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UMKC Peer Teacher Manual 

Planning and Convening a Study Group

Professor Barbara Glesner Fines © 2006

UMKC School of Law


TABLE OF CONTENTS



 


Study Groups: The Basics 


Planning a Study Group Session

The Importance of planning: Careful planning of your study group session is critical to its success. Fostering independent learning means you should designed your student groups to encourage collaborative and active learning by the students. It does not mean you can simply "wing it," no matter how well the students appear to be doing on their own once you get the ball rolling.

Avoiding Problems  Student conveners often stress preparation of the substantive material over preparation of the study strategies to be used in approaching that material. This is a mistake. If you are trying to be sure you know every nuance of the law before you begin a study group, you are probably trying to "teach" the students the law. That is not your role. Your role is to model good student learning. That is not to say that you should not be fully prepared as to the substantive law. Obviously, a model student is prepared to discuss the substance of their studies. Beyond that, however, you must think of strategies that will allow the students themselves to learn how to learn as well as you. So as you prepare yourself on the substantive materials, observe your own learning process. What are you doing to learn this material? Why does that work for you? What other approaches might work for others? By engaging in this metacognitive process you will consciously i study skills that you can model in the study group.

A second concern in preparation is trying to do too much. Remember that out of a fifty minute study group session, you will need at least ten minutes to open and close the session. With only forty minutes remaining, you should be modest in your objectives and your plan. You simply cannot cover all topics -- choose those topics that seem to present the greatest difficulty based on your observation of the class and the student feedback. Or choose a topic that will provide a good template for a learning strategy that will be essential for mastering more difficult topics later. Above all, be sure that the topics you choose are based on what the students are learning in the class -- not what you learned when you took the class or what you think you should have learned or what they should be learning. Remember, the professor will grade their exams, not you.

Stating Objectives: Identify objectives in terms of the observable student behaviors you wish the students to demonstrate. For example, an observable, discrete objective would be : "by the end of the study session the students will be able to list the elements of the tort of battery and identify a factual example raising an issue regarding the application of each element." Compare that objective with "by the end of the study session the students will understand battery." Be sure to identify study method objectives as well as substantive objectives. (For example, "by the end of the study session the students will be able to organize a tort into its elements." )

Identify Materials: Draw your materials from those the students are using in their class. Be sure to vary the materials you use to study -- taking into account the variety of learning styles in your group.

Making a Plan: Having identified your substantive and study skills objectives for the session, you have most of your plan in place. In this portion of your planning sheet, you should outline the steps of your chosen study strategy, incorporating the substantive material to be studied. Allocate times for each step. BE REALISTIC. If you think students can read a three-page handout in one minute, you are trying to accomplish too much. Re-think your objectives.

Evaluate the Session: This is a critical part of your plan. How will you know if the students are meeting the learning objectives? Sometimes observing and listening the student discussion will provide necessary evaluation, but do not assume that "I will see what happens" is a sufficient method of evaluation. A variety of classroom assessment techniques can be used to provide effective feedback. Be as realistic and careful with planning your method of evaluation as any other part of the study plan.


Structured Study Group Plan

Study Group Class __________________________ Professor __________

Study Group Convener _______________________ Date _______________

OBJECTIVES

Identify the concrete, specific objectives from the student's point of view that you hope the study group will achieve. Objectives might include knowledge, understanding, skills, or attitudes -- about the subject matter AND about studying the subject matter.

SUBJECT MATTER OBJECTIVES:

By the end of the study group session, the students in the study group will:
 

STUDY SKILLS OBJECTIVES:

By the end of the study group session, the students in the study group will:
 

MATERIALS TO BE USED:

 

PLAN

What steps will I use to meet these objectives? (Each plan should identify the study strategy being used and allocate time for each step. Attach any handouts you will be using.)

Step One:

Step Two:

Step Three:

Step Four:

Evaluation

How will I know if the students have reached the objectives I have set? (quiz, recall, checking for understanding, verbal feedback, journal writing, etc.)

Closure

How will I tie together today's activities and anticipate next study group?

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Convening Study Groups

Classroom Introduction

 The introduction to the structured study group can give the students a concrete idea of how the group works and create enthusiasm for participating in this format for learning.  Begin attending the class from the first day of class.  Sit in the back, arrive on time, be prepared, and take notes.  You are a model student and other students will look to you to set the standard.  By seeing you in class, they will understand the committment you are making to help them understand the law and will be more willing to commit themselves to the group.

Introduce the structured study group program at the end of the first week of classes.  This allows students to get into the routine of law school and gives them enough time to experience law school material.  With this background they are better able to understand how such a group could be beneficial to their learning.  The Structured Study Group faculty director will attend the class to introduce you to the students if possible.  Otherwise, simply introduce yourself and the program.

