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Study Groups: The Heart of Conversational Learning


Study Groups: The Heart of Conversational Learning

If you want to go quickly, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.   —African proverb

Having students teach one another makes so much sense!  Why not have people talk it over and create stimulating conversation instead of having a long boring lecture from a teacher?      —Mady M., student.

One of the most effective and enjoyable ways to learn is in conversation with others.  Conversational learning is active learning; a student learns more deeply in the give and take of a small group discussion because he is more engaged in the process, more questions are raised, and more points of view are brought to bear.   The real work of learning occurs as he actively processes the new ideas, turns them over in his mind, struggles with them, answers questions about them, integrates them.

Then there is the pleasure derived from doing things together with other students and having a common goal.  Particularly for teenagers, combining intellectual work with socializing is a potent draw. In contrast, learning in a traditional classroom setting is often a solitary endeavor.  Listening to a lecture, solving problems, taking notes, doing homework, and taking tests are generally done alone. For a student, these isolating activities stand in stark contrast to the all-important and age-appropriate socializing that they experience in the rest of their lives.

The use of study groups is one of the most important and effective structural changes you can make.  It can be pivotal in improving your students’ sense of belonging and ownership. It can have a powerful impact on the amount of self-directed learning taking place and can transform the very feel of your classroom.

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4.1 The Benefits of Study Groups

4.1 The Benefits of Study Groups

"I like how everyone worked together and there was a real sense of unity and work ethic involved in everything we did."    —Gabriella B., student

Study groups foster a sense of community

Whole-class activities certainly play an important role in most classrooms, but for many students such activities feel impersonal.  They remain disengaged. Some students are too timid to speak in front of a large group. Feeling vulnerable and exposed is not conducive to learning.

The smaller scale of study groups provides a sheltered venue for doing the work of learning.  This promotes trust between students, a sense of belonging, and, eventually, a sense of responsibility to other group members.  In other words, study groups help create a sense of community.

Study groups integrate socializing and learning

In a traditional classroom, the flow is from the experts (teacher and textbook) to the amateurs (students).  As a result, socializing is considered antithetical to learning, an impediment that is frowned on, even punished.  This often leads to unnecessary power struggles that undermine the teacher-student relationship. Students can instead be taught that, if done well, socializing can be productive.

Study groups help dismantle the bell curve and allow the academic wealth in the room to be shared

Many classroom activities inadvertently promote academic competition between students, particularly among the most successful.  When there is a range of ability in a room (which is almost always the case), the fact that some students have already mastered the material and some haven’t is often seen as a problem.  How should a teacher steer the class so that some students aren’t bored and others aren’t falling behind?  

Study groups offer one solution to this ubiquitous problem; in fact, they turn it into an advantage, boosting self-directed learning in the process.  Students who understand the material become teachers, thereby deepening their understanding as they work with other students. On the other hand, students who are struggling have access to help that is personal and non-threatening.  When study groups function well, more teaching and more learning result. 

Study groups encourage engagement

For many students, asking a question in a whole-class setting is too similar to public speaking and can provoke serious anxiety.  Others are afraid of making a mistake publicly or appearing “dumb” in front of their peers. In a smaller group, even a shy person is more likely to ask questions without undue fear.  Conversations in small groups are often more energetic and enthusiastic than those of whole classes because more students feel comfortable and volunteer to participate.

Study groups provide a safe haven for taking risks and learning from mistakes 

Students need a place to share difficulties and even failures without embarrassment.  Having a small enough group, particularly once trust has been developed, allows students to find the courage to admit they may not understand the material.  Above all, in study groups students can take risks and actively learn from their mistakes. A constructive response to mistakes and failures is a prerequisite to self-directed learning and a powerful character trait in life.  Study groups can often be arenas in which students learn these vital skills.

Study groups foster the skills of collaboration, leadership, and self-governance

As students learn to trust and rely on each other, they also discover how to help each other more effectively and how to work well as a group.  Rather than relying on an outside authority to police them and keep them on task, they become self-regulating. Learning to listen and respond to others, anticipating when something needs to happen and taking charge of it, are skills that are useful in school and in life.

Study groups foster richer and more resilient learning

Because study group discussions engage students socially, new ideas have more depth and personal context than when they are learned by listening to a lecture or reading.  Concepts are linked to emotional and physical experiences, which makes them easier to retrieve. Ideas learned by talking and listening tend to become long term memories—in other words, they are learned instead of memorized.

Study groups help establish a common purpose for the class

It is easier to believe that “we are all in this together” in a small group.  Students can internalize the goal of working towards the success of everyone in their group more quickly than they might in a whole class situation.  Study groups can help a class reach a critical mass of buy-in for this goal sooner. Study groups can also be successful in drawing in stragglers and skeptics who will feel more peer pressure from within their group than they do from the whole class.

Working towards a common purpose is the antidote to the academic selfishness often found when students are doing school.  Rather than competing for points, students now have a reason to pay attention to the needs of others.


