Study groups

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Study groups are small groups of students who study together outside of class time. They may be organized by students or by instructors. They work best when they function as a specialized form of collaborative learning (meaning that the group assumes that they have succeeded only when all the individuals in the group succeed). Research on study groups indicates that instructors can assist study groups in several ways, by: assigning study groups specific tasks; assigning groups difficult tasks; providing guidelines that teach students to study in groups more effectively; assigning a tutor to study groups, especially a tutor who also attends class.


  1. Suggest tasks for study groups.  Trying to identify the instructor's priorities can be a difficult task for students.  Suggesting tasks for study groups can be a valuable indicator to all students of what's most central to learning, even for students who choose not to participate in a study group. 
  2. Make these tasks harder than the test.  For example, suggest the math problems at the end of the review section if the section typically works from easy to difficult. Suggest the most difficult passages in a work of literature for study groups to analyze.     
  3. Provide guidelines for study groups. Treisman discovered that some college students knew how to work effectively in groups because collaborative skills (in particular, strategies to ensure that every member of the group succeeded) were taught within their culture of origin. Other students likely will not have developed these skills;  provide guidelines.  
  4. Assign a tutor, especially one who also attends your class, to work with study groups.  If your department recommends advanced undergraduates for tutoring positions through the various tutoring services on campus, or hosts its own tutoring programs, try to assign the same tutor or tutors to work with study groups over time.  Studies indicate that  "supplemental instruction" works well, when an assigned tutor both attends the class and facilitates the study group. 

Tips to Use Study Groups Effectively

  • Suggest tasks for study groups.  Assigning tasks for study groups right in your syllabus may encourage students to organize or join a study group before they find themselves in trouble. Studies indicate that, for a variety of reasons, many students, even very motivated students, do not seek help until it is too late. Study groups can prevent students from struggling all alone and assuming that they are stupid and don't belong in college, by normalizing struggle and by providing a group process that collectively determines when help is needed. Research indicates that students are unlikely to seek tutoring until it is too late to catch up.  The reasons can be multiple:  overconfidence ("I did well in this subject in high school, so I will do well in college too"), not knowing how to adapt to college-level workloads or study skills ("I'm studying just as hard and in the same way I did in high school, so all will be well"), for fear of enacting a stereotype ("if I go get tutoring, everyone will think it's because women really can't do math"), in response to cultural or familial messages ("You need to be able to do this on your own"), even self-protective attributions and unproductive mindsets ("I've been told all my life I'm no good at writing, so why waste my time getting help for something that can't be helped? I'll put my time into stuff I know I'm good at"). 
  • Suggest problems that are harder than the test.  Take advantage of the power of the group. Assigning harder problems to study groups can eliminate the problem of overconfidence that students studying alone can develop when they begin with the easiest problems, comprehend them quickly, and go no further because they assume they understand everything.  Students who understand the most difficult problems, concepts, passages, questions are more likely to understand the easier ones as well. 
  • Provide guidelines for collaboration. 
    • What should study group members do prior to the study group meeting?  E.g., should they just read the assigned chapters, or should they read and write or outline something, look up vocabulary, work problems on their own? Tell students precisely what to do on their own before the meeting, and what to bring with them to the meeting. 
    • What should they do in the meeting?  What are the goals of the collaboration?  E.g., is the goal to solve a problem, to reach consensus about a definition, to develop multiple interpretations of a passage in a text?  Does every member of the group need to understand the task, and how will the group know that everyone does?  How will the group respond if just one student does not understand? 
    • How should students interact? Help students understand what kinds of interactions are helpful and productive, and what kinds are not. Some instructors assign roles in order to build some "positive interdependence."
    • What should students do after the meeting? If the group determines that they need help, who will arrange the meeting with the instructor or tutor? How will the group review what they have learned?  How will they keep their current level of understanding fresh once they go their separate ways? 
    • Create closed discussion areas in D2L for study groups and encourage groups to use them.  This enables you and any tutors assigned to study groups to see when students are confused or on the wrong track before it is too late.
  • Assign a tutor to study groups, especially one who also attends your class.  Consult with student affair colleagues to determine whether funding would be available to pay tutors. Training tutors can help as well.  See the Resources section on Supplemental Instruction for more. 


Hoskins, D. (2015). Study groups. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from