Thursday, October 3, 2013

Solving Study Group Problems

Some of my law students avoid study groups because of prior problems they had with group work during undergraduate study.  You know the problems:

  • a slacker who let everyone else do the work on the group project but got the same good grade
  • the student recounting the story did all the work for the group so it was done right 
  • a dominating person who demanded things be done the way s/he said 
  • an unpleasant person who sneered at or put down the others in the group
  • a disorganized group that took longer than necessary on every task 
  • a totally confused person who slowed down the group's progress
  • a group meeting that degenerated into a social occasion every time

Some of my law students avoid study groups because of prior problems with law school study groups.  The problems were usually law variations of the above problems. 

Here are some tips for making study groups positive experiences with good results:

  • Realize that study group is somewhat of a misnomer.  The purpose is not to study together every day (as in read and brief every case together).  The groups are typically tied to review and application tasks. 
  • The size of the group often correlates to the number of problems that a study group will have.  The highest number range that generally works well is three or four students.  Group dynamics and logistics become more difficult as the number of people increases beyondthat number.
  • The group needs to have agreement on the purposes for the group.  Examples: Will the group make outlines together?  Will the group members instead share their own outlines?  Will the group review topics/subtopics in depth each week?  Will the group do practice questions together?
  • The group needs to have agreement on how often it wants to meet and whether it wants a set day and time to meet each week.
  • The group needs to have agreement on the etiquette for the group.  Examples: Does everyone have to agree for someone to be added to the group?  How will the group handle someone who is a slacker? How will the group curtail rudeness, arrogance, or other negative dynamics?  Will the group share group-generated materials with non-group members?
  • The group needs to recognize different learning styles and structure itself in a way that facilitates learning for everyone.  All learning styles have merit: global processing, intuitive processing, sequential processing, sensing processing, reflective thinking, active thinking, visual, verbal, aural/oral, kinesthetic/tactile, etc.  Some examples of how differences can be acommodated and honored are:
  1. Globals and intutivies focus on breadth; sequentials and sensors focus on depth.  All four processing styles are legitimate.  Each student prefers two of the four styles.  All four styles used together will allow students to look at material from 360 degrees for better learning. 
  2. Reflective thinkers will learn more from the experience if each meeting has an agenda for most of the time so they can prepare and reflect ahead of time (we will cover depreciation and do problems 1-3 in the practice question book at the next meeting).  Active thinkers can usually tolerate an agenda as long as a portion of the group time is open-ended (we can bring up any question or topic after the structured part of the session).
  3. Aural (listening) learners may listen quietly rather than participate in the discussion or may summarize at the end of the discussion.  Oral (talking) learners may ask lots of questions or learn by explaining material to the others.
  4. Visual learners may want the group to work on flowcharts, spider maps, or other visual organizers.  Verbal learners may want the group to use acronyms to condense rules or concepts.
  5. Kinesthetic learners will need some breaks within a long study group session.  Tactile learners will stay more focused during active learning such as practice problems.
  • If a study group is having difficulties with group dynamics, decisions about purposes or etiquette, or using its time well, the academic success professional at the law school may be able to make suggestions on how to correct or minimize the problems.
  • Some students will prefer to choose one study partner rather than have a study group.  This option is fine.  The important thing is getting at least one other perspective on the material outside one's own head. 

If used well, study groups or study partners can be a positive boost to learning.  (Amy Jarmon)   

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