4.2 Using Study Groups Throughout the Learning Sequence

4.2 Using Study Groups Throughout the Learning Sequence

Study groups can be used for any activity in which conversational learning is appropriate.  You may already have a well-established set of group activities as a part of your curriculum, with a range of functions.  These may include exploring new concepts, practicing complex skills, preparing students to do homework, or reviewing for an upcoming test.  Here are some specific possibilities through the various phases of the learning sequence.


Even if you are introducing new material by means of a lecture, students will need time to work through the ideas afterward, preferably in conversation.  Giving students discussion prompts or specific tasks (to summarize or apply the new material, for example) will cause them to engage and work through the ideas in a more active way.


Once students have been exposed to new concepts, they can reinforce these ideas by exploring them in groups.  Practicing new skills together allows students to teach and learn from each other. Group exploration and practice can also be useful in preparing individual students to work with the new material on their own.  

For example, if a student in an algebra class practices a new problem-solving skill in a study group, he has the opportunity to make mistakes and ask questions of other students.  This will boost his success and help isolate any difficulties he is having with the new material. As a result, any problem sets the student does as homework will be much more likely to be useful.

Reviewing individual student work

Student work, especially homework, is often a solitary exercise with a solitary outcome: producing something on paper that gets handed in to the teacher, most likely for a grade. If student work serves a social purpose, however, this changes not only the outcome but the motivation to do the work.  

In particular, if a student does the work to prepare for a discussion with his study group, it creates a social obligation.  For once, peer pressure can serve the purpose of learning. When a student anticipates being able to socialize as he goes over his work, he is more motivated to complete it.

Preparing for a study group discussion helps students develop their metacognitive skills.  To participate fully, they must 1) understand what aspects of the material they know well enough teach to others, and 2) be clear and specific about what they don’t know so they can ask useful questions.  It places the responsibility of steering the conversation squarely on the shoulders of students who might otherwise have stayed silent or, worse, might not even have been aware of what they didn’t yet understand.

Metacognition is crucial to learning.  Even after students have grown more adept at identifying the specific difficulties they are having with the homework, the process of isolating those difficulties is richer and more sophisticated when done as a social function.  It’s difficult for someone who doesn’t understand a concept to identify the exact source of the misunderstanding, but that source can often be revealed in conversation. Just talking about it with others increases the likelihood of seeing the problem more clearly.  

These conversations also solidify a sense of belonging and common purpose.  Students generally think about “the good of the group” in extracurricular activities, like sports or clubs, rather than academic work.  Combining this compassionate trait with academic activities makes learning more meaningful and emotionally satisfying.

Open Work Time

Group work can help students to manage open work time effectively.  This is true when the class is working on the same thing at the same time, each group moving at a different rate and with a different level of comprehension.  It is also true when students are helping each other with various different activities. Group work during open work time can often be effective with ad hoc groups, rather than permanent study groups.


The uses of study groups for reviewing material are as widely varied as your imagination allows.  Any review process can be converted into a format that allows for conversation.  


While tests are often completed by individual students, other forms of assessments, such as presentations, projects, and portfolios of work can be accomplished by groups of students.  Even test-like assessments can be taken by individuals in a small group, then graded and discussed within the whole group.


The shame many students feel when they do badly on a test or other assessment is one of the central impediments to learning.  They want to bury the evidence in the bottom of their backpacks or lockers as quickly as possible. Of course, this makes it difficult for them to learn from their mistakes.  Finding the courage to admit failure in front of others is vital. It allows students to replace shame with a more realistic and healthier posture towards making mistakes and learning from them.

If a study group is well-balanced, its members will typically have a range of scores on any given test.  Peer teaching and learning can then take place. If a significant percentage of a class did poorly on a test, providing answer keys can help serve the same purpose.  

Reviewing tests in study groups is the backbone of formative assessments.  The give and take, the teaching and learning around mistakes are essential to learning from those mistakes.  This is discussed in depth in the chapter “Making Tests Meaningful”. 

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4.3 Preparing Students to Participate in Study Groups

4.3 Preparing Students to Participate in Study Groups

Student buy-in is a prerequisite to successful study groups.  Explicitly discussing the functions of study groups helps students understand the advantages this way of learning has over whole-group activities. Students need to see study groups as an authentic alternative to traditional teacher-directed classrooms.  Frequent discussions will convince some students, but for others there is no substitute for direct experience.

Having patience and finding a nonjudgmental posture are challenging but essential.  When some students don’t buy into the ideas you are proposing, as inevitably happens at the start, it is critical for you to remember that they are only doing school as they understand it.  Years of experience have taught them a number of academically bad habits and a distorted sense of the purpose of school. It is your job to provide them with a more authentic and meaningful alternative.  

Reaching a critical mass of students who buy into the idea of independent study groups requires perseverance and patience and many conversations. They will not all come to believe in it immediately.  So first and foremost, don’t blame them for struggling to accept this approach.

