? I’m guessing the answer to both questions is yes. If so, here are some ways teachers can encourage and support student efforts to study together without being “in charge” of the study groups.

Promote study groups – First, include a list of reasons why students should join study groups in the syllabus or on the course website. Maybe there’s a short podcast available in which you talk about the usefulness of study groups. Better yet, if you’ve got some students who studied together in a previous course, ask them to make some comments about their experiences. Second, talk regularly in class about study groups. You can repeat all the benefits, suggest activities that involve good group study strategies, or propose some things they could study together (like problems they could solve, questions they could discuss). You also can solicit feedback from study groups in class or mention content you discussed with a group during office hours.

Make study groups an option – Encourage students to organize their own groups, but offer to help with the process. Nudge them with reminders, such as “Send me an email if you’re interested in being part of a study group.” Have study groups “register” their members, and then report on meeting times and activities. Suggest study activities for the group (ideas like those offered in the next item). Invite the group to meet with you during office hours or to send questions electronically. Offer registered study groups that report regular meetings a bonus point incentive depending on the average of their individual test grades. Let all students know that joining a study group is an option throughout the course.

Demonstrate the value of a study group – Too often when students study together, it’s pretty much a waste of time. If they’re reviewing for a test, they talk about how it can’t possibly be that hard and thereby relieve themselves of the need to study. Or they “go over” their notes, reading what they’ve written but never with any discussion. Group studying is too often accompanied by eating, texting, and regular side conversations.

In order for students to get the most value from their study sessions, you’ll need to help them come up with a different set of strategies. You can do so by holding a review session and asking students to form potential study groups (it’s up to them if they want to meet as a group more often). Give the groups tasks like these: 1) For three minutes everybody reviews their notes and lists five things they think will be on the test and then for five minutes they share lists and create a group list of the items most often mentioned. During the exam debrief, students revisit their list of things they expected to see on the exam. Were those things on the exam? 2) Everybody takes three minutes and writes a question about some content they don’t understand or wish they understood better. The group devotes a specified amount of time to each question, looking for relevant content in their notes and the text. 3) The group has 20 minutes to make one crib sheet that everyone in that group can use during the exam.

Offer proof that study groups improve performance – Compare the scores, points, or grades of those working in study groups with those who aren’t. These are data which should be collected across several sections of the course.

Define study groups broadly – Students tend to think of study groups for exam preparation, but that isn’t the only kind of student collaboration that promotes learning. If there are regularly assigned readings for the course, students can get together to discuss the reading. Again you might let them do this first in class with a good set of prompts so they see how dialogue can enrich and deepen their understanding of the assigned material. Readings are easily discussed in virtual environments, which means the group doesn’t have to find a time when everybody can meet. If various writing assignments are required in the course, students can form peer editing groups. Rubrics, checklists, and prompts can help them get beyond superficial feedback (“you might need a comma here”) to the kind of helpful critique that improves the writing.

Readers, what strategies have you used to encourage effective study groups?

  • Ellen Smyth

    The idea that study groups improve learning and are an efficient use of students' time is completely counter to the findings that Dr. Josipa Roska presented in her Magna Seminar on her (Arum/Roska) very popular book, Academically Adrift. I couldn't find a direct quote from the book, but I did find this quote that is aligned with what I remember Dr. Roska saying: "Actual learning (if you believe the CLA data) goes up in almost direct proportion to the amount of time students spend studying ALONE. Conversely, it goes down in an almost linear correlation with the amount of time students spend studying in GROUPS. In fact, increased time studying in groups has as strong a negative effect on learning as does membership in a fraternity or sorority."

    When Roska shared these findings, I could feel the collective gasp from the Magna peeps and the Chickering-and-Gamsonites. I gasped, too, knowing the value of in-class , structured group activities. But, as I began to think back on my college experiences with unstructured study groups, I realized that we did less learning and more socializing and venting. Other than the files (collections of old exams) we shared, which weren't so much learning as they were hacking the system, my time was almost completely wasted by studying in groups.

