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

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

Online Study Groups: A Quick Guide

Making the adjustment to remote learning has not been easy. Even though our experiences may differ in significant ways, we all may feel a lack of motivation or loneliness at times. At the Weingarten Center, we are fortunate to have weekly meetings where we can maintain a connection with our colleagues and hold each other accountable. Given the circumstances, I would like to offer some advice for doing something similar: online study groups.

What You Need to Get Started

Before you start a study group session, it’s a good idea to lock down most of the logistics. A strong logistical foundation helps to keep the group moving!

  • Start your online study group with 3-5 people. A group of this size is easier to manage logistically and avoids the intimidation that we may experience in large groups.
  • Identify the online resource you will use for meeting together. You are welcome to use any video conferencing software you’d like, but BlueJeans, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams are popular choices.
  • Get organized virtually. We suggest keeping the contact information of your group members in a shared digital folder (OneDrive, Google Drive, etc.). This folder can also be used to store meeting notes, resources, and any products created in the study session.
  • Make sure everyone is aware of the time, location, and purpose of the study group. Since finals are just around the corner, your study group may decide to discuss practice problems or talk through important diagrams. Just remember to keep the sessions productive!

Now that we’ve covered the logistics, let’s move on to creating a safe space!

Developing a Good Group Dynamic

Part of developing a good group dynamic involves setting clear expectations about how the group interacts. When everyone is on the same page, we often feel more motivated to get to work! Here are a few tips:

  • Take some time to introduce yourselves and lighten the mood with an icebreaker or two. Even if finals are approaching, taking 10-15 minutes to shift the atmosphere can ease everyone’s nerves.
  • In order to create a safe space, spend some time creating a group contract that outlines the values of the group (being helpful, giving constructive feedback, respecting boundaries, etc.) and how to handle potential conflicts.
  • Create buy-in by including everyone on important decisions and through assigning roles. Some important roles are a group coordinator, note-taker, resource organizer, and discussion facilitator. The group coordinator sends emails and meeting invitations out and the resource organizer maintains the shared digital folder. Feel free to rotate these roles once the logstics are in place and allow everyone to pick a role that works for them. The bottom line is this: share responsibility.

Creating a Space for Learning

Once you all are clear on the expectations you have for each other, it’s time to create a space where learning can thrive! In a virtual environment, you may decide to get a little creative by using online applications like Coggle, BitPaper, and YouTube, but our advice below is still applicable:

  • Work with your group to develop a growth mindset toward your course material. The mindset of your study group is important for maintaining motivation as you work through course content. Even amidst the challenges, it’s important to think constructively about your course material.
  • Identify material that makes for good discussion. One of the benefits of study groups is the opportunity to check your understanding by talking to each other. Take some time to identify the concepts, relationships, or important equations in your course and discuss them together.
  • Choose study activities that will train higher order critical thinking skills. It’s likely that you will have to apply, analyze, and evaluate ideas on your exam, so practice these same thinking skills with your group. Annotating diagrams, explaining solutions, drawing concept maps, and creating study guides are great ways to improve your critical thinking skills! Feel free to get a little creative as well!

Final Thought: Social Accountability is Key

Aside from the opportunity you have to multiply your resources, develop higher order thinking skills, and become a more effective learner, study groups are great for maintaining a sense of connection with peers and for improving motivation. As long as the goals and expectations of the group are clear, every student is likely to achieve because they are heard, valued, and held accountable.

Feel free to talk with any of our learning instructors about how to get a study group started and work collaboratively toward your learning goals by calling us at 215-573-9235!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Instructor

Multiple Choice Exams: How to Prep

The Moment of Truth

As a sophomore at Penn, and after two unfortunate biology midterms, I knew I had to change my study habits. For other classes, like philosophy and chemistry, I prepared for the tasks I would perform on the exam. I wrote outlines for philosophy and solved problems for chemistry, so I thought that answering a ton of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) before the final exam would work just fine. I mean, how many different ways could I possibly be asked about the content?

