How Students Benefit From Online Study Groups
Since mid-March, 19-year-old Lillie Burke has faced the same situation as other students across the country. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the freshman at Belmont University in Tennessee is finishing up his semester online from his 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 designated to work, but also in an environment where I can ask questions face-to-face,” says Burke, a journalism student.
In college, Burke and some of his classmates in his digital citizenship class met regularly in study groups to ask questions about materials, brainstorm project ideas and discuss future assignments. Now the group of about 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 over FaceTime, she said.
Study groups are common among undergraduates when it comes to preparing for exams or simply reviewing course material. In more informal study groups, students take the initiative to arrange these meetings with at least a few classmates. Some colleges coordinate more formal study group opportunities where students regularly participate in school-sponsored sessions, often with a facilitator leading the discussion.
At University of Rochester, a study group leader—usually an upper-level undergraduate student who has taken some course in the past—receives training to help prepare younger peers for classes and exams and to focus on effective study techniques. These weekly groups have a recommended maximum of about 15 students who meet on campus, says Kyle Trenshaw, a STEM education specialist at the school’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
But with the university’s recent shift to online learning, these groups are meeting on Zoom, says Trenshaw. 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 really try to make sure that these students have that support available and that even if it’s distant, they still have that connection to the study group leader as well as the students that were attending before,” says Trenshaw, adding that the groups have seen their attendance slightly reduced since transitioning online.
The platforms used, the number of participating students, and the exact format vary between informal and more structured online study groups. But usually, students working together online aren’t limited to video conferencing.
While many students from Arizona State University are now connecting using Zoom, another very popular platform is Slack, a messaging tool that allows students to form smaller communities, says Kyle Bowen, executive director of learning experience at the ‘KNEW.
“Doing a hybrid of using a messaging platform and a video sharing platform – I would say that’s more what I did,” says Mohit Doshi, a junior specializing in computer science 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 the other people in the study group.”
Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Study Groups
The transition online for study groups presents obvious challenges. In formal study groups, facilitators may need additional training to work virtually with participating students. In general, participants can be in several time zones and technical problems are inevitable.
Madi Willeford, junior at Northwest Louisiana State University, had a Zoom videoconference with several of her classmates to prepare for exams in her veterinary radiology and imaging class. “At the start of the four-plus hour meeting, there were a lot of audio issues,” the 21-year-old biology major wrote in an email. “A classmate of mine had to use multiple accounts, one for audio and one for video.”
Some students think that there is simply no ideal substitute for face-to-face study groups. Beyond other considerations, online learning requires more self-discipline.
“Finding the time to do it at home was a challenge – because I feel really unmotivated because I’m at home. It was just a challenge to adapt to that,” says Madie Renner, student in composition junior at Belmont who studied on Skype for her required 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 to 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 talk.
Another benefit is that video conferencing platforms often have a range of features. The chat functionality of these platforms can allow multiple conversations to take place at once, for example.
John Mantus, a junior major in economics at the University of Rochester and student leader of a study group, says screen sharing helps him better understand some of the issues faced by students in his group.
“They can direct me directly to the issue, rather than trying to talk about it in an abstract way,” Mantus says.
As with in-person learning, students can still 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 a study session to test each other on veterinary radiology. They used their computers to video chat while playing the game on their cellphones.
“After each question, if someone got it wrong, we would explain the correct answers using our textbooks and class notes,” Willeford says.
Tips for Hosting Online Study Groups
Here are four tips experts and students recommend they follow when hosting online study groups.
Keep the conversation flowing. Stacey Blackwell, Senior Director of Learning Centers at Rutgers University—New Brunswick, says to avoid conversational interruptions when performing tasks such as searching for a file. It can be helpful to keep your classmates informed – for example, by saying: “Give me a minute, I’m looking for this diagram”.
“That kind of very focused storytelling of what you’re doing really helps keep people engaged and makes the session feel a little smoother,” Blackwell said.
Have a backup plan. Having an alternate way to access or join 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, Blackwell says. .
Find a comfortable workspace and avoid distractions. Burke says she has found it helpful to separate where she relaxes and sleeps from where she attends her classes. This allows her to stay focused on the material during online study groups.
Take advantage of the digital tools at your disposal. Burke says continuing the study group conversation offline in a group chat is helpful for coordinating and planning meetings. Experts also recommend taking advantage of the different features of video conferencing platforms — like screen sharing — and understanding what’s available ahead of time.
“By becoming familiar with the capabilities of the tools,” says Bowen, “they can then get creative with how to use them to solve problems.”