Here are some of the messages students should hear and discuss as part of preparing to be in groups:

We have a common purpose and we can only achieve it by working together

One of the great challenges in convincing students of the importance and usefulness of study groups is overcoming biases they bring into the room from past experiences.  Successful students may fear that study groups will “dumb down” the course, and that having to work with slower students will adversely affect their grade point average. Less successful students may resist opening up to study groups because they are afraid of having their struggles exposed—it is harder to hide their failures in a small group than in the whole-class setting.

The good news is that there is one solution to all those biases—the creation of a unified classroom culture dedicated to self-directed learning for everyone in the room.  The idea that such a simple, authentic purpose for school exists appeals to students of all levels of success. It is, in fact, what can bring them all together.

Conversational learning is an important tool

Group discussions reveal multiple perspectives on any topic and expose a richer, more multifaceted view than when a students learn alone.  If they are exposed to more complexity, their learning tends to be deeper and more resilient.

When a student articulates what he knows, he is engaging the material differently than if he is thinking or reading about it.  Organizing his thoughts to explain a new idea to someone else builds a more solid and robust understanding of it. If he can’t explain a concept or a skill to someone else, he probably doesn’t know it as well as he thinks.  Saying what he understands out loud is also good practice for expressing it on a test or other assessment.

Honing a student’s metacognitive skill of knowing how well he really understands the material is an important part of the learning process.  After reading about a new idea, for instance, he may feel he has mastered it, but until he talks about it with others, he may not know what he doesn’t know. 

Being an effective group member is a skill that needs practice

For a group to function well, its members need to be prepared for conversations.  This may entail, for instance, completing a homework assignment before the group discusses it.  But preparation doesn’t necessarily mean mastering the homework—it means a student does as much as possible independently and pays close attention to what he doesn’t understand.  If he is struggling with a new skill, then knowing specifically what he hasn’t mastered allows him to ask good questions and direct the conversation in a way that is truly useful to him.

Another skill that requires practice is paying attention to and considering the good of the group.  Through practice, students learn to be more altruistic. They can develop a more healthy attitude towards collaboration.

Discussing what a high-functioning group looks like with students is useful, but role modeling by using techniques like the fish bowl can also be a powerful tool.  In this technique, you sit down with a group and pretend that you are the group leader, with the rest of the class sitting around your group observing. Displaying the process of going over homework in this way can jump-start the process in other groups. No method is foolproof, however, and every group has to find its own way towards becoming effective.

The art of appropriate socializing

Part of conversational learning is conversation, and some socializing is essential to the building of trust within a group, as discussed in the chapter “Creating the Classroom Culture”.  Forming the social glue of a group is essential its healthy functioning and requires an investment in time for students to get to know each other.  Furthermore, the emotional context of learning together deepens the experience of learning and makes it more meaningful.

Teach leadership skills

Study group leaders will be better at their jobs if they (and the whole class) are taught what successful leadership looks like.  It is important for all students, but particularly study group leaders, to learn how to work together, to pay attention as the discussion drifts off-task, and to gently bring the group back to the topic at hand without being abrasive about it.  These skills need practice and possibly some role-modeling.  Similarly, dealing with excessive sidebar conversations or addressing group members who don’t participate or hold up their end of communal work are delicate and often difficult tasks for students.  Learning to manage such situations is an important life skill.  

The problem of academic selfishness

For a struggling student, the idea that conversational learning will be useful and worthwhile is not a hard sell.  The student who has already mastered the material, however, also needs a reason to participate. Students who are successful at school are often used to completing work on their own and quickly moving on.  The thought of slowing down to help other students may seem an imposition and an impediment to their success. They may well ask, “What’s in it for me? Why should I help anyone else?”

Here are some ways to talk to students who ask those questions:

  • Having someone ask you questions challenges your understanding in ways you are unlikely to do by yourself.  It is good training in becoming aware of the depth of your comprehension in an ever more subtle way.  It helps you learn to be more metacognitive, more aware of what you know and what you don’t know.

  • One of the best ways of learning is to teach.  You can role model this by telling your students that no matter how long you have been teaching, you still learn about your subject because of your work with them.  (As long as this is true, by the way, you are in much less danger of becoming bored — or boring — in your work.)

  • This approach to education requires a kind of active participation by your students that isn’t necessary in a traditional teacher-directed classroom.  If you are going to dismantle the bell curve and replace doing school with self-directed learning, there have to be many teachers in the room. No matter how effective you are, in a classroom with more than, say, ten students, there just isn’t enough of you to go around.

  • Altruism feels good.  Knowing that you are helping other people be successful is its own reward.  

  • Learning compassion and caring about the good of the group are attributes that are very important in life—and you can practice them right here in this room.


4.4 Creating Study Groups

4.4 Creating Study Groups

Creating high-functioning study groups is an art, not a science

There is no right way to create study groups.  The technique you use will depend on the specific collection of students you are working with and your personal need to control such decisions.  Remember, too, that if your first efforts don’t work well, you can always intervene and change the groups to resolve the issues as they present themselves.  

