Savvy Student's Study Skills: Working in Groups

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Six

Theory v. Reality

There are a couple of very good reasons teachers break students into small groups, and they all have to do with learning. There's no official data to back this up, but anyone who's been teaching for a long time will tell you that, if they're lucky, a discussion that includes everyone in the class will involve 4 or 5 people at most. Half of the remaining students will be furiously taking notes on what's being said because they don't want to bother doing the reading (that doesn't work, by the way) while the other half are sneaking messages on the phones the teacher told them to put away at the start of class (and that really doesn't work—we notice.)

Teachers want more students involved in the give-and-take of learning, so they use small groups for these reasons:

In addition, there is the argument that group work is a growing part of the world of work. If students will have to learn how to work effectively in groups on the job, schools should teach those skills and let students practice them.

Any student who's worked in a small group knows that, while teachers may mean well, most groups don't really serve these purposes. Instead, small groups tend to reflect what goes on in large group discussions, where a couple (or just 1) student tries to keep the discussion going, half of the small group is taking notes to avoid doing homework, and the other half is texting, or talking about something that has nothing to do with class.

You can't always control participating in a small group at school, so what strategies can you use to make the most out of the group experience? We'll discuss this based on the three most common uses of groups in school.

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Discussion Groups in Class

The best way to approach any group situation is to think about it like a study period—the best chance of making it productive is to think about what you want to get done at the beginning of the discussion. Most teachers who use small groups make this clear in the instructions they give as they are breaking you into small groups, but if time permits, it's a good idea to review the goal with everyone in the group once the teacher says “OK. Go!”

Makeup of the Group

It's important to consider who's in your group, and how the groups are made up. If the groups are totally random, there's a good chance you haven't worked with at least one member of the group before. That can make it hard to figure out how to support their full participation in the group—do you have someone who's interested in learning the material, or is this someone who's going to try and get everyone involved in—well, something else.

On the other hand, this could also be a problem if the teacher lets the students form their own groups. The plus here is that you're more likely to know the work habits and interests of the people you pick. On the other hand, you may be friends with someone whose interest in learning isn't as strong as yours, which leaves you with the same problem.

One way to resolve this problem is to give each group member a task to complete. Since most small groups are no more than 6 people, it's common to assign the roles of facilitator/leader, timekeeper, presenter, and recorder, giving these last two roles to the students least likely to talk, since this will help them focus on the task at hand. A lot of the chatter that distracts from group work is created because people don't know what to do. That can end, or at least be minimized, if some structure is created by giving them a job.

Once the goal is clear and the tasks have been assigned, it's time to get the conversation going. Many students will want to jump right to the conclusion of the discussion by answering the question the teacher asked, and leaving things at that: “No, Poe couldn't have used a different bird in The Raven.” After a few supporting cries of “Yeah. Right. Cool. We're done.”, the facilitator is going to want to jump in to give the discussion more depth—and It's more than OK to use the teacher as the bad guy. “OK guys, I can see that. But you know Mr. Carpenter is going to want more than that, and if we start talking about something else, he might turn this discussion into an essay.”

Notice that the facilitator here has done something that gets the attention of everyone in the group, no matter how interested they are in the discussion. Good students already have a plan for their homework, and they don't want to change that. Students still looking to become good students are struggling to deal with what they have to do, so they don't want more on their load, either. As a result, the facilitator now has everyone buying into the discussion.

Now that the group has their concluding statement, they have both the start and the finish of the Five Paragraph Essay approach to shaping their argument—all that's left is to create the supporting points. This is where the facilitator will ask a series of questions to get the student to present their opinions. Known as The Socratic Method, this approach allows group members to offer supporting ideas, and then have them strengthened by people asking for clarifications or additional information. As each point becomes stronger, it will be important for the note-taker to repeat the final version of the point. In a perfect world, the presenter would also repeat the point, too—but that can drive people crazy.

Three Key Points

Besides distractions, three other factors can derail a small group discussion in a hurry:

A Point Not Everyone Supports

As you discuss The Raven, it turns out that Jamil thinks the raven is the perfect bird for the poem, because he happens to have a pet raven, so he can speak from experience how ravens behave, and how that fits the poem perfectly. Should you put that as a reason for supporting your argument? Sure. You can have more than three reasons, adding it probably won't bother anyone in the group, and this idea personalizes the argument in a way that adds something to the presentation. If someone presses for adding a point others don't really care about, it's often fine to add it.

Bringing the Reluctant Participant In

Many of the same students who won't participate in large group discussion are going to do their best to keep out of the small group discussion as well, probably because they didn't read the poem, or don't know what they think about the subject matter at hand. If that's the case, try and find a way to bring them into the discussion without calling them out. “Anybody else got a bird as a pet?” could be enough to get Maureen to say “I have a dog.” “Cool” you respond, “do you think your dog should be in The Raven instead?” This may be off topic, and it may not contribute to the group summary, but either way, it helps Maureen see the value of group work, and there's always a next time where she might feel more comfortable in contributing.

