Supporting Student-Led Study Groups
Engagement in study groups outside of class can have many benefits for our students. But during the pandemic and our pivot to remote instruction, our students' informal channels of communication are largely absent, making it difficult for them to establish groups on their own. Faculty members can play an important role in student success by helping students overcome these barriers and create valuable study groups.
Just as in-class group work varies in quality based on how we structure those activities, however, student-led study groups can succeed or flounder because of how well they are managed. Maryellen Weimer notes this in her examination of a research study that demonstrated a lack of impact from loosely-organized study groups:
The message to us is that if we are going to recommend study groups to students, we must also offer guidance—whether that’s a handout that lists good study activities and others to avoid, content material that they might work through, or an assignment where the study group prepares review material on a designated topic that they then distribute to the rest of the class. (Weimer, 2012)
This page provides suggestions on how instructors can support their students’ use of study groups in ways that may lead to greater student success. We pay particular attention to the challenges posed by remote and hybrid learning, in which students cannot easily turn to those around them in class in order to establish informal learning networks.
A Range of Interventions
Instructors will vary in the amount of time and effort they are willing to invest in helping students form study groups—from simply encouraging students to use study groups to carefully organizing and coaching those groups in their work. The suggestions below start with minimal support and ramp up towards more direct and integrated scaffolding.
General Encouragement and Resources
Provide students with general encouragement regarding the value of study groups, along with some resources to let them establish groups on their own.
- Talk to students about the benefits of long-term study groups, in which students can regularly go over notes, homework, and assignments. When discussing smaller assignments, suggest ways that working with others would be beneficial for those tasks. (“So, if you are meeting with your study group this week, you might want to….”)
- Provide testimonials from former students regarding the benefits of study groups, and perhaps tips on how they worked with classmates. If you have groups form in your current class, give them a shout-out in class.
- Establish collaboration with peers as the norm in your field, giving examples about how you interact with colleagues to solve tough problems.
- Point students to resources that help them self-organize groups, such as Run Your Own Study Group from Northwestern University.
- Point to Zoom as an option for meeting, and consider letting students suggest other tools they have used for group work before. (Note that other instructors have indicated students prefer other tools to the group tools in Canvas, so let them use whatever works for them.) Note, though, that students are reporting Zoom fatigue, so tips for holding organized and productive meetings are important.
- If there are student organizations in your department, see if they would be interested in helping to manage study groups in the major.
- Consider giving students small amounts of extra credit for participating in study groups—a photo of the group (or a screen shot of a Zoom meeting) is an easy way to give them an extra point on an exam.
- Offer group office hours, where study groups can meet with you as teams to go over problems and discuss challenges they are having in class.
Helping Students with Logistics
Students do not always know how to form groups, or they may need help with the logistics—especially when remote learning during the pandemic takes away their ability to casually interact with classmates for setting up groups. Helping students with the logistics of forming groups also has an important benefit: Leaving group formation entirely to students may exclude the students who need the group support the most. That is, students with the group skills gained from privileged educational backgrounds will improve, while other students may not. It also helps shy students who wouldn’t reach out to classmates they don’t already know.
- Create a simple Google Spreadsheet with several suggested meeting times, letting students indicate their availability and see who else is interested in meeting then. They can enter other times if they want, and they can indicate who is going to organize the group. Make your role clear—if you are just helping get the organizational process started, make that clear and nudge them toward self-organizing; you don’t want them waiting around for you to take the next step if you don’t intend to. If you use a Google Spreadsheet, be sure permissions are set to only allow class members to view it, in order to comply with FERPA guidelines. The easiest way to do this is to use Google Course Tools in Canvas.
- You can use Canvas to set up groups, and you can set those groups to have self-sign-up. Using groups in Canvas gives them some tools to use, but many students like to use other communications tools, so you might check with them for preferences before heading down the Canvas route. (You can provide the Canvas student guides on groups for their use.)
- Research suggests that establishing groups based on student strengths, interests, and diversity can lead to better outcomes than self-formed teams (Oakley, et al, 2004). That involves more significant work on the part of the instructor—creating surveys to gather student information and interests, analyzing student responses to early assignments, using the data to organize groups, etc. That level of work doesn’t align well with optional study groups, however, so it is best utilized when study groups are connected to other group work associated with the class. See below for more information on those scaffolded group options.
Teaching Students How to Use Study Groups
Not all students know how to get the most out of study groups. And in some cases, groups can actually reinforce questionable study behaviors. Here are some suggestions for helping your students use study groups effectively.
