Making a Case for Study Groups – Addressing Common Challenges

If you’re like me, you’re always asking clarifying questions. In this case, the question is this: if study groups are supposed to be effective, why do many study groups fail to meet that expectation?

While there are a number of reasons why study groups can be unproductive, the focus of this post is to bring attention to the following:

  • study groups turning into social gatherings
  • uneven amounts of work
  • unfavorable communication patterns

If you’ve been in a study group that turned into a social gathering, go back to that moment and think about what contributed to that result? One of the factors you might come up with is that the study group was a little too large. The recommendation is that study groups are kept between 3 and 5 people in order to avoid instances of side-conversations and to help everyone feel like they are being heard (which does not always have to be verbal). Another factor contributing to study group challenges involves unclear expectations.

Unclear expectations (unestablished norms and values) make it challenging to have a successful study group session. When these norms and values are not made explicit, a study group opting for causal conversation could be the least of your worries. If clear expectations about what must be done before and during the agreed-upon study time are not defined, it is likely that a study group will not be as productive as everyone would like. Some students may even feel like they are consistently doing more work and taking more responsibility than others.

Transitioning away from the uneven distribution of responsibility, study groups can also become demotivating and uncomfortable spaces if the communication patterns of the group are not monitored and facilitated. There are instances where students can be turned off by the way another student responds to them or even how they react about the activities being done (“this is way too easy!”). Both unfavorable communication patterns and discomfort in the group setting result from unclear expectations.

The success of any study group is dependent on clear expectations and everyone’s commitment to them. That’s why the work of facilitation and the role of the facilitator is so important. A facilitator with appropriate interpersonal skills is able to see, for example, the presence and quality of communication between each combination of individuals and to the whole group. Similarly, a facilitator can monitor the productivity of the study group and bring attention to any consistent patterns of poorly distributed work. From there, they can take the necessary steps to make changes in the moment and in the future!

Stay tuned for the next post in this series as we learn a lesson from Google about the two characteristics that every successful working group has!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Specialist

Pandemic Life as a Student Parent: A Learning Specialist’s Journey

Shortly after Penn shut down in March 2020, I learned I was pregnant. I was tremendously excited, but there were moments of anxiety as I dealt with the pandemic and a huge life transition. I loved my life as a grad student at Penn and my work helped me stay grounded amongst chaos. Although the fatigue, nausea, and other pregnancy symptoms led to some rough patches, the strategies I learned as a busy doctoral student and a learning specialist at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center kept me on track. I had a weekly planner where I kept important deadlines, grouped into different categories so they were easier to remember. On days where I felt overwhelmed or exhausted, I wrote a few encouraging words in my planner to help me stay calm. At Weingarten, supporting students over Zoom and working through their challenges together helped me feel connected.

In December, my son was born and eight weeks later I returned to being a student and my fellowship at Weingarten. Many of the time management and study strategies I had previously relied on were now impossible. For example, I often recommend mapping out a weekly and daily schedule as a great way to get started with better time management. Dr. Rashmi Kumar’s Structure the Unstructured Time post provides a helpful guide. Now that I was caring for my son most days, my schedule was extremely unpredictable. Sometimes he would nap for 2-3 hours when I could get work done, other days he might nap in 20 minute increments or not at all. 

Through a mom blogger, I learned a new phrase that became my mantra: “Flexible routine: not rigid schedule!” Each day, I have one or two priorities in mind. I still find it hard, but I am learning to think more about the big picture of my week, versus getting too caught up in what I can’t get done some days. I know I will get to each and every task, it just may take longer than I had anticipated. That is okay.

I want to end with a positive outcome of my new schedule. Being forced to work in small chunks of 20-30 minutes has led to increased creativity and motivation for writing. Somehow I ended up with a 65-page dissertation proposal which I will defend in May! Before my son was born, I often set aside one day a week for writing tasks, but much of that time would be spent on distractions like social media or texting friends. Writing in short chunks almost every day and taking lots of time in between to think about the logical arguments of my proposal has led to a much more positive experience, and helped me become a stronger writer. I would recommend this strategy for any student who is struggling with writing.

Assistive Tech: Text-to-Speech

Text-to-speech is our most popular assistive technology. It is software that reads the text on screen out loud to the user. It can read any electronic text file on your computer and is primarily used by students with learning disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia. Students with learning disabilities may have difficulties with reading, decoding, and focusing on the text. By presenting the text auditorily students can focus and follow the reading more easily. Text-to-speech can also be used by anyone who needs help focusing when they read, or to get through readings faster.

