A study group is a long-term academic collaboration involving two or more students, where the students have an academic environment outside of the teaching. Well-functioning study groups are not necessarily created on their own, but as a teacher you can support the study groups’ work in the establishment of the study groups and in the facilitation of their academic work.
A study group refers to a long-term academic work community of two or more students. In the study group, the students have an academic environment outside of the teaching, where they help each other digest the academic material, solve assignments together, etc.
The study group can be a fertile ground for developing motivation, academic identity and well-being, but most importantly: to contribute to the students’ individual learning through collaboration. In addition, study groups can contribute to ensuring that the students develop collaborative skills and team skills, which is a high priority in many academic regulations and in working life. Well-functioning study groups are not necessarily created on their own, and as a lecturer you have to support the students’ work in the study groups in various ways – we will provide specific suggestions below.
If you want to form study groups, find inspiration in the following principles:
Heterogeneous groups: Mix different types of students in the groups, e.g., based on academic skills, test results or opinions. You can also mix the groups based on personality types (e.g., extroverted with introverted students)
Homogeneous groups: Place the same type of students together, e.g., based on academic skills, expectations for the collaboration, interests or background.
Random groups (which should lead to heterogeneous groups): Make sure to mix as randomly as possible. For example, go around the room (students often sit close to the people they like and already have things in common with) and hand out coloured post-its and ask the students to join their new groups.
Self-chosen groups: If the students choose their own groups there will be a tendency towards homogeneity.
Alternating groups: You can consider whether it is important for the students to be in permanent groups, or whether they need to change groups on a regular basis to collaborate with different people and to get to know each other across the class. In practice, if the teacher assesses that there is time and resources for it, alternating groups can be a good idea – not least because variation promotes learning. See an example of how you can establish rotating study groups here.
You can facilitate the division of study groups by using a course on the formation of groups here.
In practice, there will often be an overlap between random and heterogeneous groups and an overlap between self-chosen and homogeneous. There are pros and cons with both types of groups.
Pros: Homogeneous groups are based on the students having something in common, which can make it easy for the students to collaborate. For example, this could be geographical location, expectations for their efforts or academic interests.
Cons: Homogeneous groups do not challenge the students’ opinions or perspectives to the same extent. Should study groups be formed based on personality tests?
Pros: Heterogeneous and random groups have the advantage that they can create diversity, dynamism and raise the academic competencies of all the students. For example, the groups can be heterogeneous with regard to academic skills within a subject or with regard to other skills that relate to the group assignment such as design skills, programming skills, writing skills, organisational skills (Johnson et al., 2006).
Cons: There may be resistance from the students if they have to work with fellow students over a semester that they do not work well with.
There is no clear research-based evidence that students’ personality traits (e.g. personality types) can be appropriate criteria for forming groups (Huxham & Land, 2000). However, you can in each case (the situation, within the academic norms and standards, etc.) consider whether it makes sense to form either heterogeneous or homogeneous groups based on a personality test.
A well-functioning study group often has a common goal that they work towards and focuses on this goal at group meetings. A common goal may be to carry out assignments in preparation for classes, or it may be to produce a specific joint product. As a teacher, you can support study groups by including these types of group activities in your students' preparation.
Once the study groups have been formed, it is important to give the academic collaborative community the best conditions. As a teacher, you can initiate the work in different ways. For example, you can:
Ask the groups to prepare a group agreement, in which the students align their expectations for the group's work and the individual members' contributions. See an example of an activity using group agreements here.
Give the students tools for their group work. You can refer the students to the page about group work at AU Studypedia, where there are tools and inspiration to make an agenda, joint notes, group exercises, guides for feedback in the group as well as tools for handling conflicts.
Give each member a specific role. To avoid common problems in group work, e.g. domination, passivity or other conflicts, it may be useful to assign roles to the group members (e.g. leader, sceptic, teacher, conciliator) and to rotate the roles regularly (Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992). It is not necessary to assign roles in well-functioning groups, but it can be useful for students who are unfamiliar with study group work.