Turns out there were enough ways for me to be very confused on that exam. In fact, there are several types of MCQs: single-correct answer, best answer, negative, multiple true-false, and multiple response. Each of them can be used to test a variety of thinking skills from rote memorization to critical evaluation (Burton et. al., 1990).

To Prepare Well, Train your Thinking Skills

Aside from understanding the content, in order to prepare well, we need to develop the skills necessary to perform well. In the case of multiple-choice exams at the university level, these skills are application, analysis, and evaluation, primarily (see Figure 1). We can train those skills by getting creative with the study activities we engage in! Let’s get to know multiple choice questions a little better first, however.

This image depicts the the 6 thinking skills found in Bloom's taxonomy and emphasizes application, analysis, and evaluation.
Figure 1: Thinking skills at the University level. Adapted from “Bloom’s Taxonomy” by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

The Primary Objective: Analyze and Evaluate

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are composed of a stem (prompt), a correct answer and two or more incorrect statements. The primary objective for many types of MCQs is to analyze and evaluate each statement (Burton et. al., 1990). Part of our studying, then, should be focused on training our ability to analyze information in the stem and alternatives and to evaluate the correctness or relevance of each choice.

Easy, right? Well, not quite. Without test questions and some guidance or structure for how to think, it can be challenging to analyze information in an engaging way. This is why I suggest using a browser-based digital flashcard maker called, Quizlet!

With Quizlet, you and your study group—if you have one—can import content from Google Docs, Word, or Excel and turn them into flashcards. Quizlet, then, allows you to self-test in 4 different ways and there is even a mobile app called, Quizlet Learn! I think the Matching and True/False question types are particularly helpful because each type of question helps you train your ability to analyze possible answers. If you plan to use the Multiple-Choice question type, just make sure that you insert questions as your terms instead of a single word or phrase.

Just One Disclaimer

With that said, I have to make one disclaimer. Because Quizlet uses a computer program to generate these questions, it may be easier to choose the correct answer than on an exam. The mobile app claims to modify the difficulty of questions as you go, but I think this can only take you so far. Go to the next level by identifying any decent questions and modify the statements, the stems (the prompts at the top) or the distractors (incorrect answers) to make them more challenging. This process of modifying and improving questions will help you to train your ability to analyze and evaluate as well.

Other Great Alternatives

Even if you decide that Quizlet does not fit your specific needs, transform your study sessions by taking the time to apply, analyze, and evaluate your course content! Other methods include:

  • Making concept maps to identify the connections between the big ideas in your lectures
  • Creating flow charts to think through the steps in a pathway or process
  • Annotating important representations like pathways, graphs, and diagrams
  • Explaining your problem-solving process in words

Learning instructors would be happy to discuss multiple choice exam prepartation with you more in a virtual appointment! Call us at 215-573-9235 today!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Instructor

References:

Burton, J. S., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P. F., & Wood, B. (1991). How to prepare better multiple-choice test items: Guidelines for university faculty. Department of Instructional Science, Brigham Young University Testing Services. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/betterItems.pdf.

Armstrong, P. (2015). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University. Center for Teaching. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.

Refresh Your Semester Plan and Stay Motivated

With the end of the Spring semester in sight for many Penn students, we’ve been hearing from a lot of you that it is hard to keep motivation high. First, the good news…you’re almost there! 

Even though graduation and other end-of-year celebrations won’t be in person this year, that doesn’t make your achievements any less remarkable. Repeat after me…I am doing an amazing job at a really tough time. 

On the other hand, the semester is not over. We know the last mile of any race can be the hardest. As long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will get through. You’ve got this.

When we are tired, burned out, and stressed, those steps turn into baby steps. And that’s okay. Pause for a minute, put both feet on the floor, and take three deep breaths. Next, take a moment to notice what’s around you. Is there a pile of papers or a collection of old coffee cups? Is your computer’s desktop cluttered with documents? Take a moment to organize your physical or digital learning space.