Read&Write

Read&Write is the text-to-speech software that we provide our students. It features a guided reading tool that allows users to better follow along with the text. Students with learning disabilities often struggle with keeping track of what line they are on and often lose their place on the page. Read&Write highlights the sentence it’s reading in yellow and each word it reads, as it’s reading it, in blue. That way students always know what is being read to them and exactly where they are on the page. Unlike simply using an audiobook, Read&Write’s guided reading adds a visual aspect to the reading. Most students with learning disabilities prefer to learn visually, so with Read&Write, you’re not just listening or reading, you’re actually watching something read to you. The combination of following along auditorily as well as visually allows for better focus, better reading compression, and better memory retention.

Students can use Read&Write to create their own MP3 files to listen to readings on the go. The can also increase the speed gradually over time to get through readings at a faster pace.

Read&Write is available as a desktop application and a Google Chrome extension. The Google Chrome extension has a free version with the text-to-speech function available.

You can check out Read&Write by visiting their website for more information.

Contact SDS

If you have any questions or wish to learn more about assistive technology, please reach out to the Associate Director for Assistive Technology, Amrou Ibrahim

Making a Case for Study Groups: Gather Consistently

“I’ve tried studying with friends and classmates, but we wound up either socializing too much or getting into personality conflicts.”
“Yeah, I always wound up doing most of the work.”
“I prefer studying alone.”

Many students have been socialized to study in solitary ways. They enter college used to studying alone, and they continue to see study as a solitary activity. College students are expected to manage an enormous reading load, work through intricate quantitative problems, and remember complex concepts. Students who gather together consistently to review and actively engage the weeks’ lectures and readings, are more on top of the coursework and better able to remember the material.

Here’s why:

  • Study groups multiply your resources. A combination of observations and ideas means more resources to draw upon.
  • A more effective communicator is a more effective learner. Discussion presses us to clarify ideas, evaluate others’ ideas, and further develop them.
  • When working with a group, you internalize not only facts and concepts, but critical thinking skills as well. These skills become tools for higher order thinking (analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating).

While these are great reasons to start studying with a group, one of the foundations of a strong group study experience is the time spent creating a safe space. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series as we shed light on some common study group challenges!

Adapted from “Making The Most of Your Study Group”, WLRC, 2014

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Specialist

Ask The Staff : Book Club

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To celebrate our colleague Gabe Angrand’s recently published book of poetry, “Love, God”, we’re discussing our favorites reads—from favorite book in quarantine, to favorite book of all time, to what we’re currently reading.

If you’re interested in checking out any of these recommended reads, consider supporting some of Philadelphia’s black-owned bookstores including Amalgam, Harriet’s Bookshop, Hakim’s, Uncle Bobbie’s, Black and Nobel, Black Reserve, and Books & Stuff. (Thank you Daris for recommending these here!)

What are you reading?

I really miss swimming and there’s no good digital or virtual substitute. So, next on my reading list the next best thing—a book about swimming. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui explores the allure that swimming and water itself holds over devoted swimmers. According to the book jacket, this book “is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintery six-hour swim after a shipwreck.” I can’t wait to dive in!  – Julianne 

I’m currently re-reading, for the third time, a seven-book series by Sarah J. Maas called Throne of Glass. If you like fantasy that dances between young adult and adult, these books are so good! Also, anything by Tim O’Brien, Neil Gaiman, or Erik Larson are awesome. Oh, oh! One more—Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – I read this duology recently and adored it!” – Traci 

By March 17, I will have finished a book called, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude Steele. In this piece, Steele, an American social psychologist, tells a story of personal experiences and research experiments that lead to a fascinating explanation for why URM (underrepresented minority) people in most contexts you can think of tend to perform worse than their non-URM counterparts: stereotype threat. The piece ends with some practical advice as well, which include clear communication of high expectations/standards, effective mentorship, and the hard work of developing trust between URM and non-URM groups. I felt like Claude was talking to me most of the time, but I recommend this book to anyone interested in this phenomenon related to URM performance and persistence! – Gabe

What I’m currently reading: A Promised Land, An American Marriage, and Text Me When You Get Home (I can never stick with one!) My favorite book of all time: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. – Kelcey 

Lately, I’ve been reading the Holy Qu’ran. I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but I would definitely say I’m more spiritually inclined. My mom gave me a copy of the Qu’ran back when I was 14 and I never used it much, but I stopped and looked at the message she had written in it and it said, “I hope that this will be a source of guidance and comfort for you,” and it feels extremely appropriate, given the times we are in. – Alia 

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, His Truth is Marching On by John Lewis, and The Power of Hope by John Meacham.  For fun reading, I am reading the Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn” – Pat

