Study groups have lots of advantages for students. For example, they provide support, deepen understanding, encourage further interest, maintain motivation, and generally keep students on track. But what happens when you don’t physically attend a school or university? What happens when you’re one of millions of students who have opted to study online? Where does your support come from? You don’t really know who any of the other students are.

You’ve never met, so how do you find each other if you want to form a study group? What if you don’t live anywhere near one another? Will an online study group suffice? How do you even form an online study group, and how can you make it work?

Let’s be honest, some people like studying online precisely because they don’t have to spend time with other people. They like the seclusion and solitude and work best on their own. Others appreciate the convenience of online study, but would still really like to benefit from contact with other students. They’d like to form study groups, but aren’t sure how. We look at the mechanics of online study groups.

The mechanics

How do you go about forming an online study group?

  • Establish a goal.

You need to have something in mind when you start approaching potential members. It could be a long-term goal, like preparing for the final exam, which would involve revising, discussing, and engaging with the course material. Or it could be a short-term goal, like getting to grips with notoriously sticky chapter nine.

  • Find the members.

Most universities and colleges have their own online study environments where you can join forums and discussion groups. You can identify potential group members by participating in chats relevant to you. You’ll soon see which other people participate actively – and constructively. You can approach them to see if they want to join your focused study group.

Participate in all of the interactive online activities your course offers, even if they’re optional, as this will allow you to get to know your fellow students better, and will make it easier for you to choose group members.

You could take a broad approach and see if your lecturer or tutor will help you get in touch with fellow students who share your goals.

  • Establish contact.

Have a plan before you start inviting people to join your group. Your plan is kind of like your proposal; it should help people see the value of the group and make them want to join. It should include the goals and should propose a loose structure, like how often you think the group should meet, where they should meet, how the sessions should be conducted, how they should be broken up into different parts, and some ground rules. Emphasise that these are just your initial ideas, that you are open to suggestions, and that you really want them all to contribute equally.

Remember that to be effective, focused study groups should be small: four to six members at the most, otherwise they become difficult to manage, cliques form, and some people come to dominate the group while others slack off. Don’t send out more invitations in the hopes that some people will drop off or not be interested.

  • The first meeting.

You can arrange the first ‘meeting’ on one of your school’s chat platforms if you want, or you can arrange to use some other platform, like Skype, Microsoft SharedView, or Google+ Hangouts. The first meeting is mostly about sorting out the details. This is when you finalise the ground rules, and hash out a structure for each meeting (first 10 minutes for reviewing matters from the previous meeting, next 30 minutes for discussing new course material, last 10 minutes for assigning tasks for the next meeting and setting the agenda, etc.).

Set expectations for participation and don’t forget to talk about consequences for non-participation or slacking off. Decide how you’re going to share documents. Collaborative tools like Google Drive are great for this sort of thing.

It’s also a good idea to discuss group responsibilities. For example, the group might be your idea, but that doesn’t mean you have to lead every meeting. Consider electing a different leader for each session; someone who will keep the meeting on track, mediate any disputes, and so on. This takes some of the pressure off of you, and the shared accountability and ownership will make members value the group more.

  • Every meeting thereafter.

Meet at the same time on the same day (or days) every week, to establish a routine. Always start on time. Always follow the agenda. Always be prepared. Always respect the other members. Respect is one of the cornerstones of a successful study group, whether it’s online or not. Group members need to feel respected – and valued – if they are to continue to pitch up.

Focused groups vs. general groups

Everything discussed above relates to focused study groups: small groups with a shared goal and fixed agenda. But they aren’t your only option in the virtual world. There are big online study communities, or knowledge-sharing sites that allow you to connect with students from around the world who may be in the same field as you, but are not doing the same course. You don’t have shared goals or a shared focus, but you can bounce ask questions, bounce ideas, and generally get a far broader perspective than if you stuck to groups within your school. Some of these groups include OpenStudy, and Cramster. ThinkBinder and UnClasses are others.

Studying online can be every bit as socially interactive and rewarding as attending classes on-campus. As with classroom-based study, however, you have to make things happen and you have to participate willingly to get the most out of the experience.

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Jemima Winslow is about to start the last lap of an honour’s degree online. She loves the independence of online study and has never been one for group participation, but she might just be changing her tune.