Here are some guidelines to consider as you start the process:

Involve students in the formation of study groups

Since one of the central functions of study groups is to teach students a sense of responsibility and ownership, having them participate in the creation of those very groups is a good place to start. For many students, their day-to-day experience of powerlessness in the classroom causes deep and understandable resentment.  This is an opportunity for them to experience some control over their educational experience. In general, students should have as much say in forming groups as is practical, given their maturity level and attitude about school.

To whatever extent students are involved in forming study groups, you can encourage them to make wise choices by conveying to them how important such groups will be in the learning process.  They need to be reminded that working with friends, while possibly more fun and more comfortable, may very well not lead to effective learning.

Of course, you must also have a say in the formation of groups because you have an overview that no student has, and you have to look out for the needs of everyone in the room.  Finding a balance between their input and your direction is part of the art of forming study groups.

Have every student work with every other student

Before students can make good choices about who to work with, they must be well-informed.  They should experience working with all the other students in the class in order to know who they work well with and who distracts them from learning.  This can best be accomplished at the start of the year by randomizing who students work with every time there is group work. There are many ways to do this, from the use of playing cards (all the kings meet at this table, all the jacks at that one), or by sorting by birthday or age.  The more creative and playful you are and the more fun they have sorting themselves, the better.

Randomizing working partners serves several important functions.  Insisting that students introduce themselves to each other at the start of each new grouping helps eliminate anonymity.  This is an important step in building a sense of community.

Consistently reminding students of the importance of finding good partners also  emphasizes the centrality of learning. Encouraging them to pay close attention to how well they learn with each other also hones their awareness of what effective work looks like.

Once students have had the chance to work with each other, it is time to give them a say in the formation of study groups.  A structure is needed to allow them to express their preferences confidentially. This can be done by means of a form such as the one shown below.

The degree of influence they have in the creation of their groups can be constrained by the form.  For example, the attached form allows them to choose a maximum of three other students they would like to work with and, at most, one student that they really don’t want to work with.

Once they are completed, the forms can be sorted into piles representing the groups.  As a rule, try to grant as many of their requests as possible and always accommodate their decisions about who they don’t want to work with.  Keep an eye on your grade book to factor in academic strengths, success on tests, and so forth. Most importantly, use your intuition about how they might work with one another.  Finding the right balance of strengths can be tricky and time-consuming. It is worth the effort to get this as close to right as possible.

Immediate adjustments

Restructuring groups should occur promptly if there is strong objection to the initial arrangement.  There may well be hidden animosities or tensions in the class that become obvious when groups are announced.  Sometimes a student will immediately respond negatively to the group he finds himself in, or the group to an individual.  Students should have a way to inform you that there is a serious problem without exposing their issue with other students.  If possible, they should be able to discuss it with you. You can invite students to sign up privately for times to meet with you for that purpose.  Creating a form that allows students to communicate their wishes privately is another way to give them a voice in the process. Here is an example:


Your own response will depend entirely on the situation at hand, of course, but in general it is important to honor any serious concerns.  Sometimes, responding requires tact and a concerted effort to disguise why the change is being made in order to avoid hurt feelings.

Dealing with unpopular students

One of the more difficult situations you may encounter has to do with a student whom no one wants to work with.  This is a problem that obviously requires great sensitivity and care. Sometimes talking privately to team members about strategies to help integrate the offending person can help.  Urging them to have patience during a trial period will sometimes smooth over initial turbulence, particularly if you reassure them that you will take action if it doesn’t work out. Dealing directly with the student about the issue that makes him unpopular is, of course, an important but also a very delicate matter.  Use whatever support is available to you—counselors, social workers, and other teachers who know the student—to address this task.

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4.5 Other Considerations in the Design of Study Groups

4.5 Other Considerations in the Design of Study Groups

A range of academic abilities, motivation, and social skills

Sharing the wealth” means that teaching and learning are going on regularly within a study group.  Every member brings strengths and weaknesses to the table. The student who writes well may not be an assertive leader.  Someone who does well on tests may be hopeless at organizing a hands-on experience. If there is diversity within the group, it becomes more likely that every member can offer something of value.  Every student, not just those who get good grades, can feel useful and respected.

The optimal size

Groups needs to be big enough to have the social energy to drive learning, yet small enough for shy students to feel free to speak and ask questions.  A study group should be large enough to contain strengths in various domains—leadership, test taking, problem-solving, hands-on activities, writing, organizing, etc.  It should also be small enough to ensure participation by all members.  

The optimal size depends on the maturity level of the students, the types of activities they will be typically doing, and the diversity of skill levels in the room.  It also depends on the teacher’s tolerance for noise—conversations in larger groups tend to be louder.

Groups with fewer than four members are vulnerable to student absences.  Groups larger than six tend to have more sidebar conversations and may cause quiet students to participate less.  They also tend to break into subgroups and parallel conversations more often.

Round is better than rectangular

The shape of a groups seating arrangement strongly affects the dynamics of conversations.  Straight line seating induces conversations that are limited to neighbors left and right. If a student can see every person in a group, he is more likely to be engaged in a discussion with the whole group.

