May 8th, 2013

Helping Students Understand the Benefits of Study Groups

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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?