I’m reading Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. The protagonist is a 20-year-old freshman at Yale named Galaxy “Alex” Stern. Alex is able to see ghosts (called “grays” in the book) and was recruited to the university as a member of Lethe House (the 9th house) that monitors the occult and supernatural activities of the eight Houses of the Veil (including the famous Skull and Bones) that use their powers in dark and terrible ways. As you’ve guessed, it’s fiction (I think!). – Ryan 

Currently, I’m reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. My favorite book of quarantine is The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and my favorite book of all time is Cosmos by Carl Sagan.Amrou

Writing a Dissertation During Remote Learning

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Working on a dissertation study can often feel like a solitary endeavor. There is a lot of solo time analyzing the data and writing the findings. Writing a dissertation over the past year during a pandemic and during remote learning has felt especially isolating at times. Despite these challenges, I found some networks of support that were especially helpful as I was writing my dissertation. For any students working on larger projects or longer papers during this semester, these tips may be helpful for you as well.

Break up your work into small chunks with deadlines:

  • For any large project, it is important to break the work into smaller chunks. Work backwards from the due date and set mini-deadlines for yourself to complete parts of the project.
  • Leave some buffer time with the schedule and know that you may not meet every mini-deadline you set for yourself (I didn’t!). However, with the mini-deadlines, you can reschedule and reset your goals along the way to ensure you still meet the major deadlines that can’t be moved.
  • Check out these tools that may help you with breaking the work into chunks and setting deadlines:

Find your networks of support:

  • When writing a large paper or working on a big project like a dissertation, finding a writing group can be so helpful! Through the Graduate Student Center, I joined Dissertation Boot Camp and was able to meet with other graduate students across Penn who were writing as well. We met in small groups and were able to check in on our goals. It was a great form of support!
    • If you are looking to join a writing group, see what the Graduate Student Center has to offer.
    • Or, see if there are any options through your department.
  • Set up a regular appointment with a learning specialist at the Weingarten Center. Throughout the writing process, I met regularly with a learning specialist one-two times a month. It was so helpful to have the appointments to hold me accountable to my writing goals. Additionally, it was great to have someone to talk to about my ideas.
    • Remember, you can make regular appointments with a learning specialist (up to 1 appointment a week!).

Take breaks:

  • For a big writing assignment or project, it is important to set writing blocks into your weekly schedule. Aim to write for 1 – 2 hours at a time. (I found I usually worked best during 90-minute time blocks). Any longer and the writing can start to drag. After your time is up, take a break and get away from the screen. It’s a great time to stretch, have a snack, or go for a quick walk.
  • Also, take breaks from your writing during the week. Be intentional and enjoy the breaks and don’t feel guilty. When it was getting close to the deadline and I was working a lot, I still took one day off a weekend to try to recharge and step away from my work. It made me more thoughtful and intentional when I returned to the writing and helped me avoid burnout.

Celebrate when you reach different milestones in the process:

  • Celebrate moments big and small! Each time I finished a chapter I made sure to treat myself. Especially during remote learning when we can feel more isolated, it’s important to celebrate your progress along the way. Make sure you celebrate as you reach your goals and mini-deadlines along the way.

Working on any major writing assignment can be difficult and intimidating, especially during this time of remote learning. Remember you are not alone during this process and can always reach out to make an appointment with a learning specialist to discuss these tips and more!

By Kelcey Grogan, Learning Specialist & Fellow, Reading/Writing/Literacy Ed.D. Candidate, PennGSE

Ask The Staff: Favorite Apps & Tech

During the lockdown, we’ve had to adapt to new virtual lifestyle. There are apps and technology that have become more important than ever for work, fitness, and fun! We asked our staff for their favorites.

What app or technology has helped you most during the pandemic?

“Having Microsoft Teams has helped a lot during the pandemic. I’m finding it’s been by far the easiest and quickest way to get help from VPUL Technology Services and a quick way to connect with members of our staff and outside, as opposed to waiting on an email. I’ve taken a social media break and it feels good! I’m trying to get into meditation and finding ways to help with my insomnia, so I recently downloaded the Calm app. I haven’t used it yet but I’m hoping for great things to come.” – Alia 

“Although I used Zoom on a few occasions prior to March 2020, I failed to realize its value. I quickly discovered that Zoom and BlueJeans have allowed me to stay connected with colleagues, friends, and family. Screen fatigue might be a side effect, but I remain grateful to accomplish my work and remain connected with my ‘peeps.’ I might live alone, yet I never feel lonely since I have technological tools to be present in the workplace and with my friends and siblings.” – Jane

