Many brains, many ideas – study groups in virtual times

Virtual teaching changes interpersonal relationships. Some people feel emotionally closer to their lecturer than ever before, as they gain unexpectedly intense insights into living spaces, family life, pets, and worlds of thought. Some others work by themselves and constantly work through screencasts and literature passages. Regardless of whether it is one or the other: Many students long for the casual chat with fellow students during and after lectures; for the heated discussions about the “correct” interpretation and understanding of the lecture material covered. Because one thing should be clear: The university learning material becomes everything imaginable, but don’t get any easier through virtualization. The solution to this dilemma is approaching in the form of a relic from “analog” times: Study groups – “pimped” – could be a suitable substitute for the now missing exchange.


Study groups: Learning from each other

Study groups have a very specific character. In a study group, people willing to learn join together to learn with and from each other. They do this by exchanging ideas, listening to and motivating each other, discussing, interpreting and explaining passages. The original purpose of a study group is fundamentally different from that of a “classic” group in the context of group work. Groups for group work are typically formed with the purpose of studying for the same examination (e.g. the preparation of a term paper), which is assessed equally for all members. Study groups, on the other hand, are founded outside and detached from this obligatory cooperation; they also aim at the learning success of the individual in the individual examination situation.

The subjective reasons for joining a study group are manifold: For one person, it is the search for social support and motivation in learning, a second person speculates on the division of labor for more efficient progress, a third person wants to increase the quality of their learning outcomes by learning together. What unites all of these motivations is the feeling of being able to achieve more together than isolated and alone. However, not everyone feels comfortable in a study group. Some have had “bad luck” with the internal dynamics or simply prefer to learn on one’s own.


Study groups: Three questions for success

There is (unfortunately) no universal remedy for the design of study groups. What makes sense is what brings success. Everything works! Answering these three questions will bring you a bit closer to your success with study groups:

– Which goal do you want to achieve by learning in a study group?

– Who has to be there so that everyone can achieve their goals equally?

– How should this be done within the study group?

Why? Well…


Targets: Where is the journey going to take you?

Study groups benefit from clear objectives. Each group member first defines self-interested intentions (constitution of a study group see above), e.g. the best possible passing of the exam. Study groups are based on the premise of supporting each other in reaching each group member’s individual goals, i.e. they create a collective interaction of individual interests. However, study groups are not welfare associations or free tutoring institutions. Sustainable support will therefore only occur if the members share common ideals. To achieve this end, the individual goals of the actors must not show any unbridgeable differences. There is a sensitive gap between the goal of “passing exams” and the goal of “passing exams in the best possible way”; at least for the student with orientation “to the top”. “Best possible” is also a flexible term: what “come out first in an examination” means for one person is “just passed” for another. The clearer each individual’s idea of their goals is outlined in the overall group, the smoother the cooperation will work. The specificity of the goal determines the joint success.


Members: Who is good with whom?

A study group unites many minds and many ideas. With four to five people, a study group has reached its limit; more members inhibit equal exchange. The members themselves should be compatible with each other. Whether it fits or not is determined by the respective individuals as well as their interaction. The individuals are students with their own (previous) experiences, attitudes, values, and competences. In a study group, different “Snowflakes” are thus let loose on each other. An experiment in a real laboratory. But under which premises? With regard to friction-free coordination, mutual trust and minimization of imbalances, study groups benefit when the members are in harmony and share compatible attitudes. The temporary digression of conversations into the private sphere should be priced in a harmonious group: The beneficial effects of diversion bundle forces for renewed focus! On the professional level, i.e. with regard to the students’ individual competences and skills, study groups benefit from a more heterogeneous composition. This way, mutual teaching and learning in groups is stimulated and different resources, strengths, and weaknesses can be played out and put to meaningful use. However, the system tips over when the abysses become frightening: Groups with performance levels that are too heterogeneous run the risk of degenerating into one-sided tutoring. In these cases, there is a lack of reciprocity, i.e. the reciprocity of the assistance offered.

Organization: How in virtual times?

“Organization is half the battle.” Wait no, that was “order.” Anyway, it’s about rules that must be followed. However: “Jeder Narr kann Regeln aufstellen und jeder Thor wird sich danach richten,” at least that’s what Henry David Thoreau says. Goethe counters: “Das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben” (Natur und Kunst, around 1800). Whatever. Study groups must approach the world more pragmatically than great thinkers claim to do.

Study groups benefit from a clear (internal) organization. If you want to study together, you have to coordinate with each other. Regularity, commitment, and clarity facilitate cooperation. An important factor of group learning in the “analog” world is the personal. However, these meetings are not so easy to realize in times of contact restrictions. A pity. But there is also a good thing: The long journeys and the time-consuming search for suitable learning apces are now in the past. Instead, the advantages of the virtual learning environment should be used. Video conferencing tools and other exchange platforms invite you to meet or exchange data. This way, virtual study groups create new learning experiences with changed perspectives and additional gains. Just a few weeks ago, who would have thought of improving their digital skills through play while understanding economic cycles or market equilibria? With a little creativity and adaptability, learning together works especially well in virtual times.