A Point People Disagree On

It's more likely that a controversial topic can bring out strong, emotional differences of opinion in the group. Someone who thinks free healthcare is a great idea is unlikely to agree with someone who says free healthcare leads people to become lazy. The group discussion should allow for the sharing of all opinions, and a respectful discussion of those opinions. While the assignment may ask for the group to reach a unanimous opinion, it's likely going to be OK if yours doesn't, as long as the summary report includes a clear explanation of both sides as they were discussed. The note taker will want to make sure they get both sides of the issue down in ways that are comfortable with the respective speakers. Agreeing to disagree is a healthy, and necessary, part of our world.

Tying Up the Discussion

Your timekeeper was asked at the start of the discussion to let the group know when two minutes are left in the discussion. At that point, the presenter summarizes the discussion, since this is the best way for them to practice how they will share the results of the discussion with the larger group. If corrections need to be made, make them with precision, clarity, and a respectful tone—“I said the second verse of the poem proved that point, not the third.”

The summary should take about a minute, with the last minute left for the facilitator, who will lead a brief evaluation of the group. “Everybody good? They can support our report? Any suggestions on how the next group discussion could go better?” It's unlikely anyone will answer this last question out loud, but the purpose of the question is more of a self-check for each member of the group. They don't have to share their answer out loud, but they'll naturally consider their own role, and what they might do in the next group discussion to duplicate or improve their experience.

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Group Study

Another tool you can use to improve your study habits is to spend time outside of school, reviewing the ideas you've learned in class with others. Since most teachers don't require students to participate in a study group, you're going to want to consider the benefits and challenges of working in a study group.

Benefits of a study group

Challenges of a study group

Ground Rules

As you begin your work with a study group, it's wise to keep these points in mind:

Keep it small for starters

Starting a study group with 8 people who are very serious students is still pretty likely to turn into more of a party than an academic activity. Start with 3 or 4 people whose interest in studying is about the same as yours, and see where things go from there.

Create a structure

Like a good class discussion group, a study group should have a leader, who sets the schedule for when the group meets, how long the group meets, and what will be discussed at the meeting. Most study groups won't want to go past 1.5-2 hours total; some may want to build in a time for “quick questions” at the end that aren't part of the original schedule, but that's up to each individual group.

Prepare

Many study groups fall apart because students don't do any individual studying before the group meets—and that's a big mistake. The whole idea of a study group is to add to the study skills you're already using. Use your private study time to review (and rewrite) your notes, put together rough drafts of papers, and organize your note cards—then make a list of what you want to learn in group study that you don't know now.

Engage

Once the group is together, take turns asking questions, listening and reading each other's notes and rough drafts, and offering suggestions for each other's aural presentations. You want to make sure there's a balance between getting information and giving information—this is a team effort. And if you find yourself spending a little too much time working on your own studies by yourself, it may be time to put ramp up the individual study time, or to find a library.

Things to Consider

Since study groups have been around for quite a while, there are some approaches to study groups that are more successful than others.

Dividing Assigned Readings

At first, it seems like a good idea. The teacher has given you a 100 page reading assignment, and there's four of you in the study group. Why not divide up the reading, give everyone 25 pages to read, and have everyone make copies of their detailed notes to give to others?

This approach can work, but it depends on a couple of factors. You might want to hold off trying this technique until you get a feel for everyone's note-taking skills. Top students often use a note taking method that only they can understand, while other students jot down every word the teacher says, making it impossible to sort out the key ideas. Talking with others about what they got out of the reading will likely give you a better understanding of how they see it—but that understanding is only helpful if you have a first-hand feeling of how you feel about the reading. This method may save you time, but it has the potential to cost you depth of understanding. Proceed cautiously.

Attentiveness to Plagiarism

You'll also want to make sure you limit the access others have to permanent copies of your rough drafts and other assignments you'll be turning in for a grade. It's one thing to share notes that include facts that have been publicly shared by the instructor. It's another thing to think about those facts, reach an individual conclusion, write a paper about that conclusion, and have someone else use that same conclusion for their paper. The Internet makes it too easy for students to find new ideas and simply claim them as their own. Study groups can have the same effect. Make sure you're using your study time to consider what the ideas mean to you, not to someone else.

Chart Your Progress

Since the goal of study groups is to help you learn more, it's important to check your grades and understanding of the material to make sure the study group is helping you reach that goal. It's a good idea to end each study session by giving each participant a chance to check their individual goals list to make sure all of their questions were answered in the session. Once that's done, each member should write down a list of new questions they have as a result of what they've learned at the study group, and how they will answer those questions in their individual study time.

It's important to make sure both of these goals are being met. If you come home from a study group with new things to think about, and with your original questions not answered, you're probably giving more to the study group than you're getting—and that's just digging you deeper into an academic hole. On the other hand, if all of your original questions were answered and you don't have anything new to think about, it might be time to consider the kinds of questions you're asking your study partners—they may need to require more analysis and creativity, or questions from the top of Bloom's Taxonomy, so you can start thinking about the ideas in new ways.

