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Run Your Own Study Group

Run Your Own Study Group

Are you interested in starting a study group but not sure where to start? Or do you have a study group and want to enhance its effectiveness? Look here for advice on starting, maintaining, and making the most of a study-group experience.

First things first

Why should I study in a group?

  • When you study with others, you are exposing yourself to different points of view, different approaches to problem-solving, different ways of understanding material — and this exposure helps you build on and refine your own "toolkit" for learning. You also get the opportunity to explain your ideas publicly, which means that you need to think them through more fully than you might if you were studying alone — so that you are much more likely to see gaps in your knowledge and be able to address them.
  • This doesn't mean that every group-learning experience will benefit everybody who takes part. Individual student characteristics, the mix of people in the group, and the way the group is structured all influence how beneficial a particular group experience will be for a particular student. The strategies outlined below can help you and your group ensure that the experience will be a positive one for all involved.
  • If you'd like to read more about how collaborative learning works, check out Nokes-Malach, Richey,  & Gadgil (2015) or Hui-Hua, Sears, & Maeda (2015).

How do I find other people who want to form a study group?

  • Ask the instructor or TA if they can help. For example, they might make an announcement in class, or set up groups using the Groups feature in Canvas.
  • Use the Groups feature in Canvas yourself to set up a group, and invite others to join. If the feature is not enabled, ask your instructor if they are willing to enable it.
  • Use word of mouth. Spread the idea to a friend or two in the class, and ask them to pass it along to others.
  • Just ask! There’s nothing wrong with turning to the people who sit near you to see if anybody is interested in studying in a group.

How many people should be in a study group?

  • As a general rule of thumb, you want more than two, and fewer than ten. Two people can certainly study together, but with more than two, you start to get more diverse perspectives, approaches, etc., that can create richer conversation. And once you approach ten, it gets difficult to manage the conversation so that everybody can participate. And often-cited ideal size is five to seven people.

Where do we meet? When? How often?

  • Balance frequency with realism. It might be great to meet daily, but will people really show up? We recommend at least once a week, so that the group has a chance to gel, and so that people recall what was discussed the previous week.
  • We recommend meeting for 90 minutes to 2 hours. An hour-long meeting can often end up being 45 minutes, accounting for late arrivals, warm-up time, etc. – and this is not typically enough time to go through course material thoroughly.
  • Norris, the Library, and res halls are great options. You might want to reserve a space, so that you know you have access to it on a regular basis. Study rooms can be reserved in the Main Library as well as in Mudd Library. Multicultural Student Affairs also has spaces that can be reserved. If you live in a res hall, check out spaces in or near where you live (for example, a privacy booth in the Shepard Engagement Center), which are great for studying with neighbors who are also classmates.

Do we need ground rules?

  • The single most effective way to avoid problems down the road in a study group is to set up initial ground rules. And the best way to do that is to create them collectively. Spend a good chunk of time in your first session developing ground rules that everyone agrees to, and then type them up and send them to all members. We have a sample list of ground rules you can use as a starting point.
  • Remember, ground rules are flexible, and changes can always be made.

Keeping the group running smoothly

How do we prepare for the sessions?

  • Encourage people to come prepared. One of your ground rules might be that everyone attempts the homework or completes assigned reading ahead of time, for example. And you might ask people to come to the sessions with 2-3 questions to contribute.
  • Be sure to check out your class’s Canvas page, Piazza board, and textbook (if you have one) if you’re having trouble finding material to go over.
  • Bring necessary supplies: markers, books, course materials, etc. Tip: there are free markers, textbooks, and other supplies you can reserve at the library!
  • To help facilitate discussion, arrange the tables or desk so that everybody can see everybody else.

What format should we use for discussion?

  • Think about how you want to shape the activities in your sessions. For example, for a problem-solving-type class, you might do 5 minutes of warm-up, 40 minutes reviewing slides, 30 minutes doing practice problems, and 15 minutes of final questions. In a class that is more theory or reading based, you might do 5 minutes of warm-up, 30 minutes reviewing key themes from lecture or readings, 30 minutes defining key concepts, 20 minutes working through discussion questions, and 5 minutes of wrap-up.
  • Consider switching discussion formats from time to time, to keep things lively and to help ensure everyone gets to participate.
  • Because some people may feel less comfortable speaking in front of the group, include some opportunities for pair or trio work. Also see the Inclusion section below.
  • Whatever structure you decide on, set an agenda for each session, to help people know what to expect and stay on track.

Do we need a leader?

  • Study groups are more successful when there is somebody in charge of logistics — someone who ensures that the schedule is sent out, that the room is booked, and so forth. You might rotate this responsibility so that one person isn’t stuck with logistics duty all quarter.
  • Groups also tend to function better when there is somebody playing a facilitator role. This person isn’t the “teacher,” but they are there to help make sure that the group moves forward as planned, that everyone is getting a chance to engage, etc. Consider rotating this responsibility weekly, so that everybody has a chance to facilitate.

How can we make sure our group is inclusive?

