Study Guides and Study Groups

group study session

Most college faculty are terribly well-intentioned. We care about student success. The material in our courses is important; we want students to learn it. And so, we go out of our way, bend over backwards, and give students everything they need to do well in the course. If it looks like our students don’t know what or how to study for the exam, we respond with carefully prepared, detailed study guides and long lists of study questions for every chapter.

But here’s the question: Who stands to benefit the most from the preparation of study guide material? The teacher who knows the material and knows how to make a good study guide? Or students who must interact with the material in order to make a useful guide and who need to learn how to organize content in ways that expedite learning?

We’d serve our students better by contributing to the process, rather than doing the work they should be doing. We can prepare a set of guidelines that delineate the features of useful study guides and let them pull it all together. We can facilitate an in-class or online discussion during which students identify the features they’d find most helpful. We can share some good and not-so-good examples of study guide material.

Should students get credit for preparing study guides? They could. Students have been known to expend a good deal of effort for a trivial number of points. I used to have my students prepare study guides on text content they needed to know for the exam but that wasn’t covered in class. They did this in groups with each group assigned a different chunk of material. I distributed each group’s study guide material to the rest of the class, and after the exam the groups provided feedback and graded the study guides. Initially, I had provided the grades until I discovered that feedback and assessment from peers motivated students to work significantly harder on the guides they prepared for the next exam.

What makes a study guide useful?
It really depends on course content, but here are some features that make study guides useful.

  • Study questions, lots of them. Some of the questions can be answered in one or two words, while other should require a more in-depth response of a few sentences.
  • Short, relevant excerpts from the text that clearly convey essential content.
  • Lists that answer what students consider the most important question: What’s going to be one the exam?
  • Vocabulary – key terms that will likely appear on the test. The guide should include definitions and examples of how the term is used in text material.
  • Clearly organized outlines of the content that identify main points and the material that supports those points. This is where graphic organizations of the content, such as concept maps, can help students understand how different pieces of content relate to one another.
  • The page numbers for important tables, figures, drawings or graphs and some indication of why they’re important.
  • Identification of where students can find additional information on important topics (in the text, in class notes, online, etc.).
  • Possible exam questions (without answers) and sample problems.
  • Space on the study guide to jot notes and questions, reference related material, and highlight other information of value to the student using it.
  • Advice on using the guide.

How to use student-led study groups
Most teachers endorse study groups. We correctly believe that if students meet regularly as a group and use good study strategies, they will learn better and improve their exam scores. But those learning benefits aren’t accrued automatically.  And while there’s a plethora of research documenting that students can learn from and with each other, most teachers don’t have time to organize or supervise study groups.

But as we explored above with study guides, teachers don’t have to be the ones in charge of study groups. Why not let students run their own groups? It just takes a few ground rules and some occasional guidance on the part of the professor.

Many years ago, H. J. Robinson (Teaching Professor, May 1991) described an approach to study groups that divests teachers of most of the responsibilities for managing them. He suggests teachers help students organize and run their own study groups.  Here’s an adapted version of the guidelines he proposed.

  • Groups of four-six students are formed by the mutual agreement of the members.
  • To be considered a study group for the class, groups must register with the instructor, providing group member names and contact information.
  • Groups may expel a member (say one who is freeloading as opposed to contributing to the group) by unanimous vote. Students who’d like to join an already existing group, may ask to join. The group decides if they are welcome.
  • If group membership falls below four students, the group is automatically disbanded unless the remaining members vote in a replacement.
  • No students may belong to more than one study group and no student is required to belong to any study group.
  • Groups organize their own activities, and decide what to do at their meetings. The instructor is happy to meet with groups to suggest activities and/or to review proposed study plans, however these meetings with the instructor (during regular office hours) are optional.
  • Registered groups receive exam bonus points based on the following formula: The bonus is based on the average of all individual grades received by the group members. If the group average is within the A range, all members receive three percentage points; if it’s a B, two percentage points; and if it’s a C, they get one percentage point. If an individual member receives an A but the group average is C, the member still receives the one percentage point bonus.

Teachers do need to provide some guidance to these study groups—students aren’t born knowing how to study effectively with others. That helpful advice can be provided with a handout, a podcast recorded by a professional from the learning center, or an in-class or online discussion. Teachers can also make study resources available; problem sets, possible test questions, or other content-related materials that can help groups study more efficiently and effectively.

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