[This material was designed for use in a graduate course as a way of engaging learners in a process of studying about a topic of interest. It could be adapted by anyone desiring to learning about a subject by working with colleagues.]
We are firm believers in synergism, the notion that one plus one can often equal more than two in terms of the energy, excitement, and products associated with people working together on some study group activity. A study group consists of two or more people (we have found four to seven to be the best in terms of group size) joining together to concentrate some learning efforts on a topic. If used to meet some of the requirements in a graduate level course, for example, the study topic typically focuses on a subject related in some way to the overall course subject and one that is mutually agreed upon by the group members and approved by the facilitator. We also have used the study group technique in a training workshop to help participants design a procedure whereby they could carry out some study on a topic after the training experience concluded.
Once the group is tentatively formed they should meet together to explore further a probable topic, to determine workable meeting times, and to select a group coordinator (and group recorder if deemed necessary). This initial discussion period is quite important so that members can begin to take ownership of the topic selected and even decide to back out if the experience does not seem to be heading in personally satisfactory areas. In the graduate classroom we typically provide some time during the first few sessions for groups to form and to begin work on a topic. In a short-term workshop we would encourage that the group form and meet during a lunch break or immediately following the initial training session.
After the topic is selected, we suggest that group members determine some sort of a focal point for their study efforts. This might include establishing some specific goals, deriving of one or more specific questions they would like to answer through a study effort, and determining the nature of any readings, learning objectives, and end results.
The next step is to carry out some related reading of materials they can find. We stress that the reading responsibilities be divided among all group members so that each person can take both ownership and responsibility. This also typically permits a wide range of materials to be covered. It is not unusual for members to determine ways of obtaining related information in addition to reading activities, such as through interviews or via original data collection efforts.
Group members are encouraged to prepare abstracts, summaries, or reading logs of the materials they read for later sharing with other members. Throughout all of these efforts the group coordinator serves to keep things moving forward on focus or on target, to schedule meetings as needed, and to serve as a liaison back to the course facilitator. We encourage study group members to meet periodically and discuss their various materials, to debate each other as necessary for the promotion of learning, and to begin building some sort of a group consensus.
In a graduate course we ask study groups to produce a final report (a typed, double-space report typically ranges from 10-30 pages in length) summarizing the general focus of the study effort, the materials read and discussed, the conclusions drawn, and the nature of the involvement by various group members. This report usually is submitted to the facilitator for evaluation, comments, and feedback. If time permits it can be very educational and worthwhile for an oral summary of the study effort to be presented for other course members. In a training workshop we make ourselves available for later feedback if a study group selects to send us their final report. It is possible to conduct study groups via electronic mail or electronic conferencing, but more time usually is required.
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