Permanent vs. rotating groups

As described above, randomly shuffling groups is a useful strategy at the start of the year.  At some point, however, students need stability in order to develop a sense of belonging and trust.  In general, there needs to be a transition to permanent study groups as soon as students have had the opportunity to experience working with and getting to know all their classmates.  The timing of that transition depends, of course, on the class size and composition, and the readiness of the students. It is one of the interesting challenges in forming study groups.

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4.6 Using Study Groups Effectively

4.6 Using Study Groups Effectively

Study groups are more productive when they have a finite, well-defined, and achievable goal to accomplish

Particularly when students are first starting to work together, before a group work ethic has fully developed, it is important for them to accomplish something concrete within a specified amount of time.  This might be everyone solving a problem or answering a check-up question correctly, either for a grade or for feedback. It may be a product, written or drawn, that they turn in or share with other groups.  It may be an interaction with other groups in a debate, or having each group teach a problem that only they worked on to the rest of the class.

When students are rewarded with immediate results, it reinforces working productively together.  Success breeds more success. At first, such rewards may be grade-related, but as students become more self-directed, the reward for working well together should ultimately be internalized.

Positive incentives are better for classroom culture than punitive ones

Finding natural, non-punitive incentives can have a powerful effect on motivation and classroom ambience.  One technique is to give students enough time to finish “homework” in class, but only if they work productively.  The self-imposed consequence of being off-task is having to take the work home.

Finding ways to have groups celebrate and find pride in their accomplishments is another useful technique.  For instance, if there is a group task with a final product that can be shared, having every group see every other group’s work can generate constructive peer pressure.  Using the best work as exemplars for the rest of the class serves several positive purposes at once—it bolsters effectiveness, enhances group loyalty and pride, and serves as a role model for other, less focused groups.

Group work is more inclusive and useful when every member has something to gain from the activity

Explicit conversations early in the year can help students see the value in participating in group activities.  Ultimately, as the internalized belief in sharing the wealth drives group behavior towards inclusiveness, successful students will take on the role of teacher/mentor, and struggling students will come to understand that their study group can help them be successful.

Early in the year, however, it may be necessary to offer more traditional, short-term and externalized motivation for participating.  There are, of course, many ways to translate group behavior into improved grades—extra credit if every group member answers a check-up question correctly, for instance.  Again, it is better to have positive rewards than punitive consequences (say, losing credit if every member doesn’t do well).  Eventually, no such external motivator should be necessary.  Letting students know repeatedly that you intend to wean them off their dependence on grades as motivators reinforces the importance of self-directedness and learning for its own sake.

Feedback should happen frequently, particularly at the start of the year

Students need to reflect on how well they are working in groups as often as is practicable, until they have internalized productive behavior.  One technique is to take time at the end of group work to have them self-assess how well they worked together. They can estimate what percent of the time they were on-task, whether every member participated, or whether struggling students got the help they needed.  Comparing your observations with theirs can also lead to a fruitful conversation.

Above all, any feedback you give them must be nonjudgmental.  You may want to pretend you are an anthropologist, dispassionately observing the interesting behavior of an alien culture.  

It is important to teach students to how to critique their own behavior, with the clear intent of improving every group’s productivity.  Art critiques may offer an useful analogy: in an art class, a student puts his work up for all to see, explains what he is trying to accomplish, and listens to the comments given by the class.  They don’t criticize him as an artist and they don’t say disrespectful things about his work. Instead, they tell him whether or not what he has done in this instance is working from their point of view and offer suggestions as to why it is or isn’t.  In essence, having many eyes on the work allows everyone to see more clearly.

Self-assessing group effectiveness can also be done individually, in writing.  A short essay or a survey can help students focus on the specific functions of the group and how well they are doing at each function.  No feedback should ever affect grades, since that will subvert the process and dramatically reduce the honesty and usefulness of student responses.  If they don’t yet trust you enough to know you won’t punish them for their honesty, let them respond anonymously, but make them aware that you are expecting them to reach a point where they can trust you more.

Allowing the appropriate amount of time for group tasks requires sensitivity

With any group activity that requires less than a whole class period, a decision must be made about when to move on to the next activity.  Certain guidelines apply. Every group should have enough time to complete the activity in their own way, including a reasonable amount of off-task time.  (Remember, it is not realistic to expect any group to remain on task 100% of the time.) On the other hand, when groups are engaged in what you consider to be more-than-reasonable off-task behavior, a natural and non-punitive consequence is that the work is not finished, their goal unreached.  That may mean students need to finish the work at home or that they simply won’t be able to each others’ assistance in doing it. Judging the right amount of time requires observing the behavior of all groups and assessing the appropriateness of moving on.

Responses to poorly functioning study groups should be prompt

Particularly at the beginning of the year, there must be a tenacious and relentless focus on getting the groups to work productively.  Being assertive about it, however, does not mean using lots of force or being punitive. Instead, there should be a nonjudgmental assessment of the problem and an insistence on working to improve it.  This should, if possible, include the students as part of the process. They will buy into the philosophy much sooner if they are part of implementing it.