Students are usually most motivated to work in study groups if their group work is included in teaching or is a prerequisite for class participation. It is important to formulate assignments in a specific way so the students know exactly what they will be working with, and why it will be included in teaching. For example, you can:
Prepare questions for texts, so that students become more focused when preparing for class. See an example of how to ask questions about texts here.
Get the study group to prepare questions for the texts, so that teaching can be based on the groups' questions and provide a basis for reflection, discussion and clarification of any queries. See an example of how to get the study group to prepare questions for texts here.
Prepare a joint written product in the study group and let students give peer feedback on each other's work. This may be as preparation for a written exam. See an example of a teacher who has used a written exercise in a study group.
Let the study groups take turns in giving presentations on course topics, so that they can prepare together and communicate a topic to the rest of the class. This may include ongoing feedback from another study group. See an example of how a teacher has used group presentations with ongoing feedback.
It must be clear for the students that they need each other to solve the tasks. There must be no competing individual tasks, but a shared task with contributions from everyone (Johnson et al, 2014). Among other things, this means that the groups should not be too large. A group of three to four people has often proved to work well. You can also incorporate into the group work that the individual members are to contribute with specific parts of the group's overall assignment. The aim is that the students’ individual parts will contribute to a larger whole, like a jigsaw they piece together by comparing, compiling and composing, for example. The students could:
Read various texts that contribute different perspectives on the same problem
Have different tasks or roles in relation to the same text
Answer various sub-questions or make calculations that together answer an overall problem
Contribute with parts to a joint presentation, which is compiled as one presentation
For example, you could organise group work as matrix groups, in which students first immerse themselves in the subject and then share their knowledge with each other. See an example of how a teacher has used matrix groups to get students to discuss academic objectives, or a teacher who has used matrix groups to provide peer feedback.
Establishing a good collaborative community from the start can reduce the level of conflict in the group. If it is clear for groups what their work is and what is expected of their work, it will often lead to less conflicts (Christensen, 2019).
If a study group ends up in a conflict situation anyway, you can try to let them handle the conflict themselves using the material about conflict management in groups at AU Studypedia.
If the conflict is of a size or nature that neither the group nor you can solve, get the group to ask for help at the Student Counsellors' Office on the degree programme.
As a teacher, you can assess the group’s process and product yourself in different ways, but you can also use peer-evaluation where the students assess each other’s work.
Peer-evaluation may be either Intra or Inter peer-evaluation.
Intra peer-evaluation is assessment within a single group. This is the most common type of peer-evaluation. In this case, each group member assesses the other group members (and often also themselves). By doing this, they get knowledge about learning and the collaborative process.
Inter peer-feedback is when a group assesses either a different group’s work or the work of an individual member of a different group. This is often the way a group assessment (e.g. a group score) is calculated for a group project. The assessment can also refer to an individual score or grade for each group member, e.g. by assessing each group member’s contribution to the group assignment. Inter-group evaluation can also be used to assess whether the individual student has contributed enough for the shared group product.
Do you want to use heterogenous or homogeneous groups? There are pros and cons with both types. Sound out the situation and decide what best serves a purpose in your teaching.
Are the students unfamiliar with study groups? Collaborative skills and team-working abilities are developed over time, and the students cannot be assumed to have them. It can be a good idea to delegate roles to the students in the group before a group assignment starts.
How will you ensure that all students contribute? The work in study groups should presuppose that something greater can be created in collaboration than what the individual student can create on their own.
Should the group’s work be assessed and how? For example, you can either assess a group product yourself or have the groups assess products from other groups or the contribution of individual members to the group product.
Ha Le, Jeroen Janssen & Theo Wubbels (2018) Collaborative learning practices: teacher and student perceived obstacles to effective student collaboration, Cambridge Journal of Education, 48:1, 103-122, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2016.1259389
Davidson, N., Major, C. H., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2014). Small-group learning in higher education—cooperative, collaborative, problem-based, and team-based learning: An introduction by the guest editors. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 1-6.