Last week I happened onto something I’d written years ago about study buddies—two students who agree to study together in a course. I was describing a community college first-year seminar program that partnered students in the seminar and a general education course linked to it. New students studied jointly for both courses. After several years, the folks running the program had discovered that many of the students stayed partnered, deciding to enroll in other required courses so they could continue to study together. At that point study collaboration had morphed into friendship.
Having a study buddy—I’m tempted now to upgrade the moniker to “learning partner”—is such a good idea. Working together does not replace the need for individual study, but it adds much to individual efforts, including motivation, a ready resource for help, and emotional support. And collaboration provides opportunities not possible during individual study. When together, students end up explaining things to each other, and doing so is one of those study strategies proven to deepen individual understanding. If they ask each other anticipated test questions and try to answer them, they gain the benefits of test-enhanced learning. Yes, students can ask themselves questions, but doing so with someone else results in a more powerful experience. The respondent is not expecting the question. Moreover, individuals don’t usually ask themselves follow-up questions.
Study groups are great but logistically more challenging for students and teachers to manage. Study buddies can collaborate online and text even at times when they might be studying individually. Any number of students do study with each other or in groups, but I strongly suspect there are many more, especially in the new-to-college group, that would benefit from additional regular and systematic shared study. So, I’ve been wondering whether there’s anything teachers could do to encourage collaboration in large introductory courses, in courses students find particularly challenging, and even in upper-division courses where professional collaborations loom on the horizon.
What about making partnered collaboration an optional, low-stakes assignment? To be successful, I’m thinking areas for collaboration ought to be specified. Exam prep is an obvious one, as are writing assignments and not just for review of drafts. Students could work together before writing starts to brainstorm topics as well as help each other with resource collection and outline generation, and they could meet afterward to go over the feedback, discussing how to act on it in subsequent written assignments. Students could provide each other feedback during presentation or performance practice sessions. They can help each other with projects.
What’s the best way to partner interested students? Assign random pairs? I don’t think so. One of the hard lessons we’ve learned from faculty mentor programs has been that arranged teaching-learning marriages don’t generally work. Those doing the mentoring and those wanting it need to find each other, and I think that’s likely true for students as well. But we can provide some structure—say, some version of a speed-dating activity where students ask each other questions about learning preferences. Or maybe there’s an online profile where students answer questions about when they complete assignments, their preference for online or face-to-face exchanges, the course grade they’re willing to work for, the amount of time per week they plan to devote to the course, their preference for working with those who share the same major, and so on. And then students connect via the profile.
Once partners connect, they sign up and in a joint memo identify which activities they will do together. At the end they each prepare a short reflection paper that describes what they did and how their activities affected their individual work in the course. Typically, low-stakes assignments don’t count for a huge percentage of the course grade, but the amount earned ought to bear some relationship to the number of activities completed.
There’s safety in numbers but sometimes more safety in small ones. Many beginning students and some others find working in groups intimidating. The fewer questions asked and comments made, the less the risk of looking foolish. But with a partner, it’s easier to ask. To a partner, it’s easier to admit uncertainty. And from a partner, it’s easier to get support. With a partner, learning happens easier than in group or on your own.