Once you are feeling a little more focused, it’s time to make a plan. Think about everything you need to get done by the end of the semester. During these times of transition, it can be helpful to make a little chart to keep track of how things are different. It feels good to have everything in one place. Yours could look something like this:

Now it’s time to take all of those larger assignments and break them into smaller pieces. Using a visual organizer tool like this one can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to break out the colored pens and pencils. You can find an electronic version of the planner along with some of our other favorite resources here.

“Focus on what you can control. Let go of what you cannot”

This is one of our favorite sayings, and it’s especially relevant right now. Anytime a thought pops up like “when will we return to normal,” or “I can’t study very well at home,” just say to yourself “can’t control,” and try to let it go. Going for walks and getting into a regular sleep routine also helps. Managing stress is a big part of productivity. If you’d like to check in about your stress or anxiety, CAPS is open for telehealth appointments.

Thinking about what you can control, what about…how you spend your days? You’ve broken down your big assignments. Now put them into your schedule. You can find our weekly planner here.

Remember, what worked for you before may not work now. Or, like going out to study, it might not be possible. You can do this. You are a living, breathing, human work in progress. Every day is a new day. Don’t forget: you’ve got this.

“Keep what’s working. Let go of what’s not. Adjust where you need to.”

Want to learn more about effective planning and preparation? Register for our upcoming virtual workshop, Succeeding with Final Exams, Papers, & Projects at Home:

Image of flyer for Succeeding with Final Exams, Papers, and Projects at Home virtual workshop

By Staff Writer: Jennifer Kobrin, Learning Fellow and current Ed.D. student in Reading/Writing/Literacy at PennGSE

Open Book Exams: Are You Ready?

Photo: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Open book exams can be illusionary. They appear easy, breezy, and create sweeping horizons because everything is at our fingertips. Read the next question, flip some pages, and pronto—there is the right answer.

If only…

Indeed, there is full access to everything: professor’s lecture notes, PowerPoints, textbook(s), homework and quizzes (with solutions!), personal class notes, friend’s class notes, the Internet, and so much more.

Yes, and yes to all the above.

Well, the easy access also becomes the source of murkiness. BECAUSE, access to all and everything comes with a set of caveats.

How will you identify the right answer in a timely manner?

My simple response is by being prepared for an altered mode of exams.

  • Maintain study routines: Read, understand, and confirm that you have understood. Practice problems, compare solutions with your results, check if you know how, and check again.
  • Whittle down: Identify and compile three resources for each individual exam.
  • Create a table of contents: While taking the exam, what you want to focus is on writing the responses correctly and not fishing for the right information. For example, you may want to identify where angular kinetics is situated within the professor’s PP, textbook, and recent quizzes. Mark the page #s. Similarly, you may want to organize the textbook and your class notes about Napoleon by placing sticky notes on similar trending themes. Bookmark websites that were referenced during class.

You can be ready—just with a different mode of preparation. Do not put off preparing for an open book exam until the night before.

Want to learn more about preparing for open book exams? Register for our upcoming virtual workshop, Preparing for Open Book Exams:

You can also schedule a virtual consultation with a learning instructor to discuss your strategies by calling 215-573-9235.

By Staff Writer: Dr. Rashmi Kumar, Associate Director of the Office of Learning Resources and Specialist in STEM Learning

End-of-Semester Action Plan for Graduate Students

As the entire campus community realizes, in a post-turkey haze, that the end of the semester is rapidly approaching, we present some of our best end-of-semester strategies for graduate students. If you are not a graduate student, we suggest you continue reading for the bits of universal wisdom sprinkled throughout.   

MAKE A MAP

One of the best ways to get some perspective on a project or to begin preparing for an exam is to return to a blank slate—either a white board or a large piece of paper. It feels daunting at first, but reconstructing (from memory!) your argument or outlining the essential concepts covered in a course shows you what you know while exposing the gaps that you’ll need to prioritize.  

