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Starting a Virtual Study Group


By Melissa Venable

How can online learners work together to prepare for exams, review course materials, and compare notes? Student-organized study groups have been a staple on college campuses for decades. There are numerous technologies available that allow for similar interactions among online students who want to support each other's learning.

Student study groups are different from group project assignments and regular course meetings. They provide a venue for students to work together to identify their challenges with a topic for further exploration and review course materials. As The College Board states, "By supplementing your individual study with a study group, you can reinforce what you've learned, deepen your understanding of complex concepts, and maybe even make a few new friends."

Planning for Your Group

If you are considering joining an existing group or setting up a new one online, there are a few planning decisions to make before getting started, including the following areas:

  • Goals: What do you hope to achieve by meeting with your online classmates for additional study? The scope, specific outcomes, and related materials addressed by the group may evolve, but it's a good idea to have a couple of goals in mind at the outset. Examples of study group goals might include: review course reading materials, prepare for quizzes and exams, answer difficult questions from classmates, review concepts presented by the instructor for greater understanding.
  • Ground rules: What is expected of each study group member? These rules don't have to be too formal but should outline a general structure for what will take place and let anyone joining know what is expected of them as they contribute to the effort. Think about how study time will be managed. While the social aspect of an online study group will be attractive, consider limiting social conversation after a specific time limit. It will also be tempting to spend the group study time on shared complaints and critiques of the course. Stay on track with your study group goals!
  • Access: How and where will you meet with your classmates online? Will you have a regular meeting time? How often will the group meet? A combination of both asynchronous (each member accesses the study materials and conversations on his/her own time) and synchronous (all members access at the same time) methods might be ideal. The Internet provides a source of communication tools, but the phone might work, too.
  • Membership: Should you stick to classmates in a specific course or invite members from your program-at-large? Consider how the scope of membership and total number of members may be determined by the goals you want to reach. The general guidance is to keep the group small, maybe 6-8 people at the most.
  • Participation: This could be listed under ground rules, but is worth a separate mention – what happens if a member of the study group doesn't participate? Consider establishing deadlines and formal agreements about the expectations for work. The study group exists for sharing and collaboration. If a member is not contributing, they may no longer be a good fit with the group, and this should be addressed so that the remaining members can move forward.

Online study groups are unfortunately not without controversy. In 2008 one college student was threatened with expulsion for starting a chemistry study group on Facebook. While student study groups can be very helpful, and are often encouraged by schools and instructors, they should not be used to conduct plagiarism or other activities that could be perceived as cheating. Know your school's policies regarding plagiarism, collaboration, and expectations for submitting individual work. These rules, established by your institution and academic program, are to be taken seriously, so when in doubt consult with your instructors and advisors.

Selecting Work Space

You really don't need any special tools to form and conduct your study group, however, having a dedicated space to connect online can be convenient. Using a central hub for communication and organization will be helpful as you and your group members begin to conduct conversations and share materials.

  • Ask your instructor if it is possible to set up private group space within your school's learning management system. Sometimes this is an option within a course.
  • RCampus offers free space for setting up groups online – one moderator with access codes for additional members. Features include a message center and file sharing.
  • Google Groups is another free, multi-function, online service with discussion boards, task lists, and file storage.
  • Create your own mash up of tools using several of the many collaborative applications available online. Choose the ones that provide the functions you need – such as file editing and version control, whiteboards, discussion threads, and conference calls – and privacy for you and your group members.

Tips for Online Study Sessions

How do you get started? And once you organize your group, how can you keep it going? Here are a few suggestions for moving forward:

  • Assess group members' strengths. This may be as simple as asking everyone to identify their own strengths and where they think they can provide the most assistance to the rest of the group. These strengths could include a wide range of abilities such as note taking, summarization, organization, time management, troubleshooting, etc.
  • Develop a general agenda. What tasks or events should take place each week? Conducting a review of reading assignments, discussing questions from a lecture, and an open Q&A time may all be helpful. Consider establishing at least one regularly scheduled activity, such as a leading topic or discussion question, to focus the group's efforts. And include a wrap up of the session or week that also introduces what's coming up next.
  • Identify a session moderator. Each lesson, unit, or meeting should have one person identified to lead the discussion of the group, organize materials, and keep everyone focused on the goals. This role could easily rotate through the group so that this responsibility and related tasks are shared.
  • Consider pairs and subgroups. As your study group grows and finds success in its efforts, you may need to consider breaking into pairs and/or smaller groups to achieve your goals and keep everyone involved in the process.
  • Consult with an expert. If your study group is focused on a specific course be sure to work directly with your instructor to confirm that you are working with the correct materials and information. If you or other members of the study group are struggling with specific questions or resources, reach out to your instructor, librarian, and available tutoring support for more information and assistance.
  • Create your own study group culture. This may emerge with time based on the nature of the group's members. Grace Fleming, who provides homework and study tips for About.com, recommends naming your group to create a sense of identity.
  • Keep the encouragement going. Some weeks will be more helpful or more frustrating than others. Everyone will have ups and downs in their study schedule and ability to participate in addition to all of their other course requirements and life obligations. Keep in mind the goals of your group and press forward.

Study Groups Services

You can find existing study groups, sponsored by a range of companies and organizations, that allow you to connect with students both in your school and at other schools.

  • Cramster.com coordinates online study groups around specific textbooks, literature titles, and academic topics. Students using this service share notes, access practice quizzes, participate in discussion forums, and make contact with tutors.
  • OpenStudy.com features groups organized by topic such as mathematics, writing, and physics. Features include student driven question and answer forums and group chats. MIT's OpenCourseWare and Open Yale Courses are two initiatives that have partnered with this group to allow students to interact with each other as they work through these open course materials.
  • If you are studying for a standardized exam, you can also find online study groups. Check within your program first, then explore some of the existing test group formats, such as the Association for Legal Professionals' NALS Certification Exam Online Study Group and the Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification study group. These groups feature general test taking tips, practice exam questions, and synchronous study sessions and workshops. Check for fees and membership requirements on these sites.

What works for your group?

While the planning items listed above will get things moving, you may find that some techniques work better than others. Be open to trying new things and making modifications along the way. What works for one course or one group of students, may not work for another. Remember, the study group setting should, above all else, be helpful in providing assistance with your understanding of materials and enhancing your learning.

October 11th, 2011 written by (learn more about our authors)

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