Study groups are best grounded in self-governance

It is important to avoid top-down impositions on study groups. Students have often had what they have perceived as inauthentic experiences in other classes.  Having specific roles like group leader, reporter, or note-taker assigned to them, for instance, can undermine students’ belief in their own autonomy and can increase their skepticism.  They must come to trust that their study groups will not be just another teacher-dominated structure in a student-friendly disguise. Similarly, maintaining a nonjudgmental posture when groups do not function smoothly serves to role model the problem-solving posture you would like them to attain.  

New tasks and challenges can be designed as opportunities for students to explore the skill of self-governance.  As the functioning of groups matures, students should be given specific, open-ended problems or tasks, and encouraged to figure out how to organize themselves to solve them.

Self-correction is better than top-down correction

Since internalized motivation is at the heart of self-directed learning, student-driven improvement in behavior is preferable to unilateral correction on the part of the teacher.  Working with students to resolve issues themselves contributes to their belief that the student-centeredness of study groups is genuine.

When working with a group, first discuss the nature of the problem. Find out whether students understand it in the same way that you do. If they do not think there is a problem, they will not be able to participate in fixing it.  Guide them towards defining an immediate goal for themselves.

For instance, one possible way to address a group that is not working well together might sound like this: “What percent of on-task behavior can you achieve during the rest of this period?  How will you manage to do that? Who will lead this group and pay attention? I’ll check back in with you at the end of the period and we’ll compare notes then.”

Help them define a longer-term goal and a time frame to achieve it. Tell them (and mean it) that you will hold them responsible for sticking to the plan.  Check in periodically about whether they are successful or not. Remind them that the best solution is for them to fix the problem themselves.  They will learn more that way.

Have patience with the self-correcting process.  They need to learn how to solve their own problems, and they have had little or no experience with this important skill.  On the other hand, when self-correction is not working, or taking too long, it is important to step in and make the corrections for them.  That, too, can be a learning experience for them if it is handled in a non-judgmental way.


4.7 Common Problem Areas and How to Respond to Them

4.7 Common Problem Areas and How to Respond to Them

Unwillingness or inability of groups to work independently

One of the more common issues early in the year is the inability of students to work on their own without external pressure from the teacher.  It can feel a bit like pushing a chair—as soon as you stop pushing, it stops moving.  Practically speaking, the problem arises as soon as your attention is directed toward one group.  The others promptly go off task.

The reason this happens is that the culture of learning hasn’t been established yet.  This is completely understandable. Grounding your class on the foundation of self-directed learning requires dismantling the students’ well-established belief in doing school.  Students have to relearn the purpose of school and their role in it—no small task. It takes time, experience, and repeated discussions about the underlying philosophy to create the necessary classroom culture.

It is important to remind students of the purpose of study groups—sharing the wealth and having everyone engaged in the learning process—and that the alternative is business as usual.  It is also important to not get drawn into nagging them to do better. Engaging them in conversation, and really listening to their point of view, will draw more students in than haranguing them about how they should act.

Periodically having discussions of the inauthenticity of their traditional school experience allows them freedom to fully express their frustrations.  One caveat: do not allow students to use the names of specific teachers in their complaints. The purpose of these discussions is to critique traditional classroom structures, not disparage any individual teacher.    

Until the classroom culture of learning is well-established and students’ motivation becomes more self-directed, there are several strategies that can help keep groups working  effectively. Have the goals be initially smaller in scope and give shorter times to complete them. Offer appealing alternatives once they complete the task. Have the group work prepare students for activities that have significant effects on their grades.  Initially, at least, use grades to provide motivation.

Student self-reporting also helps raise self-awareness and change behavior.  Having every member of the group assess how much of the time they were on-task at the end of a work session can lead to a discussion of why the problem exists.

It is, of course, always possible that resistance to independent work will be widespread and students initially not respond to any of these techniques.  In that case, you may want to revert to traditional teacher-directed strategies. Be clear that you are doing so reluctantly, and your intent is to wean your students off their dependence on you more gradually.

Superficial, “jumping through hoops” behavior

Another aspect of doing school, particularly for successful students, is doing exactly what the teacher requires.  Unfortunately, in the student’s mind this may have nothing to do with learning. His definition of success—getting good grades—does not stipulate that learning has to take place.  

Your response needs to be a persistent grounding in the purpose of the class: undoing the habits of doing school and replacing them with self-directed learning.  You must also focus on the personal growth of the students and the mastering of character traits like self-directedness, curiosity, self-awareness, and responsibility.  Returning to these themes repeatedly, especially at the beginning of the year, is essential in battling old, well-established, and counterproductive patterns of behavior.

Groups finishing an activity at different times

Clearly, some groups will work more effectively and complete a task sooner than others.  Once they have finished, they may descend into chaotic, possibly disruptive behavior. But what should they do once they’re done with their assigned task?  And, more fundamentally, why should they do something else?

