The idea of self-study groups isn’t a novelty. This learning technique has been tried and tested for centuries (at least, I’m convinced to believe so). I also believe that few will question the really he learning potential of self-study groups.
The advantages of self-study groups are self-obvious: higher motivations of participants for learning; the increased sense of responsibility for one’s part of a task; the inspiring feeling of togetherness and being one team; the genuine interest in what participants are studying; better understanding and acquisition of the material as one has to teach it to others; and, the last but not the least, extensive practice of communicative skills. Not surprising that all these advantages may lead to better learning outcomes.
However, as it is always the case in our world, the self-study group method of learning has its drawbacks too. The most evident disadvantage is the possible lack of the general direction of studies. Also, learners in a self-study group may stray from the main topic and get lost in details not being able to see the wood for the trees.
All these aspects considered, I believe it’s relatively easy to overcome the drawbacks of self-study group learning by introducing the time limit and some general plan of studies for a given group of learners.
To see how self-study groups have been used to boost students’ motivation, you can watch this video. The video shows high school students who speak about their experience of working in self-study groups.
Unfortunately, I have never had a chance to be part of self-study group myself and, to my own surprise, I have never tried this technique within all nine years of my teaching practice. So last week I decided to give it a go and see what would happen. Below you will find my observations and reflections on my experience of self-study groups of university students.
For the past three weeks, my students and I have been working on public skills and presentations skills, in particular. We have discussed some aspects of speaking in public; we have studied some practical techniques of delivering a speech and interacting with the audience; we have watched a model presentation and my students have made presentations of their own. However, it was clear to me that I would be able to cover all the aspects of public speaking within the rigid time limit we work in (one 90-min lesson a week): I literally wouldn’t have time to actually teach, discuss and practice the techniques in the classroom. So it dawned on me to give each student an individual question related to presentation skills as part of homework and to ask students to crowd source information for these questions to share it with other students the next lesson. The result exceeded all my expectations.
First of all, each and every student was ready with their part of homework. Secondly, some of the students had brought with them not only some texts but also some visuals like graphs, pictures and slides to illustrate their question. Thirdly, after being left on their own, my students promptly overcame some confusion at the unfamiliar setting and started working together, successfully managing the order of speakers, sharing information, asking and answering each other’s questions. In fact, they were literally learning from each other. I was really amazed that when I could stand back and gave my students almost complete autonomy, they were coping pretty well and learning was happening without my actual involvement.
However, the experiment wouldn’t be a real experiment if I didn’t introduce some variations in the way the study groups worked.
In my first group of students there was no leader assigned to steer the group in a particular direction, track the order of speakers and manage the time of the session. Students were all responsible for the way their group worked. I think that the absence of a leader significantly influenced the work of the group: the session looked more discussion-like and relaxed, while the atmosphere in the group was both informal and respectful. Students were doing their best to speak and put their ideas clearly, they were listening to each other more attentively and were eager to answer any questions. This was a group of people who were truly sharing knowledge and learning from each other. However, although the work of the group was managed well, timing was a bit of a problem because there was nobody to track the time and no one thought it was necessary.
In the second group of mine, I assigned a student to be the leader. His responsibilities included: managing the time and the order of speakers. Needless to say, that this group was better managed, at least in terms of time. However, the general atmosphere in this group differed from that in the previous group. Surely, I understand that the atmosphere in a group depends largely on the people comprising it, but the way the work of the group is organized comes into play too. So when I was observing my students in the second group, I had a feeling that they subconsciously reacted to their leader as if he was a teacher or any other sort of authority. The presence of any kind of authority changes the way people feel or interact in a group, so, in many cases, I noticed that the leader was the connecting-link in the conversations, that students felt less relaxed and less willing to contribute to the discussion, and that they were reluctant to ask questions, to express their opinion, or to add any extra information and take part in the conversation. In fact, there wasn’t a discussion as such, the whole session resembled in many ways a teacher-centered (in this case, leader-centered) lesson. It looked as if students were solely anxious to tell, retell or even to read out their bit of information and call it a day.
This was the first time I had had my students work in a self-study groups setting, and it was only natural for my students to feel some discomfort and awkwardness. So there is no doubt that more observations are needed to draw up more distinct conclusions on how different settings influence the work of a self-study group.
However, what I can say with certainty is what a teacher should and shouldn’t do during the session of the self-study group. First of all, the teacher should help students learn how to cooperate and self-study: students need to feel at ease with working together. They should learn to respect and appreciate each others’ contribution and opinions. Students need to learn not to be afraid or shy to express their ideas and ask questions. Also, it would be beneficial for students to learn to feel responsible for their own learning and stop being docile consumers of whatever their teacher telling them. Students should get the feeling of being independent and active participants of the learning process. Secondly, while conducting the self-study group session, a teacher should sit somewhere at the back of the classroom or leave the classroom in order to come back later to see what result the students have come up with. I would like to note here that the latter option can be chosen only when the learners have learnt to work in a self-study group and are quite confident and willing to work on the task without teacher’s supervision. When a teacher is present at the self-study group session, they should avoid any eye-contact with the students and be solely focused on taking notes of what is happening in the classroom. The eye-contact should be avoided to make students feel that they are on their own and should speak to each other instead of constantly looking back at the teacher for feedback. This will help students to become more self-reliable and start concentrating on the discussion.
I strongly believe that introducing self-study groups in one’s teaching is beneficial both for teachers, as it brings variety in the classroom routine, and to students, as they become more autonomous learners. So far, I can say that this was a really promising and inspiring experience. I will definitely use this method of teaching in the future.