 Remember to do the following:

 1) Ask the instructor for a few minutes at the beginning or end of class to use for introducing the program.

 2) Explain the function of the Structured Study Group:

    • A structured study group leader is assigned to one first-year class in each section each year.
    • The student leader has been in this class previously with this instructor and has done well in this class and law school overall.
    • The student leader has undergone a training program in order to lead the study group.
    • The program has been proven to help those students who participate get better grades in the particular subject and in law school overall than those who do not attend.
    • The group is an excellent way to help students make the change from undergraduate studies to law school (outlines, exams, etc.).
    • While signing up is optional, when you do sign up you are making a committment to participate in the group.

3) Explain times the groups will meet.

Reconcile your schedule and the section's schedule to find three times a week for study group meetings that do not conflict.  You may have some difficulty avoiding a conflict with at least some of the Introduction to Law workshops -- feel free to schedule a study group during one of the workshop times, even if that means a third of the class cannot attend that time.  Simply encourage the rest of the students to sign up for that time so that alternative times are available for the remainder.   Be especially careful to avoid rushing your own schedule so much that you will be tempted to cancel or cut short the study group meetings because you have a particularly demanding class immediately following the study group.

The best times for study group are in between the students' classes, as they will already be at school.  Experience suggests that early mornings, particularly early in the week, and later afternoons, after classes are done, are rarely convenient for our students, most of whom commute.  While you may need to schedule one study group meeting during these times, try to avoid having all meetings fall during these times.   Many study group leaders find that, while there is a substantial conflict with student meetings and events when one schedules during the lunch hours, this is, nonetheless, the most convenient time slot for at least one study group.

To the extent possible, try to "bunch" your study group times between two of the students' class meetings.  For example, if the class meets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, try to fit your study group times in the interval of Tuesday to Thursday or Thursday to Tuesday.  If you have your three study group meetings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,  it will be difficult to develop a plan for the study groups that can be consistently executed when the students in each one of these study groups will not be at the same point in the class syllabus.

4)   If time allows, describe what will actually happen in study group sessions (case briefing, exam practice, etc.)  Emphasize that the students will not be covering different or additional materials than that assigned by the professor and that your job is not to "teach" the students.  Emphasize the importance of regular attendance in the study group sessions in order gain the benefit of the experience.

5)  Explain that sign ups will be held at the end of the class and that groups will be posted (indicate where you will post names) and will begin the following (second) week.  Indicate that the study group schedule and other information will always be posted at a designated bulletin board at the back of the classroom.

The First Workshop

1. Arrange the meeting room with the desks or chairs facing one another in a circle.  As you begin arranging the chairs or desks, students are likely to lend a hand both before and at the end of the workshop.  As the study group leader, sit with the group at the same level as the students.  This helps to set a collegial tone and allows members of the group to see and hear each other.

2. Once everyone has arrived, send around the sign-in sheet.  Explain that the sign-in sheet is strictly for purposes of evaluating the effectiveness of the group and in no way affects them individually.

3. Introduce yourself to the group.  In your introduction, establish your credibility by explaining to them why you are the one who will be leading the group.  Explain to them that you were chosen by the faculty as a student who has done well in the particular class they are taking, as well as in law school generally, and that you have been specially trained to facilitate study groups.  This will strengthen your credibility with the group and enhance the learning environment.

4. Introduce the structured study group program itself.  Explain the objective of the study groups and give them a brief overview of what will be done throughout the semester in study group.

5. Have the students introduce themselves to the group.  This is important for a few reasons.  One, it will help establish the comfort level within the group.  Two, it will encourage the students to look to one another for information.  And finally, as very few people within the workshop will know each other at this point, it will serve as an informal introduction which will allow people with similar backgrounds or interest to "find" one another.  This process will help establish friendships early in the year which may prove invaluable.

Begin the introductions by providing some personal background.  For example: "My name is Bob Jones, I am married with two children.  My wife is a nurse.  We have a boy who is seven and a girl who is five.  Before I came to law school I was a plumber for eight years.  In my spare time I like to golf and collect coins."  An introduction such as this will break the ice and give the students the impression that you are a real person, and that they too can describe themselves with familiar terms, as opposed to simply their name, rank, and serial number.

6. As items 1-5 will take a large portion of the first workshop, the leader may want to simply open the remainder of the session up to questions about "first year law school" in general.  This student-run orientation will allow the leader to describe law school from a student's perspective, one which many of the students may never have had the opportunity to hear.