“The Nike Training Club app has been my go-to for at-home workouts. They made all of their premium content free back in March, and I mostly use it for yoga and the occasional HIIT (high-intensity interval training) session. The only downside is that some of the workouts recommend dumbbells, which can still be hard to find in our pandemic economy.” – Ryan 

Clubhouse is a new app that is still in beta stage and only for Apple users, but it has been so helpful to me in the past few weeks! As a poet, I’ve been able to connect with others of the same craft, share my work, and be exposed to different styles of writing and performing. In addition to many of the other conversations happening on the app, Clubhouse really has been a space for me to reconnect meaningfully with others!” – Gabe 

“Without the ability to stroll around Penn’s Campus, hit the gym, or take a fitness class with friends, I’m finding my workout app, Beach Body On Demand, has gotten a lot more action during the pandemic. There are some days I don’t even leave the house, but having the option to scroll through hundreds of workouts has helped me get some movement in when I’m feeling a little stir-crazy!” – Traci 

“Microsoft Teams has helped me the most during the pandemic. It gives me the opportunity to be in closer contact with my colleagues remotely. I am able to greet everyone in the morning all at once, and reach out directly to an individual via the chat feature to ask a question and receive a quicker response than I would through an email.” – Sabria 

“I’ve been really into Just Dance on the Nintendo Switch. It motivates me to get up and exercise. It’s basically a Zumba class in the comfort of your home. There’s a huge catalog of songs in a variety of genres and difficulties. My housemates and I have favorite songs that we’re getting really good at. Maybe one day we’ll be able to bust out our choreographed moves at the club.” – Jackie

“For work – my Outlook calendar! For myself – workout apps/websites: The Movement Project website (local & woman owned & operated) for Cardio & Strength, SWEAT/Kayla Itsines App for Strength, and Melissa Wood Health App for Pilates & Meditation.” – Kelcey

“BlueJeans is what I used at first, now I use Zoom. I don’t have a favorite meditation app. I just pray or watch a good relaxing movie: Sleepless in Seattle, an Affair to Remember, or read a book. I usually work out during commercials since they are now so long.” – Patricia

Assistive Tech: Resources Available at the Weingarten Center

Associate Director, Amrou Ibrahim, using an electronic magnifier.

To help the Penn community better understand assistive technology and the resources we have at Weingarten, we’re launching this Assistive Tech series. This first article provides an overview of what assistive technology is and how it is used by students with disabilities.

What is Assistive Technology?

In a broad sense, Assistive Technology is any device, software, or hardware that helps people with disabilities work around challenges so they can learn, communicate, and simply function better. Here at the Weingarten Center, we use assistive technology to help students with disabilities work around their weaknesses while also playing to their strengths. Most importantly, assistive technology ensures our students have equal access.

Assistive Technology Software

The most utilized assistive technology software at our center are screen readers, screen magnifiers, text-to-speech, and speech recognition.

Screen readers allow people with visual impairments to navigate computers by reading the contents of their screen out loud to them. These include: JAWS, NVDA, and Apple VoiceOver.

Screen magnifiers allow people with low vision to navigate computers by enlarging the contents of their screen. Examples include: ZoomText and Mac Zoom 

Text-to-speech assists people with learning disabilities and other print disabilities by reading text out loud to them and usually has a visual guided reading feature. Examples include: Read&Write, Mac Speech, and NaturalReader. Read&Write is available through SDS and is our most popular assistive technology 

Speech recognition software allows people to interface their computers though voice and speak to type. Dragon and Mac Voice Control are the two most popular speech recognition software.

Assistive Technology Hardware

The most common hardware found at the Weingarten Center are electronic magnifiers, smartpens, refreshable braille displays, and assisitive listening systems. 

Electronic magnifiers magnify paper, books, and even far away objects.

Smartpens are note-taking devices that record audio as your write. They are our most popular assistive technology hardware.

Refreshable braille displays can display text from a computer or tablet by raising dots through holes in a flat surface that create braille characters.

Assistive Listening Systems are audio amplifiers that can connect to a cochlear implant bring sound directly into the ear.

Contact SDS

If you have any questions or wish to learn more about assistive technology, please reach out to the Associate Director for Assistive Technology, Amrou Ibrahim.