- Point your students to Northwestern University’s Run Your Own Study Group, which provides many suggestions on how to effectively study in a group, particularly related to creating inclusive groups, fostering deeper learning in the group, and dealing with any conflicts that may arise. You might even highlight a few of their suggestions that seem most relevant to your class.
- Make your Associate Instructors or Undergraduate Teaching Assistants available to visit study groups—not as the facilitators or organizers, but as resources who can help a group who is stuck on a problem or concept.
- Invite someone from the Student Academic Center (SAC) to come talk to your students about the best ways to study. The SAC already offers academic coaching that helps students develop effective study habits, and they can do that work for groups as well. They will not organize or run the study groups, but rather help students discover how best to utilize a study group.
- Model effective study processes as part of in-class activities. For example, you can take a few minutes at the end of the week to have students summarize key points from the week’s classes, or questions they still have. Or have them create sample test questions based on the week’s work. (There are plenty of connections here to Classroom Assessment Techniques.) Help them practice these synthesis activities and clarify that they make good launching points for individual and group study for the week.
- Review your course policies to make sure they allow for (or encourage) group work on homework activities. Encouraging study groups while demanding individual work on homework assignments can confuse students and discourage collaboration.
- Use “exam wrappers” (Lovett, 2013) to help students analyze their performance and identify ways they might study better for future assignments. This self-reflective activity can give study groups study ideas and goals to work with.
Scaffolding Study Groups with In-Class Activities
Probably the most certain way to get study groups going is to formally incorporate them into your class. This allows you to construct groups that are diverse—in strengths, interests, genders, races, and backgrounds—which research shows leads to better outcomes (Oakley, et al, 2004). Structuring study groups as part of the class also lets students practice their study behaviors under your guidance, and it requires involvement of all students. This formal approach is particularly useful in lower-level classes where students may not know the best ways of studying for your course or discipline.
- To ensure skill/interest diversity in groups, poll your students about prior experience or interests within your discipline, or use pre-tests or early activities to understand skill levels. To ensure diversity of perspective in groups, make sure individuals with different backgrounds, genders, and races get the opportunity to work together (you may have to survey students about these, since many identities are not easily seen). *
- Create homework and other activities that require groups to discuss, solve complex problems or scenarios, or debate the “best answers.” Questions that have single correct answers, or assignments that lend themselves to division of labor, don’t teach students how to work together as well, and those are the skills they need for study groups.
- Get used to talking about group conclusions rather than individual ones, since you want to make working in groups the standard.
- Practice problem-solving or analysis in class, being explicit about the steps you are taking, and then give groups homework that uses those same processes, so they practice with them under your guidance first. Remember that we want to scaffold learning here—giving them overt intellectual support and models early on, and then starting to remove the formal structures as they internalize those skills and start working in groups on their own.
- Talk with your students about good teamwork, or have someone from the SAC visit to talk about good study group practices, and then systematically build on those skills in assignments. Northwestern University’s Run Your Own Study Group provides some good ideas here, too.
- To ensure accountability in groups, you can have quizzes that include both individual and group components.
- Consider connections to existing Supplemental Instruction (SI) programs in your department, as well as other more formal study programs.
* There is significant debate about how to assign students who are minorities in the class or field, as well as international students. Research demonstrates heterogenous groups typically lead to better outcomes, although some students may feel isolated if they are not grouped with their social peers. Felder and Brent (2001) recommend this: “First, the only minorities you should be concerned about are those at risk academically, for whom the dropout rate is historically greater than the overall average dropout rate in your field. An example would be women in engineering. Then, early in the curriculum when the dropout risk is greatest—say, in the freshman and sophomore years—try to avoid groups in which members of those minorities are isolated.” While we in the CITL don’t completely endorse this approach in all situations, it does reveal some considerations for group composition.
No matter what level of engagement you have it the process, encouraging and supporting student study groups can help students succeed in your classes, particularly in this time when their informal networking and support structures are lacking.
“Exam Wrappers.” Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation. Carnegie Mellon University.
Felder, Richard, and Rebecca Brent. “Effective Strategies for Cooperative Learning.” Journal of Cooperation & Collaboration in College Teaching 10, no. 2 (2001): 69-75.
Lovett, Marsha. “Make Exams Worth More than the Grade: Using Exam Wrappers to Promote Metacognition.” In Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning, edited by Matthew Kaplan, Naomi Silver, Danielle Lavaque-Manty, and Deborah Meizlish, 18-52. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013.
Oakley, Barbara, Richard Felder, Rebecca Brent, and Imad Elhajj. “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams.” Journal of Student Centered Learning 2, no. 1 (2004): 9-34.
Weimer, Maryellen. The Elusive Benefits of Study Groups. Faculty Focus. August 9, 2012