7. Before closing the first session the leader should tell the group where he or she can be reached and when.  You should be reasonably accessible and open to the questions and needs of the people in the study group.   To emphasize the interdependency the group, you may also want to ask students to provide an e-mail address or phone number they would be willing to share with the group.  Copy and distribute this "study group membership" list at your next meeting.

8. Depending on what the group has covered in the substantive course, you may want to have the group prepare some questions or hypotheticals for discussion in the next meeting.
 

Opening Study Group Sessions: Anticipatory Set

Always plan to open your study group sessions with some activity or method that will effectively engage the attention of the students and focus their thoughts on the learning objective.   The anticipatory set should be related to your planned objectives for the lesson.    It may include a review of prior material or provide a demonstration of the lesson objective.  Above all, however, the anticipatory set should provide students with a context in which to place the study group lesson: the "big picture" of the session.

Methods for establishing an anticipatory set include, posing key questions, demonstrating an argument, telling a story (be sure you plan these carefully!), raising a pertinent incident from class, or giving the students a short quiz.  Be creative in finding methods that will initially focus all the student's attention on the subject of the session in a way that motivates them to learn more.

Conducting the Session: Communication Skills & Collaborative Learning

Recalling that your role as a study group leader is to facilitate the learning the students, one of the most difficult and important aspects of conducting a session is to avoid taking on the responsibility of providing answers.  Much of the lesson, then, should have the sound of you asking questions and the students providing answers.  That is not to say that you should try to mimic Socratic dialogue from the classroom.  The students will likely flee in droves if they perceive study group to simply replicate the classroom dynamic.   Consequently, if students are genuinely confused about the answer or ask you questions about the material, don't simply redirect the questions to them without suggestions for how to find the answer. Rather, model the process you go through for finding answers.  For example, you might suggest that you would try first to find the answer by searching through your notes or text, then have the students do so and then compare their answers.  If the answer does not emerge from that process, you might suggest that you would next do some research.  Bringing dictionaries and hornbooks to study group with you models for the students this research attitude.  Where the students cannot agree on their answer, or have not eliminated their confusion, have the students work on drafting a set of careful questions that they would then address to the professor.  You can offer to take these questions to the professor, or, much better, ask for two or three volunteers to talk to the professor to see what direction they can get.

One way to structure a study group session is to devise questions or problems.  Think carefully about the questions you will ask and how you will ask them.  Write out key questions so you can be sure they are clear, concise and unambiguous.  Students appreciate “quiz sessions” and study groups leaders can quickly become simply “quiz masters” for the 1L students.  However, think again about how you learn best and how your own study groups function best.  You might indeed quiz yourself or quiz one another, but the process of coming up with the questions is as instructive as providing the answers.  So if you believe students can benefit from some focus on the learning skill of drilling definitions and elements of the law, fine; but think about having the students themselves create the quiz. 

As you well know, however, study skills in law school go far beyond knowledge-level quizzing.  So you will also want to prepare questions, problems and study activities that will help the students to think and discover.  If questions are consistently too simple, students won't engage.  Again, do not try to replicate a Socratic dialogue.  You are likely to asking questions that are too ambiguous, or are asked in a manner that invites students to "read your mind", and this process will merely frustrate and confuse your study group members.  Rather, find hypothetical problems and give the students time to think, work and answer.  Practice standing in front of a group for one minute in silence.  It seems like hours!!! But if you are asking students a question, one minute is barely time to begin thinking of answers.  Allow the students to participate in valuable learning strategies by asking them to write out their ideas or discuss among themselves the questions being asked. e

As you will soon find, study group activities must not be designed as weekly you-ask-they-answer discussions.  Use a variety of study strategies to engage the students with the material.  For example, encourage students to simulate the dialectic of law by setting up problems for debate or argument.  By taking sides, students can readily obtain the flavor of how a particular issue is analyzed.  Another strategy that can be used is to have students, after 10 minutes, switch sides to that the full range of analysis is achieved.

Be sure the entire group is engaged.  Think about the objectives you have set out and determine how you will know whether the students are meeting those objectives.  Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS)  are instructional strategies that can allow you (and, more importantly, the students themselves) know what they are learning and what they still need to work on.   Review these CATS regularly to see whether they may be useful to you in your study group plans.

If your group is large, and only a few students can participate at one time, you should be regularly divide into managable subgroups (pairs or small groups) so that all the students are engaged in active, rather than passive, learning.  Students learn best when they are personally engaged with each other and the material.  Think about how you and other successful students learn best and make study groups truly model effective study groups.   In your own study groups or discussions with study partners, you focus on solving problems and exploring concepts rather than rote review.  So, too, the students should be engaged with each other and the material in this manner.