WORK IN SHIFTS

An unscheduled day sounds great but is often difficult to productively manage. Planning to “work all day” often leads to procrastination and a guilt spiral. Instead, plan to work in 2 to 3 shifts. Pick one task or a set of related tasks for each shift. Work for 1 – 2 hours, then step away. Initially, you may resist the idea that you can get more done in less time, but concentrated effort always beats pseudo-studying.  

SHARE YOUR GOALS

Will power isn’t a thing. Or, at least, it’s a finicky, unreliable, limited-to-the-point-of-being-irrelevant thing. You can’t trust it to come through for you when you need it, so you’ll need some support. Tell a friend, family member, or the person sitting next to you at the Graduate Student Center what you plan to accomplish today, this week, or this semester. They might not care, but articulating your goals is the first step to achieving them.   

CARE FOR YOUR OFFLINE BRAIN

If you’re asking your brain to intensively focus on challenging tasks, you should be nice to it when it’s off the graduate school clock. That may mean turning off notifications and reducing screen time so that you’re not pinging your brain or bathing it in blue light when it’s trying to rest. Sleep is a must. Writing takes longer and is usually worse when you’re very tired.  

BUILD UP TO THE HEAVY LIFT

Sitting down to a blank document with a flashing cursor is intimidating. Perfect sentences and fully-formed ideas may not immediately pour out of you. Consider a soft-launch: a few sentences scribbled in notebook, a terrible first draft of an introduction typed into your favorite note-taking app on your phone, or a conversation with a friend over coffee about the argument you’re trying to make and how you’ll defend it.  

REMEMBER WHAT’S EXPECTED

The worst thing ever is spilling coffee on the laptop that carries the only saved copy of your paper that you never bothered to email to yourself or connect to a cloud-based system. The second worst thing is casually glancing at an assignment description after you’ve written three-fourths of your essay and realizing that you’re totally off-track. It is worth your time (right now) to re-read that prompt and ensure that you’re doing no more and no less than what has been assigned.

SET A MINIMUM

If you just can’t get yourself to sit down to do the work—you’re not alone! Set a minimum task for each study session. Something, you know, minimal. You could write 5 sentences, read the abstracts of 3 articles, or create a table from your data. The idea is to start. You’ll at least do the minimum and maybe you’ll get on a roll.

If you’re not ready to adopt all seven strategies in the remaining weeks of the semester, we suggest focusing on one or two. If it’s too hard to choose or you just want to talk about a paper, project, or exam—make an appointment with a learning instructor. We’re happy to meet with you through the end of the fall term.

By Staff Writer: Ryan Miller, Director, Office of Learning Resources

Note-Taking: Handwrite or Type?

The Fall semester has begun, triggering an increasingly consequential question for students given the availability of technological resources for note-taking:

To TYPE or HANDWRITE Academic Notes?

There is no right answer for every person and every context. What works for one person, may not work for another. And what works for one course or assignment, may not work for another. Knowing yourself in each situation and the requirements of each course and assignment is key.

Whether you’re working on your dissertation, studying for an exam, or consideration a manual or digital method of note-taking, storage and archiving, we caution you not to reinvent the wheel, if a particular method already works well for you.

That said, if you’re still deciding between handwriting or typing notes, weighing mainly a factor of speed optimization, consider Baer (2014), “By slowing down the process of taking notes, you accelerate learning“.

Source: pxhere.com

Wait a minute! Slow down to accelerate???

Yes, it has to do with the brain! “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated” (Baer, 2014). You mean… there is something unique about the act of slowing down and writing that automatically activates neural circuits?

Actually, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. In fact, it is what the slowing down of time makes possible. What are the affordances of time? What can you do by stretching out time? Research suggests that the Learner should do something active and stimulating, that is, the opposite of copying, typing, transcribing and rote memorizing, verbatim, new information.

Baer (2014) suggests that by getting off of the keyboard, and note-taking by hand, “you’ll have to look for representative quotes, summarize concepts, and ask questions about what you don’t understand.”

So… What’s the verdict?

Is it Best to TYPE or HANDWRITE Academic Notes?