    One group of good students last term described to me the endless hours they'd spent studying to prepare for the midterm, and then they averaged a letter grade lower on their exams than their quiz averages, whereas most students score within a couple points of their quiz averages. I know this is anecdotal evidence, but I can see where study groups would easily go awry.

    Having structured activities for the study groups, as you've nicely laid out in this article, might fix the problems inherent with undirected study group sessions. Given the Academically Adrift findings, though, I would like to see more evidence to convince me that structured, unmonitored study groups could be more efficient than studying alone.

    • Glenn Blalock

      I agree that more research / evidence might be useful to help us see how "structured, unmonitored study groups could be more efficient than studying alone." I think that is a need we can all agree to without having to (continue to) value the Arum/Roska work as being somehow representative of the varied scenes of learning represented across the spectrum of higher education.

      I have difficulty taking seriously A/R's claims ("Actual learning (if you believe the CLA data) . . .") that CLA data show "actual learning" or are helpful in thinking about the myriad ways that students interact to study. Download these reviews (and read especially Haswell) to understand my discomfort:

      • Ellen Smyth

        Thank you, Glenn. I am downloading now.

  • Matt Birkenhauer

    Supplemental Instruction, as I understand it (and I've had some training in it), is a kind of highly structured study group. I read Academically Adrift; I took in what Roska and Arum had to say about the value of studying alone. To me, that is not so much an argument against study groups as an argument for setting up highly structured study groups, akin to, for example, Supplemental Instruction.

    • Ellen Smyth

      Thanks, Matt. I do need to read the book, not only to get a better understanding of this issue, but I am interested in seeing all of their data and their processes.

  • Ol' Prof

    I encourage study groups because I find they improve performance. Students in study groups are more fluent with concepts because they discuss them and share perspectives. One strategy I use to encourage study groups is letting teams (not individuals) propose questions for tests. They post these to an on-line forum without answers, and I give extra credit for the questions that I use on the subsequent test. This activity helps students identify likely questions by topic and level of thinking, and lets me see where the class is still struggling.

    Study groups I've run into working together in our building tell me they also use these questions as a basis for their discussions. One group individually reviewed the questions before meeting and used them to define areas where they felt least confidence; another looked at topics posted to discover what was not yet covered and formulate new questions. I was able to see which students seemed more isolated and might need attention.

    The class is a demanding one, but most ultimately do well. In addition, the study groups give shyer students a support group. Groups make it easier to talk to me and my fleet of teaching assistants; these create alliances that have professional value. Groups have identified safety and mental health concerns as well. Groups offer motivational support, which has statistical value.

    To pooh-pooh the social side of study groups as the earlier commentator did seems to me a very narrow reading of education. Though I am aware of their use in improving performance, I also believe the social and support outcomes are important. I teach in a profession, at one of the world's leading public institutions, with an immigrant and first-generation college population above 50%. We tell students to network for jobs, for example, and nurturing these networks, especially in large classes (150 students this year) has both intellectual and professional value.

    Study groups are not needed in every setting (a seminar already is a study group) or for every class. But their value in large introductory lecture courses covering a great deal of material should not be overlooked.

  • Pingback: Professors Promoting Study Groups | My Educational Technology Blog: A Place of Resources and Tools for Educators()

  • drtomlombardo

    I haven't read Academically Adrift, but the fact that the quote cites study groups in the same sentence as fraternities and sororities makes me wonder what kind of study groups she was referring to. Learning is a social experience and studying in groups – as long as the groups can maintain some discipline and actually study – is beneficial, and there's a fair amount of research to support that.

    I'll add my own anecdotal data point: I was a pretty lazy undergraduate, but when I did study with friends or roommates, I found it to be a productive use of my time. And those were the same friends that I partied with, so it's not like I joined a study group full of straight-laced people. Peer pressure may have been a factor; we had work to do and nobody wanted to be the one to derail the efforts.