Your task is to provide follow-up work that is meaningful and interesting.  If it is fun, all the better. It must never be perceived as busywork or filler.  At least initially, you will also have to provide the motivation. If you resort to external motivation like extra credit, you should also explicitly state that you will only do that until the culture of learning is established—you expect that students will not need such bribes in the future.   

Ultimately, implementing learning contracts will provide both the work and the motivation to do it.  With contracts, there is always optional work available for groups who finish early, and there are choices about the mode of the work students can do, whether they need more practice or are ready to move on to enrichment activities.

Uneven participation within groups

When students with very different attitudes about schoolwork first begin to work together, there will often be tension between them. Unless steps are taken, one or two highly motivated students will often do most or all of the work within a  group, while other, less-motivated students will see group work as a shortcut. Obviously, the students doing more work will resent the situation and feel it is unfair, and they will be right. Worse, the unmotivated students will still not be learning much.

If the problem is limited in scope—only one or two groups are struggling with it—personal conversations with the members of those groups may resolve the situation.  In talking to the highly motivated students, let them know that the situation is unacceptable and will change. Their task is to help the others learn, which means sharing what they know, but not doing work for someone else.

In talking to the less motivated students, remind them that it is in their best interest to use the group structure to actually learn with the others.  That kind of participation leads to better grades and a more meaningful experience.  Copying is still not acceptable, because it rarely helps anyone learn. (Don’t argue the point that it is morally wrong—they’ve already been told that many times, and reminding them is unlikely to stop the behavior.)

If the problem is more widespread, then a combination of whole-class discussions and individual conversations are needed.  Again, it is important for you to have patience—once the classroom culture is grounded in self-directed learning, this problem will become insignificant.

There are also structural solutions to resolve uneven participation.  Copying is precluded when the group’s task is to prepare the individuals to do work by themselves.  For instance, when students practice solving problems together in a group in order do similar problems on their own, everyone has an incentive to learn from each other.

Under no circumstances should successful students be punished grade-wise for the failure of the group to work well.  If a group is ineffective, keep any grading of their activity based on how well each student does as an individual. The focus should be on the success of the unmotivated students.  There may be rewards for their participation early in the year, but use this tool lightly, and keep the bookkeeping negligible if possible.

Uneven productivity among groups

Often, some study groups will work well together much sooner than others.  As you look around the room, it will be obvious which groups are on task and taking the work seriously, and which are not.  How you respond will, as always, depend on the scale of the problem.

In general, don’t interrupt the work of successful groups unless it’s truly necessary.  If only one or two groups are inappropriately off-task, sit in and discuss the situation with them.   Get them to assess the situation—do they think they will complete the activity in the allotted time? In keeping with the principle of self-correction, ask how they will resolve the problem they are having in getting the work done.  If they show goodwill and a genuine interest in fixing the issue themselves, have them set a realistic goal for themselves and hold them accountable.

If the depth and breadth of inappropriate behavior is stronger, use more force, but reluctantly.  In extremely resistant situations, disband the groups temporarily and revert to teacher-directed activities.  Let the students know that you are disappointed to have to do so, but your job is to make sure that anyone who wants to learn is able to, and that their behavior was making that impossible.  Discuss the limitations of the teacher-centered approach that you are reverting to, compared to conversational learning, and let them know that you are confident that in a while they will be able to try groups again, hopefully with more success.  

When the time is right, reintroduce a group activity, but make sure that it is limited in scope and in time.  Reward successful behavior with even more time spent in groups.

Poor homework completion rates

Again, how you respond to this issue will depend on how extensive the problem is.  If a few students don’t do their homework—perhaps one or two per study group—they can sit in on the conversation and do the review with the others.  All the students who did complete the work should receive recognition, like a stamp on their homework, meaning that they were prepared. Peer pressure and the desire to get the stamp will encourage the students who didn’t do the work to do it next time.

If a large group, say half or more of the class, doesn’t do the work, have the people who did do it form ad hoc groups to review it.  If you have the space, have the students who didn’t do the homework start working on it in a separate area. That may mean having extra copies of the textbook or other materials available in anticipation of this situation.  You can also gather all the students who didn’t do the homework and do a teacher-directed review with them.

If most students aren’t doing the homework, then it’s time to readdress their motivational issues.  Haranguing the whole group is counterproductive—it just puts everyone on the defensive, particularly the minority that did the work.  Instead, a nonjudgmental review of the necessary shift in culture is probably called for. This is a situation that depends largely on your personality and the make-up of the class.

Adjusting study groups

If you have tried all of the techniques described above and there are still unresolved issues, the groups will need to be restructured.  The central question is whether the dysfunctional groups can learn to be effective in their current configuration. If you think that is not possible, then at least some of the groups need to be rearranged.

But how do you break up one group without breaking them all up? There is no single answer to this question. Sometimes one group can be disintegrated and its members dispersed to all the other groups. You can also survey the other groups to see which of them are flexible in their composition or let them communicate with you privately by using a form as described above.  Interfering with a group that is working productively should always be the last resort.