Of course, you still have a role in monitoring these learning clusters.  Choose carefully how to divide up the group.  Avoid always letting the students simply form their own groups, as cliques may develop and students won't benefit from the broad range of thinking available in the group.  Vary group sizes, using learning pairs, groups of three, or teams of four.  Set up the physical arrangement of the room so students can face each other in a balanced grouping.

Be sure your instructions to the groups are clear.  As work begins, move around the room to listen, suggest, guide, and assess.   Bring the small groups back to the group as a whole to share learning and promote wider discussion.

Ultimately, you know you have been successful as a study group leader if, toward the end of the semester, a stranger could walk into your study group session and would not be able to tell who was the leader, but would simply assume the room was busy with informal study groups hard at work.

Closing The Session

To ensure that students do not lose sight of the "Big Picture," be sure your study group plan leaves time for adequate closure activities.  As the session comes to a close (after 40 minutes), plan an activity that will point back to the initial objective and allow the students to see its relevance to their study.  Closure activities may involve a summary of the session, but only if it comes from the students.  This is not an opportunity for you to "wrap up the session" for the students.  Remember, we learn best that which we discover or construct for ourselves.

Closure techniques should turn the student's attention to the main objectives of the study session, give them an opportunity to assess their learning, and provide them with both the motivation and direction to continue to pursue the learning objectives of the session.

Some suggestions include:

    • When time permits, ask students how the learning strategies covered in the session could be used on the final exam.  Have them apply these strategies in the context of the substantive material discussed in the session or in class.
    • Ask each student to write down on a piece of paper those strategies that were confusing to them or will require additional practice.  Forcing students to identify weak spots will reinforce in their minds those areas that warrant special attention.  Suggest that they practice these techniques in conjunction with the substantive materials discussed in the session or in class.
    • When you are running out of time, ask each student what he or she thought was the most important concept, or what was one thing that they learned that they didn't know before the session started.    If they could take home at least one important idea, what would it be?

 

ANTICIPATING AND SOLVING STUDENT PROBLEMS

Student Problems

As an upper-class peer, the study group leader is often seen as a both a friend and a confidant.  In the competitive world of higher education, where students are often jockeying to establish themselves into a grade-based hierarchy, the group leader is viewed a knowledgeable non-competitor.  When acting in this role, the group leader can often be asked to play a counseling role for students.

Where student problems are academic in nature, the study group leader can play an important role in identifying key resources for the student to address their problems.  Often, the most significant barrier to a student's continued learning is a lack of confidence.  Often the solution rests in the study group leader's reassurance that, yes, the material is difficult and confusing, and yes, everyone has difficulty keeping up, and yes, everyone wonders if they are "cut out" for law.   Remember to couple those reassurances with positive support and expectation for the student's ability to persevere and achieve.  Communicating to students a "can do" (or sometimes a "can do better") message can be critical to their success.   Where attitude problems appear to be at the core of the student's difficulty, you may wish to refer them to Professor Glesner Fines' Materials for Success  handbook for additional advice on this topic.

Other problems students will share with you have their origins outside the law school.  Students may wish to tell you about their family or personal difficulties and ask for advice.  To the extent you are comfortable, you can listen and respond to these students as you would your friends.  Is is not part of your responsibility, however, to do so.  Do provide referrals or suggestions for appropriate resources, however, especially if the student's problems are severe

 Among the resources available here on campus are

    • Adela Fleming, Student Services Director of the law school,


University Counseling and Testing Center

 (816) 235-1635
206 4825 Troost

Most importantly, do not try to deal with serious student situations for which you are not equipped.  If you have any questions about whether and how to help students with problems outside of the study group, ask the program director.

"Problem Students"

In addition to the students with problems, there are the students who are themselves the problem for you and for the student's colleagues.  Where you become aware of serious problems, such as plagiarism or other academic dishonesty, or student harassment, refer these issues to the program director for direction.

On a day-to-day basis, however, there will be students who will be angry, or rude, or disrespectful, or who simply will try to "challenge" your authority in the study group.   Sometimes, study group leaders are tempted to meet the challenge of these students is to try to talk them out of their attitude.  An equally dangerous temptation is to join the students in their anger or cynical approach to class.  Your role, of course, is neither to defend nor critique the faculty or students.  Rather, deal with these students in a confident, calm, and non-confrontational manner.  Identify the behaviors that are undermining the study group, explain why those behaviors hurt the group, and tell the student that they need to moderate their behavior.   Practice your communication ahead of time with another study group leader or the program director, so that you can remain calm, confident, and non-confrontational.  Alternately, refer these students to the program director who can develop a specialized plan for addressing the problems.


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