The answer is to do something new with the information, to APPLY or SYNTHESIZE it. This is an active and actionable method that the slowing down of time by note-taking can accommodate, if not require.

Check out our prior Blog posts about active learning and note-taking:

References:

Baer, D. Here’s why writing things out by hand makes you smarter. Business Insider. December 16, 2014.

By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Fellow

Bigger Pictures & Study Strategies: Try a Little Reading

21960325121_3db7892c7b_b.jpg“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”
~  P.J. O’Rourke

Reading lists give students heartburn. Not all reading lists, and certainly not all students, but enough. For students who look at reading on a continuum ranging from mild dislike to complete detestation, any required reading gets the old stomach acids churning. For today’s purposes, we don’t need to get into the “why”.

I wish I could say that when I started out as an educator, oh so many years ago, this reading avoidance came as a shock. But that would be a lie, and according to the Blogger’s Code, one should never lie when committing bloggery.

I discovered a harsh truth of reading when I was a kid. I had a few friends who read as much as I did – a lot, and constantly – and many other friends who never cracked a book outside of school, if ever.

Not liking to read doesn’t mean that a given student won’t read. But it does make the whole endeavor…well, problematic.

The reading-avoidant do have a tendency to avoid any and all reading, often. If you happen to number yourself among this group, don’t despair.

What I like to tell people when dealing with the dreaded reading list is that something is always better than nothing. Be selective. You can pick one article out of the pack, or just read one section from each of the assigned. No, you will not have encyclopedic knowledge of the paper, but you’ll have something to think about, or maybe even something to add to a discussion just because you did something.

Getting through assigned books can be trickier, but you can always read them selectively as well. How? What you can do is use the Table of Contents to find a chapter or two that looks interesting. Can’t make yourself read a whole chapter? Use the Appendix to find topics that seem to be important to the class. Consult the syllabus or rely on class notes to give you a clue as to what seems to be most important. Still can’t get started? Make an appointment at your friendly learning center and one of us will help you.

Alas, you may never grow to love reading, but that doesn’t mean you have to make yourself sick over it.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: Let’s Try Again, Shall We?

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Oh, dear. Winter break ended. Now what?

If you’re among those lucky souls who looked up their Fall ’18 grades with a sense of pride in accomplishment, an almost giddy feeling of work well done, then congratulations. That’s no easy feat here at Fun Times on the Schuylkill.

But what if your semester went awry?

What if your best laid academic plans of late August transmogrified into the second act of a low budget horror movie?

What if looking at that grade report made you relive the whole ordeal in all its gory detail?

What if you’re sitting there now, watching the horror unfold yet again, screaming at your past self, “Don’t skip the practice exam! Don’t skip the practice exam!” but there you go again, skipping the practice exam like that kid who just has to play with the Ouija board just one last time, thus opening the Hell Mouth and setting loose the demons who run amok in the second act of a low budget horror movie? Then what?

Even worse: what if it’s all happened before?

Let’s face it, you don’t want to be the recurring protagonist in a lousy horror franchise. You’ll wind up getting type cast and then you’ll find yourself telling people things like, “What I really want to do is direct,” while you read through the script for Schuylkill Terror 3: It Came From Under The Button. The academic equivalent of that goes something like, “I’m going to work really, really hard, and this semester is going to be totally different.” And then you promptly double down on doing things roughly the same way you tried to do them last semester, but with a “serious” and unyielding approach doomed for failure after about three and a half weeks. Lots of times it’s not about working harder.

It is amazing how often people take the same approach over and over, expecting different results, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. And if your Fall ’18 grade report felt like the trailer for Insidious 4, then you DO NOT want to do things the same way in Spring ’19.

So yes, this is a shameless plug for ambling over to your learning center and meeting with one of the friendly Weingarten Learning Instructors. We can help you figure out where things broke bad. Yes, it will be time well spent.

In the meantime, put away the Ouija board.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Sadly, this quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, is at best apocryphal. But it so sounds like something Mark Twain would say that no one really wants to change the attribution.