  • Focus on growth. Recognize that each student’s academic development path is unique. Emphasize helping people improve from where they are, rather than comparing across individuals. Encouraging a “no dumb questions” rule can help create an atmosphere where people are unafraid to ask for help or clarification. Keep the focus on learning, not showing how much you already know.
  • Acknowledge that there are multiple ways to approach a problem or assignment. If somebody takes an approach different from yours, be curious, and ask yourself, "What can I learn from this person?" The variety of perspectives and approaches that exist within a group enrich the conversation, benefiting everybody.
  • Be sure that you are paying attention to and building on what every group member says. Treat everybody’s input as important to the development of the group as a whole. Also be sure that everyone has an equal chance to participate. If some people tend to have the floor more than others, make an effort to shift that pattern.
  • Be accepting of others’ subjective experiences. For example, if somebody says that they thought a particular quiz was really hard, but you found it easy, acknowledge their feelings, rather than simply stating that it was easy for you. You might even ask if they’d like to review that material, and see how you can help.
  • Show respect for people's individuality. Learn how to pronounce everybody's names, and use people's preferred gender pronouns. Avoid assumptions about people's ethnicity or country of origin, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. If you make a mistake, it's OK!  Just apologize and ask for correction.
  • Be mindful of differences in life experience that might exist in the group. Sometimes well-meaning comments can lead to people feeling marginalized. For example, asking where everyone traveled over spring break assumes that everybody has funds to pay for travel, so a more inclusive question might be, simply, “How was everyone's break?” That question allows people to highlight whatever was important to them, whether it was travel, or spending time with family, or something else.
  • Do your best to use inclusive language, for example "you all" rather than you guys," or "human-made" rather than "man-made." Also, try to be aware of how a comment might affect others. For instance, offhanded comments related to a disability (as in "I'm being dyslexic!") or mental health (as in "I'm so OCD today!") can reduce comfort levels of students who are personally experiencing those issues.

How do we make sure we're learning at a deep level in the group?

  • Look for connections among concepts and ideas, and think about how various concepts may differ or might interact with one another. Consider using concept maps or other tools to help organize ideas and interconnections.
  • Always seek to understand the "why" or "how" in addition to the "what."
  • Address questions that require various levels of thinking. Use Bloom's Taxonomy as a guide.
  • Be transparent about processes. For example, in a course that requires problem-solving, have group members walk through the problem-solving process together. Or in a class that emphasizes analysis of text, walk through that process together, being explicit about the steps you are taking.
  • If someone gets an answer or concept wrong, ask them and/or others to explore where the mistake happened. Be sure to focus on how exploring this will help the group as a whole, rather than emphasizing the individual's mistake.
  • In a quantitative-focused course, think beyond just "getting the answer.” Try these techniques:
    • Have people point out key concepts in the problems, and explain them.
    • Ask people to try changing values or components within the problems, and see if they can do the problem again (e.g., “what if x were 12?”).
    • Ask people to relate problems to other problems or other topics in the course.
    • Discuss the value in what you’re learning: Why is it important? What can you do with the knowledge?
  • To improve problem-solving skills, try...
    • Asking different people to share their problem-solving approaches, so that everybody gets to consider an approach different from their own.
    • Making problem-solving strategies explicit by having people talk through their thinking processes as they are working a problem.
    • Taking some group time to look at formal problem-solving approaches, such as the Pólya problem-solving method, and trying them out together.

Troubleshooting

What if the atmosphere is awkward?

  • Don’t be afraid of icebreakers! Dread the “name, grade, major, fun fact” icebreaker? There are lots of alternatives. Check out this list of icebreakers for the classroom. Need more? Here's another icebreaker list.
  • Begin each class with a few minutes of chatting about how people are doing generally.
  • Talk about academic things outside of course work, for example general course tips and suggestions, reminders of large due dates or midterms, or advice on classes generally.
  • Take breaks every once in a while to chat about non-academic things too!
  • Make sure everyone feels included (see the Inclusion section above).
  • Regardless of how the group is going, it’s a good idea to periodically survey the members about how they are feeling about the group. You can do this by simply having a conversation, or you can have people write comments on cards and then combine them and share the comments with the group for discussion.

What if there's conflict?

Some level of disagreement is natural in a study group, because you're working with different individuals who bring their own personalities, values, expectations, perspectives, and so on.  And it can even be useful, because it can allow the group to explore diverse ideas and opinions. But if the disagreement rises to the level of conflict that is interfering with the group's productivity, try these approaches:

  • Try to identify the source of the conflict. Is it about group process?  Communication styles? Differing expectations or priorities? Identifying the root cause will help you work toward a solution.
  • Keep your group's core goals front and center. Your purpose is to help everybody learn better and succeed in the course.
  • Return to your ground rules, and ask group members to consider whether they're being followed, or whether they should be updated.
  • Try to have an open conversation about the conflict, and create ground rules for this conversation (for example, listening actively, avoiding interruption, focusing on issues and not people, etc.).
  • Learn more about addressing group conflict  or understanding and managing conflict.

What if people feel they're not getting a lot out of the group?

  • If there is dissatisfaction in the group, try to get a handle on what's causing that.  Have a conversation, or ask people to submit comments to be shared collectively.
  • Sometimes a study group doesn't feel productive because people tend to do individual studying rather than collaborative studying. If that's the case, try some of the collaborative techniques listed above, under "What format should we use for discussion?"
  • Sometimes people are dissatisfied because they aren’t fully understanding concepts, or are only memorizing and not fully grasping the material. If you think this is the case, check out the deep-level learning strategies above.

I've had a bad study-group experience. Should I try again?

  • Yes! Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, a study group might not work out well. But the benefits to learning with others are many, so we strongly encourage you to give it another try. The strategies outlined here can set you off in the right direction.

Looking for more support?

If you would like to consult with an experienced undergraduate study-group leader who can offer advice on organizing and running your own study group, contact us at asla@northwestern.edu.

If you'd like to join a quarter-long study group, check out our Peer-Guided Study Group program!