Accessible Online Teaching in the New Year

How can faculty proactively consider the needs of all students in their course design? Before the start of the Spring 2021 semester, Aaron Spector, Director of Student Disabilities Services at the Weingarten Center, spoke on a panel about accessible online teaching hosted by Davy Knittle and Adam Sax, graduate fellows at the Center for Teaching and Learning. The panel, moderated by Dr. Heather Love, Professor of English, featured Dr. Aimi Hamraie, a professor at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Claire Mullaney (SAS ’18), a professor at Clemson University. The panelists shared perspectives and tips for accessible online teaching with faculty and teaching assistants in English and Comparative Literature. The recorded presentation is available to all who have an interest in how inclusive online teaching can reach and support students learning under an array of adverse conditions during the pandemic.

Screenshot from panel discussion of accessible online teaching

Staff at Student Disabilities Services and the Center for Teaching and Learning are available for support with accessible teaching strategies. Check out CTL’s resources and strategies for Preparing to Teach Online and contact SDS at disabilityservices@vpul.upenn.edu.

A New Workshop Experience

At the Weingarten Center, we recognize that time management is an extremely important aspect of academic success. Over the last 25 years, we have had several appointments with students and many workshops to engage the challenges of time management. At the same time, we continue to ask the question, “What else can we do to bring tailored support to all our students?”

Well, Aisha Oshilaja (C’ 20), one of our Weingarten Ambassadors, had a revolutionary idea: a time management seminar that allowed students to put their time management to the test in context! Below, we share Aisha’s thoughts in response to a few questions:

Q: Can you tell us a little about your work as a Weingarten Ambassador?

Over the past year and a half, I have been working as a Weingarten Ambassador to create a Time Management Seminar.  Working on the seminar for the past eighteen months has been an enlightening experience and provided me with a glimpse of the issues that many people struggle through during freshman year. In preparation for the seminar, Gabriel Angrand and I disseminated and analyzed a survey [that generated about 40 responses] that encouraged students to reflect on their freshman year time management skills. We were hoping to have an in-person seminar, but our plans were adjusted due to COVID-19.

Q:  You mentioned that a survey informed the creation of the Time Management Seminar. Could you share a little about what you discovered?

At the beginning of a semester, we are often told to make a plan and use that to complete our work. Consistent with this advice, more than 50% of the students surveyed used daily, weekly, monthly and semester planners to help them organize their responsibilities. However, most people (61%) said that they did not have time management skills. It seemed as though people did not have problems with planning their work but in executing their plan. I thought this was interesting in and of itself, but I wonder how this fact would affect the advice given about staying on top of work. How do we re-shape advice to provide tangible steps to execute plans or ways to improve planning, so that success is more achievable?

An image that illustrates how more than one plan may be needed to achieve success.
An image that illustrates how more than one plan may be needed to achieve success.

Q: It seems like the Time Management Seminar could be a potential answer to your question, actually! What surprised you about the results and have those results helped you to think about some additional solutions to this challenge of developing time management skills?

One of the statements asked students their level of agreement with the following statement,“During first year, I knew where to go to improve my time management skills”. Over half of the students (52%) responded “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”. This was surprising to me because I assumed that first year students simply needed to be informed of where to receive help. Even if they might need to hear it from other students, I thought that the knowledge alone would be enough. However, the response suggests that students need more than the message, “Weingarten is where you go to get help”.

Students would benefit from increased student-led intervention tactics such as Weingarten staff connecting with academic [chairs] of student clubs. Additionally, Weingarten could create a student position similar to a tutor where students mentor others with issues such as time management, study strategies and future planning.  These students would assist learning instructors and also bring necessary skills to students who may not feel [comfortable] in the formal space.

Q: I think you make an interesting point about empowering and leveraging student voices! What is one thing you want other students to take away from this blog post?

63% of students said that they experienced unanticipated interruptions to their study sessions at least three times a week. Things will happen, so it helps to leave time in your schedule for the unexpected. You should avoid becoming frustrated by unanticipated events. Instead, learn how to evaluate the event and handle it appropriately, so it feels more like a break instead of an interruption. For example, a common interruption is a surprise event or friend bonding session. These interruptions tend to be time consuming and difficult to extract yourself from after a short amount of time.

I have found that the best way to convert these types of interruptions into breaks is setting two timers on your phone: one for the time you hope to leave and one ten minutes after that. Those alarms should help to remind you to leave the situation on time.

Feedback from a Workshop in August 2020

A portion of this Time Management Seminar was used in a workshop for a virtual summer program and the feedback was phenomenal! Here is one student quote in particular:

“I really liked the [seminar] because they raised problems that I have faced such as planning “ideal schedules” and not practical and flexible ones. The [seminar] also gave me a window into what Penn students’ experiences with time management are like so they allowed me to get a glimpse into that world.”

If you and your student group are interested in the Time Management Seminar or discussing how to manage the inevitable, feel free to send an email to gangrand@upenn.edu!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Specialist