Since mid-March, Lillie Burke, 19, has faced the same situation as other university students across the country. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the freshman at Belmont University in Tennessee is completing her semester online from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
She says the transition to online learning has its challenges.
“I feel like I learn a lot better when I’m in an environment that is designed to work but also in an environment where I can ask questions face to face,” says Burke, a journalism major.
At college, Burke and some of his classmates from his digital citizenship class regularly met in study groups to ask questions about the material, exchange ideas for projects, and discuss future homework assignments. Now, the group of half a dozen students mainly use Zoom, a popular video conferencing tool, to connect remotely a few times a week.
Burke also recently studied for a French exam with her classmates on FaceTime, she says.
Study groups are common among undergraduates when it comes to preparing for exams or just reviewing course material. In more informal study groups, students take the initiative to organize these meetings with at least a few classmates. Some colleges coordinate more formal study group opportunities where students regularly participate in school-hosted sessions, often with a facilitator leading the discussion.
At the University of Rochester, a study group leader – usually an undergraduate student who has taken a certain course in the past – receives training to help prepare young peers for courses and exams and to focus on effective study techniques. These weekly groups have a recommended maximum of around 15 students meeting on campus, says Kyle Trenshaw, STEM education specialist at the school’s Center of Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
But with the university’s recent transition to online learning, these groups are coming together on Zoom, Trenshaw says. Study group leaders are advised to record their sessions in case some students are unable to attend due to time zone or internet connectivity issues.
“We’re really trying to make sure that these students have that support available and that even though it’s distant, they still have that connection with the study group leader as well as with the students who were there before,” Trenshaw said. , adding that the groups have seen attendance slightly reduced since going online.
The platforms used, the number of participating students and the exact format vary between informal and more structured online study groups. But generally, students working together online aren’t limited to video conferencing.
While many Arizona State University students now log in using Zoom, another very popular platform is Slack, a messaging tool that allows students to form smaller communities, says Kyle Bowen, executive director of the learning experience at ASU.
“Making a hybrid of using a messaging platform and a video sharing platform – I would say that’s more what I do,” says Mohit Doshi, a junior specializing in IT at ASU. “I’ll have something like WhatsApp or Slack to chat with people, or even Messenger or iMessage, and then something like FaceTime or Zoom where you just talk to other people in the study group.”
Advantages and disadvantages of online study groups
Going online for study groups presents obvious challenges. In formal study groups, facilitators may need additional training on virtual working with participating students. In general, participants can be in more than one time zone and technical issues are inevitable.
Madi Willeford, a junior at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, videoconferenced on Zoom with several of her classmates to prepare for exams in her veterinary radiology and imaging class. “At the start of the four-hour plus meeting there were a lot of audio issues,” the 21-year-old biology major wrote in an email. “One of my classmates had to use multiple accounts, one for audio and one for video.”
Some students believe that there is simply no ideal replacement for face-to-face study groups. Beyond other considerations, online learning requires more self-discipline.
“Finding the time to do it at home has been a challenge – because I feel really demotivated because I’m at home. studied on Skype for her general biology class with a friend from her home in Iowa.
Still, there are benefits to switching to online study groups. Students do not need to travel on campus. And in times of social isolation, video conferencing can be the best way to see classmates face to face and foster a sense of community. Burke says she and her classmates sometimes use study group simply as a designated time to get work done – a tool to stay motivated, even if they don’t always speak.
Another advantage is that video conferencing platforms often have a range of features. The chat function within these platforms can allow multiple conversations to take place at the same time, for example.
John Mantus, a junior economics student at the University of Rochester and student leader of a study group, says screen sharing gives him a better understanding of some of the issues facing students in his group.
“They can point the problem to me directly, rather than trying to talk about it in an abstract way,” says Mantus.
As with in-person learning, students can always get creative and incorporate various types of media into their discussions during online study groups. For example, Willeford and his classmates integrated a quiz created on Kahoot! – a game-based learning platform – in one study session to test each other in veterinary radiology. They used their computers to video chat while playing the game on their cell phones.
“After each question, if anyone was wrong, we would explain the correct answers using our textbooks and class notes,” says Willeford.
Tips for organizing online study groups
Here are four tips that experts and students alike recommend to follow when organizing online study groups.
Keep the conversation flowing. Stacey Blackwell, Senior Director of Learning Centers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, recommends avoiding conversation interruptions when performing tasks such as finding a file. Keeping your classmates in the loop – for example, by saying, “Give me a minute, I’m looking for this diagram” – can be helpful.
“That kind of very focused storytelling of what you’re doing really helps keep people engaged and makes the session a little bit smoother,” says Blackwell.
Have a backup plan. Having another way to access or participate in the study group in case Plan A fails – for example, someone’s webcam isn’t working properly – can save participants time in the long run, says Blackwell. .
Find a comfortable workspace and avoid distractions. Burke says she has found it helpful to separate where she relaxes and sleeps from where she teaches. This allows her to stay focused on the material during the online study groups.
Take advantage of the digital tools at your disposal. Burke says continuing the study group conversation offline in a group discussion is useful for meeting coordination and planning. Experts also recommend taking advantage of the different features of video conferencing platforms, such as screen sharing, and understanding what is available in advance.
“By becoming familiar with the capabilities of the tools,” Bowen says, “they can then get creative on how to use them to solve problems.”