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Successful online study groups

This blog post gives an undergraduate student's perspective on ways instructors might support online study groups. 

With in-person instruction, student study groups tend to form naturally, whether with other students in a dorm, friends in a club, or students sitting nearby in lectures. However, remote learning has made it increasingly difficult for students to connect with their peers and form online study groups. Given this new challenge, it can be very impactful for instructors to help students form study groups during periods of remote instruction.

Why are study groups beneficial?

While students can be successful only studying alone, there are many benefits of group study that are hard to replicate with solo study, especially with remote learning:

  • Studying in groups helps students build a deeper understanding of the material, as they discuss and engage with topics beyond what can be covered in lecture or in readings.
  • Study groups provide a comfortable place to ask questions, especially if students are unable to attend office hours or want a quick answer to a minor question.  
  • Studying with other people can help students feel more connected to their classmates. This is particularly valuable with remote learning because of the isolating nature of asynchronous lectures and other online classes. 
  • Students have reported feeling less motivated to do work now that many are living at home. Study groups help provide motivation and accountability for students to study as they feel committed to the others in their group.

How can instructors help?

With the challenges of online learning preventing many students from connecting with their classmates and forming study groups, any interventions from you can really help if done effectively. 

Start Early and Mean It

By encouraging students to engage in study groups before or during the first few lectures, you can enable them to get to know their peers better early on. This will help students feel more comfortable with their classmates and with asking their classmates questions throughout the quarter. Plus, by starting early and emphasizing the value of study groups, you are demonstrating to students that you are serious about study groups and that you believe study groups will set them up for success in your class. 

If you don't help students understand the importance of study groups, they may view this as extra work and be less willing to participate, losing out on the potential benefits. But if you can get your students to appreciate the value of studying in groups and take ownership, they are likely to learn the material better and enjoy your class more.

Help Organize Groups

Students may feel anxious about reaching out to their classmates on their own or unsure whether others would want to work with them. For classes with frosh in particular, students may not know anyone else going into the class and may tend to just work alone. While you can't force your students to become friends, you can help make the process of forming study groups much easier and less stressful.

You may want to start by polling students on whether they would like to form study groups independently or if they would rather that you decide the groupings. It is likely that most students will want you to organize groups, even in upperclassmen courses. If the result is mixed, you can encourage students who want to form their own groups to do so and inform you, and then organize study groups out of the remaining students. If most but not all students want to form their own groups, you can ask students without a group to write to you directly to help them find others to connect with. 

It is likely that most students will want you to organize groups, even in upperclassmen courses. 

If your students prefer for you to organize the groups, it may be helpful to organize students by time zones. For any students living in a distant time zone from others, you can reach out to them directly to see what would work best for them.

Incentivize Study Groups

If you are really serious about having students study together, you can incentivize study groups by giving students a few points of extra credit or a similar reward for forming and meeting with their group. While this is not necessary, it can further demonstrate to your students that you see real value in group study.  

However, given issues with accessibility and the many other challenges of online learning, forcing students to engage with study groups and grading them on it would not be the best approach. Study groups can be encouraged to help your students connect with each other and expand their learning, but students who are unable to join groups should not be penalized. 

Don't Force It

As beneficial as study groups can be for many classes, they may not be relevant for all classes, or they may look very different.  For some classes, students may benefit more from working on several group projects instead.  By assigning a group project early in the class, students still benefit from connecting with their peers and building a network of students to ask questions to for the duration of the quarter. 

For some classes, students may benefit more from working on several group projects instead.

With in-person classes, students are typically most likely to meet in study groups prior to midterms and finals. Without finals in many classes and with a transition to more pset-based courses, study groups may look different than normal. For example, you can encourage students to work together on psets, so long as they still write their own answers on their respective assignments. To ensure that students are being active contributors in groups, you could encourage them to each try to complete the assignment on their own, and then come together to discuss answers and see if there are any common questions or confusing topics to bring to office hours (this all, of course, depends on how you believe students should be completing their assignments in line with the Honor Code and to maximize their learning). 

Given the many benefits of studying in groups, especially during remote learning, encouraging students to engage in online study groups can be a very positive experience. These ideas can help you get started, but study groups will only be effective if your students are receptive and motivated to work in their groups. So, it will be essential for you to communicate with them throughout your course to figure out the best solution for everyone.



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