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Bringing the Study Group into the 21st Century

Posted in Ed Tech on November 1, 2011 by

Why exactly are study groups so effective? According to R. Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at Washington University, study groups work because they “provide a way for students to make the lecture notes their own.” Rather than simply reviewing notes in their dorm rooms, students engage in dynamic discussions that both reinforce their understanding of the material and challenge them to see it from different perspectives.

How exactly does this happen?

Students teach each other casually in study groups. They paraphrase lecture notes, explain the same concept or body of information in multiple ways, and think of analogies and metaphors to help clarify their explanations. While one student is speaking, others may chime in or posit questions that force everyone in the group to reassess their understanding of the material.

All this has the effect of allowing students to see how others are structuring and storing the same information in their memory–which often leads to accelerated development for students whose primary challenge is that they do not know how to organize information.

Furthermore, the repetition that study groups encourage–the act of going through problems multiple times and reviewing facts and formulas–can help reinforce and strengthen understanding. Just as the best learning programs weave text, video, and diagrams together to appeal to students with different learning styles, successful group work often incorporates a variety of activities (paraphrasing, debating, drilling, and outlining being just a few examples) so that all students’ needs are met.

Study groups can be extremely rewarding on an interpersonal level as well.

Students learn how to work together to reach academic goals, and how to give and receive feedback graciously. On top of reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation, group work motivates students to help their peers by providing a natural form of social acknowledgment for those who excel at doing so. This increases the “surface area” of the classroom by facilitating interaction between students who wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with each other. And it benefits teachers by reducing the burden of instruction and allowing students to help each other, so that they come to class more prepared and with more incisive questions to ask.

Recognizing the value of study groups, Knewton’s Math Readiness Course for CollegeTM provides a dashboard that allows teachers to group students who are working on the same material together. Using the reporting features, teachers can also arrange peer review opportunities and form groups of students whose abilities complement each other. The possibilities are endless.

Looking to incorporate study groups into your classroom? Here are a few tips:

1. Be creative about grouping. You can group students together who are working on the same material at the same time. You can also get creative and form groups of students whose levels or abilities complement each other. In a composition workshop, for instance, you might place students in groups of four or five, with each student acting as the “master” or “gatekeeper” for a different aspect of your grading rubric (organization, style, grammar, clarity of purpose, etc).

2. Get full mileage out of the group structure. Assign students projects that really require a group effort: designing a “museum” exhibit, performing a short play. If students can accomplish the task individually, they are likely to be less effective in a group and may resent those who are pulling less weight.

3. Connect group work to the outside world. One way to accomplish the above is to design projects that require significant research and interaction with the world beyond school. You might make some students responsible for researching online communities or infiltrating certain networks (which is remarkably similar to the kind of work they may be asked to do on the job in the future, and has the added benefit of developing digital literacy skills). Together, students can evaluate the veracity of the information and synthesize findings.

4. Perfect through data. Think about group orchestration as something that can be infinitely perfected. Study groups aren’t just a way to check off an “activity” box or make sure that your class is a multi-faceted experience; group work is a significant way to prepare students for careers that involve teamwork and people skills. Just as companies optimize the way that employees work together, so you can use tools to collect data on the efficacy of study group exercises and improve the activities from year to year.

5. Provide just enough direction. Don’t be afraid to provide strong, clear direction if necessary (although if students are highly self-motivated, you may want to be more open-ended). Lay out specific goals for group work and if possible, allocate some time in class for students to get started on their projects together.

6. Allow students to report on the group work in different ways. Ever notice that students feel more attached to group work if they’re required to speak for the group in some way? Whether it’s through a presentation or a report, requiring students to be accountable for the group will expand their sense of ownership.