4.8 Other Ways to Share the Wealth

4.8 Other Ways to Share the Wealth

Of course, students don’t have to be in permanent study groups to teach and learn from each other.  The class can be organized in a number of ways, with the understanding that, in general, sharing the wealth is most effective when successful and unsuccessful students are working together.

Talk to your neighbor(s)

If students are seated appropriately, they can review material in pairs or small groups simply by turning to their neighbor or moving their desks around to form groups.  There are a number of geometries to make this work. In general, students need to face each other and be as close as is practical. This approach is particularly useful for breaking up a lecture longer than, say, 10 minutes.  It gives students a chance to talk to each other and process the new information before continuing.

Resident experts

Once it is established by means of a check-up or other feedback that some students have mastered new material, those students can become temporary “resident experts” who other students can use as a resource.  There are a number of ways to use this technique:

  • If there is a sequence of tasks, such as solving increasingly complex problems in an algebra class, students who finish the sequence quickly can be given the status of resident experts. They can confirm that their answers are correct with the teacher or an answer key. They can then be designated as experts and can be identified as such by sitting in a special location (say at the head of a row of seats or at a corner table).  Other indicators might be a special hat or other clothing or some object, like a flag or folded piece of colored paper, that they can set on their desk. They can then be responsible for checking other students’ work and giving guidance before their peers move on to other tasks.

  • Following a test or other assessment, students who are successful can become resident experts for the reviewing of the test.  While this can be done in study groups, it is also possible to make the review a more active and community-oriented process. For example, successful students can each assume responsibility for a specific question or group of questions. They can then stake out a place in the room where students who got that question wrong can go to get the correct answer. Resident experts can help those students understand how they got that question wrong. They can even hand those students a retest on that question to confirm that they now understand how to solve it.

  • If a class has open work time with a number of different activities, individual students who are already proficient can become resident experts on one specific activity.  Those activities can be distributed around the classroom. The experts can stay in the location of one of the activities and help students master it and talk through their misunderstandings.

Ad hoc study groups

Sometimes new groups need to be created for an immediate academic need.  For example, open work time may involve differentiated activities. This will require students to be organized into groups that are working on the same task, or pull-out workshops that will review specific material.  Such groups may exist for 10 minutes or a whole period and never happen again.

Similarly, short-term projects may require groups of students who have all chosen the same topic to work on.  Longer term projects may involve sustained groups that are completely independent of the class’s permanent study groups.

Once again, there is question of how such groups should be created. The teacher can simply create them as needed and maintain control of the situation.  This makes sense if there are time constraints that demand forming groups very quickly or if students are not mature or independent enough to effectively form groups on their own.  

Groups can also be formed as a response to academic needs.  This may mean creating groups based on the results of a check-up that tells students what they should be working on.  Groups can also be formed randomly, particularly at the start of the year, when it’s important for students to get to know each other.  Finally, ad hoc groups can be entirely student chosen, based on their needs and, simply, who they want to work with today.


4.9 Tenets of a New Paradigm

4.9 Tenets of a New Paradigm

“This is how all classes should be run.  It’s not about the teacher, it’s about learning, it’s about the students.”  —Melina N., student.

Listening is not the same as learning

Even if a student is fully attentive during a lecture, the real work of learning occurs when he is actively processing what he just heard. Most of us learn best when we are talking to each other. Learning is the active engagement of the mind with new ideas. It is antithetical to passivity.

Conversational learning is active learning

In conversation, students are forced to ask and answer questions of each other. Students who master the material quickly are required to slow down and listen to a different point of view. Answering questions means reworking and deepening their understanding. Students who haven’t mastered the material yet must ask questions and listen intently. The exchange is more personal than other modes of learning, and therefore more likely to be internalized. Conversational learning deepens the learning process.

Students must be taught the skill of appropriate socializing

This skill requires a commitment, both by the individual and by the whole group, to staying on-task while enjoying the moment. This is good training in the art of self-governance.

In an effective classroom, teaching and learning are ubiquitous

Not only should there be more than one teacher in the room, but teaching and learning should be happening everywhere, all the time. This is the goal toward which the community strives.  

Learning and teaching are different aspects of the same activity

The engagement of the intellect with new ideas can take many forms, but being engaged in conversation requires both teaching and learning, the give and take of meaningful dialogue. Teaching doesn’t have to defined as an expert holding forth. It can be the subtle activity of a student expressing a new idea in his own words and causing another student to see it in a new light.

Sharing the wealth through conversational learning is an antidote to the bell curve

When students teach each other, the rich get richer and the poor also get richer. It should be considered preventative medicine, to be applied frequently.

In a properly functioning study group, collaboration is the normal mode of activity

The skills of listening, teaching, and leading are all built into the everyday activities of the group.

Study groups engender loyalty

This is a trait often found in teams, but rarely in an academic setting. When combined with a sense of common purpose, loyalty provides a strong and positive motivational force.