  • Nisha

    I have found the following rules help (this is what we followed in graduate school and what I encourage my students to do)
    1. Study the material before the group meeting.
    2. Write down 1) points that need clarification; 2) summary of the topic; 3) what they think is the highlight of the topic.
    3. Group meeting: Discuss all the 3 above and help each other with questions.
    This way students have a better understanding of the topic.

  • cognitioneducation

    As with many issues in learning contexts, its not the study group per se that should be cast as the villain or the hero, but rather how the study group activity aligns with the aims of the assignment or exam. If the exam is a factually based multiple choice exam and the study group spends its time talking about how the content of the exam applies to real world situations, then their time spent isn't going to help them with the exam much. If the exam is an essay exam where students are expected to apply concepts to real world problems though, then the two situations are a match and the group work should help. Any study technique will be a bust if it doesn't "match" with the exam format — that's a general principle from Cognitive Psychology called "transfer appropriate processing." What students need, in terms of advice for appropriate studying is a set of expectations regarding exam format, and the discipline to then study in the appropriate manner. All that said, I tell my students that they should always study alone first, then use a study group to test their knowledge.

  • fsuwebtools

    After participating in the one study group that I became a part of in college, (I believe all members but myself have long since passed away due to the effects of old age.) I recall thinking that I should have participated in more of them. This was long before the Web, web browsers or blogging. The group was advantageous to me because there were at least a few excellent students in it, that were able to explain certain course/core concepts that I did not understand from the professor's in class presentations or materials that I had read. They explained the materials "a step below" the expertise with which the instructor had presented the information. It allowed me to "get on the bus" and then continue to learn on my own.

    The negative, as with group projects, is that not everyone participates equally or fully. A few produce. A few do nothing, and want everything. And, a few benefit from the added insights of the brighter students.

    I think that using a WordPress blog site as a framework for a study group would be beneficial. Everyone could contribute. The group, not being physically present would be less likely to "get off task," and even if that happened in a discussion area, each student could choose to follow the tangent or stay on target. The first example of VoiceThread I viewed gave me great hope. Individuals could address issues via multi-modes (written, audio, video) as in a threaded discussion.

  • Nohammet Andrews

    I have recently started with group study. After studying a chapter, I hand out the test papers and give my pupils one hour to discuss it among themselves and mark the answers they think that are right. Once the time expires, I collect all the test papers. Together we go over all the answers; if they mark an answer wrong, I want an explanation for that pick and we debate the selection. I will never give out the answer but I will help them find the right answer.

  • Ken Mellendorf

    I have seen my students participate in a variety of study group styles. The two extremes are working together always and only studying together for tests. Students that work together on homework and discuss subjects on a daily or weekly basis seem to do better than students that work alone. Students that study for tests together but do everything else alone seem to do worse that students that always work alone.

  • Coach John McGovern

    The process of gaining additional information from any form of study requires an understanding of learning and the internal motivation necessary to succeed in the classroom. Coaches and athletes at every university understand the value of matching particular students with those of similar learning style, athletic interest, etc. Much like the adage, "birds of a feather, flock together" individuals with similar neurophysiology and learning styles will definitely benefit. As a motivated group, they will find a way to make this experience enjoyable. At first it is simple motivation by "reward and punishment" until the internal recognition process moves this exercise to a valued platform that students first participate. Athletes do this same thing during practices. Certain student-athletes will gravitate and push certain teammates that they have a relationship with and feel comfortable. Those who have the same physiological and neurophysiological changes will either avoid one another or group up. Professional who realize the value of adaptation for specific learners reach the larger population. Lecturing commands a 10% rate of return, visual exercise such as watching a movie returns 20% comprehension but demonstrative exercises can reap a return in excess of 50%. So, selectivity of professors based on their learning style, consensus building by coaches to group student-athletes based on commonality, and recognizing the motivation for success, such as the loss of a scholarship or compromising a personal principle, translates collaborative teamwork to improved success in the classroom.

  • psytreasure

    Group Study is very effective, it not only help you to understand the topic but students in study groups can generally learn faster than students working alone.