How to Start a Successful Study Group Online? Challenges & Tips
To absorb and retain the knowledge better, you need to actively use it. One of the ways to do it is by interacting with your peers, explaining things to them and hearing their perspectives. A study group could be a fun and efficient way of preparing for an exam or achieving another learning goal.
Joining or starting an online study group is easy – there are millions of peers around the world you could connect with, and many of them have their goals and interests aligned with yours.
However, maintaining a productive study environment takes effort. What are the pain points of study groups, and how do you set yours up for success?
Advantages of online study groups
First of all, let’s see what the advantages of study groups are overall, and online ones in particular.
There are people who rely on you to be there at a certain time, to process the material you agreed on, people who are waiting to hear your input. It’s inspiring and makes you more likely to do the work you planned to do.
When you only have yourself to report to, it’s easier to find excuses. When there are a few people involved, you’re holding each other responsible.
Insights through interaction
As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. Discussions bring new perspectives. Things that were baffling will likely be resolved.
Things that seemed obvious will be challenged.
Having an active, challenging discussion is the biggest advantage of a study group, in my opinion. How to keep the discussion productive? We’ll talk about it later in the article.
A fun way of studying
Doing something with a group of engaged, like-minded peers is just more fun. That would be another factor inspiring you to study.
Processing the material could be daunting sometimes. It’s encouraging to know you’ll soon meet your peers to discuss what you learned and what you struggled through.
You could also share thoughts, insights, related materials and memes in your study group chat as you go.
No transaction costs
A benefit particular to online study groups is that all the time you invest into it is pure study time.
You don't have to spend time in transit or doing any special preparations.
You don’t have to make yourself look presentable – if you’re having a bad day, just leave your camera off. If you’re sick, you might still choose to participate. And speaking of sickness – you’ll have a zero risk of contracting anything as you interact closely within a group.
Global pool of peers
Another obvious advantage of a study group held online is that no matter how niche your study interests are, there are potentially millions of people who share them.
And it’s not just about what you’re learning, but about the common vision and personality match – with so many potential peers, it’s much easier to find those that would match perfectly.
You might argue that it’s hard to gauge the personality of strangers on the internet, but it all depends on how you’re filtering – see below.
Challenges of online study groups
There are various issues you might run into when launching and managing a study group. Here are the most prominent ones – and the potential ways to tackle them:
Mismatch in expectations
Everyone joining the study group should have clear and matching expectations, both in terms of what they expect from participating and what is expected of them as members.
Unspelled assumptions are a detrimental factor in any kind of relationship, and study groups are no exception.
What are the goals of group meetings? What is the time commitment? Is it implied that the members should possess a certain level of knowledge? What is the format of the study sessions?
Those and other points should be spelled out or documented when the group is formed, and everyone involved should consciously agree to them.
Maintaining regular meetings
“Life” always gets in the way, doesn’t it?
Regularly doing something isn’t an easy fit on its own, and it only gets more complex if you need to synchronize with other people. But it is possible if the participants are committed.
Is it better to decide on the day of the next meeting at the end of the previous one, or have a fixed schedule?
Fixed schedule seems too rigid, but it would allow people to plan in advance. If something urgent comes up, you wouldn’t know about it beforehand anyway. Blocking time in advance would let you schedule other things around it, and also plan your preparations for the next study group meeting.
So, decide on a time that would work for everybody in your small group, then make a decision to shift it if something doesn’t work out.
Keeping a balanced and engaging discussion
Without an agenda, it’s easy for the discussion to derail into chatter (with one person most likely talking noticeably more than the rest), or taking turns giving updates on what each of you studied since the last meeting.
A study group meeting should be an active work session.
If there’s something you could do on your own, like reading a few chapters of the book, completing a certain task or challenge – let each of you try it by yourselves first and discuss the results when you meet.
Do the homework and use the time together to share your conclusions and insights, to discuss your challenges and pain points. Even if one of the participants didn’t have the time to do the homework, they could benefit from the discussion.
