By Katie Caldwell

Hi! I guess many of you are just starting out here. Welcome. My name is Katie Caldwell. I am just starting fourth year (I can’t believe I am in fourth year already!). I am a pure math major as well as a concurrent education student. I was hired by the math department to produce what you are now reading...a guide to help you form a successful study group. Now I know a lot of you are inwardly groaning about yet more group work. (If you aren’t groaning then phew! You are in for a treat.) Group work is all you seem to do in high school these days. I must confess that I would be groaning too, if I were in your shoes. But, by the end of my first year, I became part of a small nucleus of friends I met in math 1000. We worked on assignments together, talked ab out profs, what courses we would take the next year and non-math stuff. Every year for the past three, these people have been in at least one of my courses. Without them, I wouldn’t have had any fun, and I wouldn’t have done as well. And I wouldn’t have c hanged my opinion about doing school work with other people.

Was I just lucky? I don’t think so. I’d say that by the end of first year, the majority of students have realized that they are learning to help themselves or because they are interested in the material, and not just because some teacher expects it. S o, if you have reservations about group work, please be willing to give it one more try. Hopefully this booklet can help you.

The Goal of Study Group Learning

The introduction of study groups is drastic for both professors and students. The professor/TA will likely have to put in a lot of extra time and effort. Students will have to grapple with the new and higher expectation of being responsible to cover co urse material on their own.

It is believed that students learn by doing. As opposed to being spoon-fed knowledge in lecture, study groups encourage students to go above and beyond what is being taught and to develop their own understanding of subject material. The goal of study group learning is to help students take ownership of course material; to learn to learn.

Benefits of Study Group Learning

As you can see from this list, being in a study group can be really helpful. BUT these benefits come only to those who are serious about making their group work well together and serious about learning. So, although I expect you to have fun (eh, there is no reason why you can’t have a ‘study’ group meeting at a pub once in a while) the study group component of your course is serious stuff and will count in your evaluation.

What to Do at Your First Meeting

I hope that, 10 years from now, you will look back upon this first meeting of your study group with good sentiments. Now I realize that not all of you will form those "college-days relationships’ that tv glamourizes but some of you will. You just never know what might happen. Here are some things that will hopefully get you on the right track:

What to Do at Other Meetings

Below is a list of things you should/can do at your meetings. Suggestions in bold I would reccomend you do at every meeting.

Your Role in Your Group

This booklet contains a section called Problems and Solutions. It’s a good idea to read it so you know what can happen and so that you can recognize it when a problem arises. A lot of the problems discussed in this section can be prevented if you work hard not just at the math, but at making your group work. Below is a list of guidelines that, when followed, help to avoid the common pitfalls.

*I think these ones are THE most important.

Common Problems and Possible Solutions

Problem #1: Lack of Interaction

Possible Cause #1: Lack of Experience with Learning in Study Groups

Suggestion: Review with students the hand-out given to them about how to successfully interact with each other.

Suggestion: Encourage students to provide feedback on the effectiveness of their interactions. Students need to feel comfortable to switch from talking about math to talking about groups dynamics. Insist that when a student makes a complaint, he or she provides a suggestion to remedy the problem.

Suggestion: Have a meeting with the group. Express your concern. Give students a simple, practical exercise. For example, ask a student to present an opinion in a sentence or two and then ask two students to restate the sentence in their own words. Rep eat for each student. Or you could ask a student to voice an opinion and then ask another student to disagree with the opinion but without attacking the person.

Possible Cause #2: The Authority of the Prof/TA is Overwhelming

Suggestion: Talk less. Too many words can overwhelm students.

Suggestion: Point out your own mistakes. You will seem more human and students will feel more relaxed.

Suggestion: Refrain from personal comments, sarcasm and threats.

Suggestion: Refrain from making wide-sweeping proclamations of praise or negative criticism. State your observations without any sort of judgement. If you must praise or criticize, refer to very specific instances. "Your group seems to always be in s ome sort of a bind," is not helpful, even as a joke. "I noticed an argument between Peter and Monica," would be more likely to get a helpful response.

Possible Cause #3: Students Feel Coerced to Participate.

Suggestion: Make it clear to students that the study groups are for their benefit. If their study group isn't serving their needs they should please speak up. Reiterate that attendance isn't taken during class and that students' primary obligation is t o themselves and to one another, not to you, York or some set of rules.

Suggestion: If possible, do not assign grades for participation in study groups. Students will more likely want to attend study group meetings if attendance isn't made mandatory. You could meet this idea half-way by setting a minimum number of study gr oup sessions students must attend.

Possible Cause #4: Physical Arrangement

Suggestion: Make sure students are sitting, facing each other and no one student feels isolated by the seating arrangement.

Suggestion: Make sure the group is not too large. In a group larger than six people students feel like they are presenting to a crowd instead of sharing with classmates whenever they speak.

Problem #2: Students are Participating Unequally

Possible Cause #1: Intolerance of Silence. Some people feel a strong need to fill in moments of silence with speech. In the same way the nature abhors a vacuum, some people abhor silence in conversations.

Suggestion: Have a meeting with the group of students. Explain the positive role of silence. Silence allows us time to think and to collect our thoughts. It allows quieter students a large window of opportunity to get into the conversation.

Suggestion: Demonstrate an acceptance of silence. When giving a lecture or talking with a group of students, allow for long pauses in your speech to show that you are comfortable with breaks of silence.

Possible Cause #2: Dominant Speakers Monopolize the Discussion.

Suggestion: Talk to the dominating speaker privately. Find out why this person is talking so much and if he or she is aware of the problem. Usually such students are unaware of the problem and are simply outgoing by nature. If the student is aware of t he problem, usually he feels he has not had his point fully appreciated, or feels some need to compete with his classmates. In all three cases, just recognizing the student this way often reduces the student's need to dominate conversations.

Possible Cause #3: A Student has No Interest in Speaking. Some students feel that they learn better by listening than by talking. Some students feel that speaking and helping others requires too much effort.

Suggestion: Talk to the withdrawn student about helping others. Explain how you think they could be very helpful to the learning of everyone else. Most likely the student will feel flattered for being taken aside like this and will want to contribute a t least a little more.

Problem #3: Incorrect Use of Mathematical Language

It is quite easy for a group of students to all mistakenly agree that when they get zero over zero they can cancel to get one. Or to all misread what it means for a function to be continuous. Or to confuse 'if' with 'only if'. And who will be around t o point out these errors?

Suggestion: Do your best to drop by the nearby study rooms: N537Ross, the math lab, and even 204 in Bethune College. Casually ask students what they are working on. Do not hang around for more than five minutes.

Suggestion: Give eight-minute pair quizzes. Pair quizzes cut the marking in half. If the quiz is brief enough, a class of 50 (25 quizzes) can be marked in 15 minutes. (In a pair quiz, students first attempt the question on their own and then pair up, submitting the best work between the two.) These kind of quizzes give the students regular feedback and also wake them up first thing Monday morning!

Suggestion: Insist that those who are sensitive to the careless use of language make a practice of requesting clarification.


What students are evaluated on is what professors view as important. If we want students to see their study group involvement as important, it must be evaluated. Below is a list of suggested activities that can be evaluated to provide a mark for the s tudy group component of your course.