About once a month, you should check your test and homework grades to see if the study group is helping you achieve your goals. If two of these monthly checks show you're grades aren't improving, you may want to consider using that time to study on your own, or to form a new study group. That doesn't mean you have to stop seeing your study partners socially, and no one should take this change personally. Friends may have different approaches to studying, but they can still be friends.

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Group Presentations

Out of the three ways groups are used in learning, group presentations usually have the highest risk, the highest reward, and the biggest number of factors to organize. More often than not, group presentations are worth a lot of points towards your grade for the class— and some take the place of a final exam. In addition, a presentation usually suggests research, discussion, and preparation that takes more than one class period, and likely includes some time together outside of class. All of these things make group presentations a big deal.

Ground Rules for Groups

The keys to a successful group presentation are a combination of the steps used to create successful group discussions and study groups:

Give everyone something to do.

An experienced teacher is likely to design a group project so it has specific parts for each member of the group to complete. This makes it easier for the teacher to grade each individual participant; it also makes it much, much harder for a student to let other people in the group do all the work, while they enjoy the benefit of a good grade. This is what's called the “free rider” problem, and teachers know how hard it can be for students to get another student to do their part—so they help the group by setting individual expectations ahead of time.

If the teacher hasn't assigned specific roles, it's going to be important to discuss that right away. This discussion should occur in a room that has a whiteboard, or an overhead computer projector, so everyone can see how the roles are being created. The last thing you want to do is talk about who's going to do what, have four people agree, and have two people ask what just happened. Those two are your free riders; the time to make sure they're on board is now.

Organize your schedule.

The first meeting is also the time to set up a series of mini-goals for your project. Again, experienced teachers often set these up ahead of time, where points are awarded for groups that complete certain parts of the project by certain dates, with each member having to contribute to each part, and being awarded points accordingly. No matter who sets the schedule, it's a good idea to set the date for completion of the project to be one week before the teacher says it's due. This might create a possibility for the teacher to review a rough draft of the project. If not, it's still going to give everyone in the group some wiggle room, in case they need a little extra time to do their part.

Review.

These mini-goals should also be a time when the leader of the group checks in with members of the team who didn't contribute to this part of the project. We'd like to think that lost points or an icy glare might give them the message. Still, if everyone else's grade is at stake, it's more than fair to make sure everyone is on board. That conversation might be awkward at first, but it has to be done, and it's part of the leader's job to earn their grade by taking the initiative to set things right—the right way.

Practice.

Just like the group discussion, not everyone may be presenting the final project, but everyone will be contributing to it—and everyone is likely to be graded on it. This means those involved in the presentation need the materials ahead of time, and they need an audience to give feedback to their presentation. If the presentation has a minimum or maximum length of time attached to it, make sure someone serves as a timekeeper during the rehearsals, and at the actual presentation, with a pre-established signal to indicate time is up.

Prepare.

Most presentations will have some kind of visual display or technology component that requires understanding of the content, creativity, and technological savvy. If done well, these will take time to present, and more time for the presenters to get comfortable with. Make sure you allow this to happen—and don't let this happen to you.

Evaluate.

Once the project is over, it's important to evaluate the role you played in the design, implementation, and presentation of the project. Many teachers will ask you to complete this self-evaluation as part of the grade. It's important to be honest here, since that's the only way you're going to improve with the next group project you work on, either in school, in business, or with your best friend or family.

A number of teachers allow students to contribute feedback on the work of their fellow group members. This is one way teachers make sure all students play their role in the project, without having to stand over the shoulder of every member of every group. In some cases, these evaluations are part of the points received by individual students. This makes it possible for some members of a group to earn more points than others.

If you're given the opportunity to grade your fellow students, make sure you use a fair basis of judgement. It's especially easy to be overly critical of someone who was supposed to play a key role in the presentation of the project, but who let the team down. Since that's the most public part of the project, it's easy to understand why that should lead to a reduction of grade. But unless their role in preparing the project was also missing some key elements, keep your emotions in check, and show some balance in the points you award. If all else fails, try and keep your focus by writing out paragraph answers to these three questions about your performance. That will help you regain the right perspective on the contribution of others:

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The Social Part of Group Work

The biggest challenge for many students in doing group work is to remember that this work is about more than just a grade. Working on your own may give you the freedom to set your own schedule, change it at the last minute, create your own theme for a project, or come to your own conclusions without having to compromise with others. But group work is an opportunity to work on the skills of listening, empathizing, and building consensus that are desperately needed in this very busy, and sometimes very isolated society.

It's understandable that you want the grades you earn, and those grades can play a big role in the college you attend, or the job you land-- but it's just as important to have friends around to celebrate the day you get that college admission letter, or finish your first week at work. We have a saying in the college counseling office where I work: Sometimes this is the most important thing in the world, and sometimes it's just school. Group work is an important reminder that both those points of view should matter equally in our lives.

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