Aim to have this at the end of the session:
- feeling that your understanding of the subject I now deeper and more nuanced
- an actionable plan to prepare for the next meeting
Group size that doesn’t fit the goal
What is the optimal study group size? My thoughts on the options:
Two participants. Easier to manage, and you could still get the benefits of accountability, sharing ideas, and so on.
Three participants. Gives more diversity of opinions, and you can stop there.
Four. Add one person in case any of you couldn’t show up for a particular session.
Five. Pushing the limits of productive discussion where everyone is engaged. Could work if the sessions are very well-organized. Each person complicates the logistics, so better don’t go further.
What if some people prefer to listen and pitch in only sometimes – will the group feel as “crowded” with them? If 2-3 “silent” people provide the same level of engagement as one active person, would having 3 active participants and 3 non-active ones be an ok ratio?
Better keep it on the smaller side and run under the premise that everyone should be engaged – which, of course, should be made clear when the study group is formed.
Or maybe the whole point is to make the group inclusive and welcome people who want to take more of a spectator role.
Whatever the format is, it has to be explicitly discussed beforehand.
Harder to switch into the work mode
It’s a general challenge for people working remotely. When you physically switch the environment, it’s easier to shift mentally.
There are various ways you could stay focused while working and studying from home. During the study group meeting itself, work mood shouldn’t be an issue as long as you have an engaging discussion with a clear focus and no obvious distractions.
Not feeling the “shoulder of your peer”
For some, the online format itself might be an issue. There are people who lament the digitalization of communication. “We barely meet our friends anymore, just looking at the screen”.
Indeed, in real life, there are no connection lags, and you’re looking each other right in the eye. It’s a matter of personal preference and perceiving information – and for some people, online interaction just doesn’t hit the spot. But if you’re looking for ways to join or start an online group, it’s unlikely to be an issue that you’re facing, and you could surely find a few people who feel the same.
Start a study group: The Proposal
The easiest way to start a successful online study group (or any kind of venture, for that matter) is to go in with people who understand the plan well and are entirely on board.
While there are many peers who could potentially join you, the goal is to find 2-3 people who would be the perfect match.
Let’s put our key takeaways into action. Take it to the forums with a specific proposal laying out what exactly you’re offering and what you’re looking for. Be as honest as possible, and don’t be afraid of scaring people off.
Most people will not bother to go through back-and-forth with a stranger to iron out the details.
If you have a concrete, detailed proposal, people know what they’re getting into from the get-go. If their interests align with yours, they’re more likely to respond. Also, presenting a plan would make you look like an organized and reliable person – this impression would also be a factor in your favor.
And if their goals, availability, or other key points are in dissonance with what you’re proposing – they will know it right away, so you won’t face disillusionment down the road.
Here’s an example:
THREAD NAME: Join my study group to learn project management
I’m planning to get my PMP certification in about 3 months.
Looking for 2-3 people to join me in studying project management and preparing for the PMP exam. Though I think participating would be cool even if you’re not going to pass your PMP soon, but are just interested in project management and related topics.
When: I suggest Tuesday and/or Saturday evening EST, but we’ll pick the day/time that would suit all the group members.**
Format: We read the material and do exercises on our own, and use the meetings to share our solutions and thoughts, and discuss the challenging points of the topic.
Communication: We’ll set up a chat on Skype or WhatsApp to share interesting materials we find as we research the topics, and just for ongoing discussion and support.
Additional costs: I’m using a $60 textbook you could also get (I like the way it covers the material), or you could read about the topics elsewhere.
Let me know if you’re on board!
Full disclosure: I never participated in study groups, as I prefer a very high-paced method of studying by myself. However, I have experience managing meetings and groups, so I figured it’s applicable here, and people could benefit from this advice.
Participating in a study group would be a great option for many people. If this format strikes a chord with you, try joining a study group – or, better yet, start your own. Having this experience will be useful and revealing – not just in the way you process the material, but in the ways of communication, responsibility and productivity as well.