Study Group Best Practices

Successful Study Group Best Practices

There are a number of ideas and practices that successful study groups describe. You may want to use some or all of the suggestions that follow, or as many as seem to help your group function smoothly.

  • Make a pact for your group on the range and scope of the group; that is it not a social hour, it is not a gripe session about professors, it is not acceptable for members to come to group unprepared, and that absences are not acceptable in most cases (be fair, but firm).
  • Have a study group structure and rotating roles. Most study groups assign roles to the members and then tend to rotate the roles on a monthly or weekly basis so that all members share the work fairly and learn the various group dynamics from experience.
    • Manager or Leader. Generally sets the meeting agenda each week including assigning the concept or topic for the presenter. A meeting without a written agenda of what to cover can quickly become a social club rather than a study club. The role gives the student excellent practice running a group fairly and effectively since if any of the other members cannot fulfill their role that week, the Manager steps in and does it rather than reassigning it. The Manager is also expected to mediate any group disputes or conflicts. More on agendas later.
    • Note taker(s). For a specific subject(s) note takers focus on taking comprehensive notes that tie in with other assigned materials. Learning to take good notes (see Note Taking Module) is a skill that will benefit you for a lifetime, but good notes don’t just happen.
    • Weekly presenter. Each week, a difficult concept should be tackled by one of the members with a short presentation of the topic and then be prepared to answer any and all questions on this topic. Being able to teach a topic is excellent study experience because you must be ready to answer any and all questions meaning you must grasp the topic beyond what you might pick up in class.
    • Note compiler/editor. This person(s) will take all the electronic versions of member notes compare them and put them into one complete version for the group. By compiling the notes the editors are performing a thorough review of the material as well as making sure that all ideas recorded by the members are shared.
    • Study question writer. This person should create 5-10 questions on the material to be covered that would be appropriate for a final exam. In other words, the questions should be thoughtful and address ideas and processes rather than just facts. An answer sheet for all questions should also be prepared with references to the course materials that support the answers. As a group you might answer the questions and debate the answers if they differ (if they don’t, then you might need to write harder questions). The study question writer benefits by looking in depth at the overall material, and has the pleasure of stumping the other members. All questions and answers should be added to the weekly notes for distribution.
    • Faculty sponsor. Consider asking a teacher to be the faculty sponsor for your group. This would involve one member being able to ask the teacher for additional information on the topic(s) covered that the group cannot answer sufficiently. The sponsor may also be asked to review the group notes a couple of times during the semester especially at the beginning to make sure you are taking good notes.
    • Other roles. Groups can establish other roles as needed or if multiple subjects are to be covered, members may have more than one role. Research the Internet for Study Group information – make certain the sources are reliable.
  • Weekly Meetings. Depending on the amount of material to be covered groups may meet once a week or several times a week. Once a week sessions often last up to three hours and the agenda changes before major tests to focus on review. In secondary schools groups may try to meet every school day for an hour or even on weekends. Because students in high school may be dependent upon others for transportation, meeting at school may be the better option. If all members have the same study hall, you may be able to have some faculty support for using that time for your group.
  • Agendas. Setting the agenda before each meeting and then reflecting after the meeting on how well the agenda worked or how well the group stuck to the agenda falls to the Manager. A good agenda sets the time for each part of the study session including presentation of the topic of the week, study questions and answers, review of compiled notes (end of week may, in fact, devote the entire meeting to reviewing the compiled notes), and problems not covered in the agenda or topic including group dynamic issues.
    • The group may wish to make suggestions at the end of any session about the content and topics for the upcoming session and assign roles as a group. In this case the Manager would still be the one the group turns to and they one who reaches out to the instructor for additional clarification, and the one who fills in for any members who have an excused absence.
  • Pitfalls. All groups are subject to some bumpy times often because one or more members do not do the assigned task or does a half-hearted job.
    • Unfairness of work done is a significant pitfall. This is one reason that roles are rotated. Not only is the complaint that some members are not doing enough, but that others are trying to do everything. Neither is good group behavior and should be addressed.
    • Another method to avoid this is to have the group vote each week on who provided the most to the group’s success. The winner becomes the next Manager (or some other reward the group deems appropriate).
    • Doing two or more anonymous surveys of members in which you assess the commitment and effort of each member. Manager will combine the results and share them with the group. To be as anonymous as possible the surveys should probably be electronic.
    • Groups are fluid sometimes and the group should identify additional students as potential members should someone resign or be asked to leave the group.
    • Before leaving or asking someone to leave a group, keep in mind that being able to resolve group conflicts may be one of the most valuable life skills you can acquire and use in your careers. Make sure the issues are real and not just personality differences. Compromise is one of the most valuable group skills to acquire. Putting aside personal differences for the benefit of the group is also another valuable life skill.
    • Sponsor support. In some cases the sponsor may be turned to for assistance in resolving a group issue, however, the group should exhaust every means to resolve the issue themselves and only turn to the sponsor as a last resort to keep the group together and functioning. Note that the sponsor may insist up front that he/she not be involved in any group disputes. This is a reasonable request since teachers are generally short of time.
  • Reflections. Once a month or three times a semester all students should write a short reflection on what the benefits of the study group are for you. You may wish to describe which role appeals to you most and which makes you work the hardest. Members should also write how much or little the impact of the group is on their overall learning and grades. This is also the place to speak about group dynamics and what you are learning about having a successful study group. Reflections are one of the things you may want to share with the faculty sponsor for his/her input and reaction to your experience.