Creating online study group discussions

Study guide

This study guide offers practical strategies and tools for setting up study groups for discussion and debate.

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Study guide table of contents:

preparation | engaging in discussion | taking notes and following up | conclusion


Online study groups are a great virtual space to discuss topics and issues with other students. This sort of critical debate and argument is very useful in developing your grasp and understanding of your subject. Benefits associated with online study groups include opportunities to:

  • apply knowledge from your lectures and background reading;
  • solve problems in a team to maximise your creativity;
  • test your understanding and develop new insights;
  • learn from other people’s approaches and ideas;
  • clarify any concepts that you might not have understood.

The success of a good discussion is based on its content (the subject knowledge explored), the digital tool used and the way in which the study group works together. For example, in an online study group, you can take a lead role in the preparation and chairing of the discussion, solving problems or making a presentation to start the session. Learning through small group discussion will thus help you develop essential skills for later life, including expressing yourself; communication and teamwork skills, and online digital skills.

Step One - Preparation

It is important to come to each online study group prepared to take part in discussion. If you have a basic understanding of the topic you will be better able to participate in a discussion and understand the material being explored.

  • Begin by identifying the main issues to be discussed. For example, by looking at the learning outcomes for a particular topic. These can be found in your module page on Blackboard, and/or in the introductory/concluding slides of a lecture.
  • Carry out background reading/research to develop your understanding and interest. This might involve accessing Leicester Digital Library for journals or e-books.
  • Make notes as you read, focusing your thoughts on the forthcoming topic. For example, Refworks enables you and your group to annotate on a single uploaded pdf.
  • Keep track of useful examples or quotations as these will provide important evidence for discussion.
  • Develop both a broad understanding of the subject matter as well as a list of things that you’re having difficulty with. These latter can form the basis for questions or contributions to the discussion.
  • Make a list of points that you’d like to make or problems you’d like to find solutions to. Keep open-minded though, as they might not all be relevant.

Remember, the key to successful discussion is for everyone to be fully engaged, not for everyone to have fully developed ideas. A questioning approach to your preparation opens your mind and creates fertile ground for discussion and debate.

Step Two - Engaging in discussion

Decide which online discussion forum or approaches to online collaboration that you would like to use.

Work collaboratively online using Office Online to create and modify the following:

  • Word documents
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Excel spreadsheets
  • OneNote files

Have asynchronous discussions with other students on Blackboard Discussion Forums, Blackboard Collaborate or using the discussion function on Panopto.

Have real-time discussions and meetings with fellow students using Skype for Business.

It isn’t always easy to contribute to discussions, even if you have prepared thoroughly. Many students worry that they may have got something ‘wrong’ in their preparatory work and that everyone else has the ‘right’ answer - this is rarely the case.

The following strategies can help create a supportive discussion group. They start with low stress approaches and build to full involvement.

Verbal/non-verbal acknowledgements: For this, you need to use a webcam. Speakers find signals, such as nodding in agreement, reassuring as it shows their ideas are being listened to and valued.

Agreements: such as “That’s a good idea” or “I’d not thought of that” can help begin to interact in a discussion, and can be expanded upon by saying where and why you agree, for example: “Yes, it’s important to realise that Kushner has been read out of context.”

Presenting alternative views: Offering alternative points of view can be a very effective way of helping to develop your own ideas and the ideas of others. Don’t be afraid to disagree with someone, simply make sure that you do so in a constructive way.

Coping with Conflict: In some instances, discussions can become so lively that they lead to strong disagreement between group members. It is important to remember that discussion in an academic environment should remain objective and impersonal: ideas should be challenged, never people. If you feel your own anger levels rising, take a deep breath and stop talking for a while. If you see other people getting angry try to play an active role in the group, intervening with some of the above strategies.

Step Three - Taking notes and following up

It can be challenging to take notes and remain involved in the discussion at the same time. If you do want to take notes, try to limit the amount that you write. Focus on significant points, questions or references so that these can be followed up at a later date. This may be a good time to set priority areas for further reading and investigation. Choose a reference to follow up in the Library or highlight an argument that you’d like to validate by checking back through your lecture notes. Develop your understanding of the topic further by tackling questions from a course text or past exam papers.


Online study groups provide important opportunities to stimulate your thinking and deepen your understanding. By engaging in debate and critical argument with others, or by working together to solve problems, you are developing your intellectual and critical skills as well as your group work skills.

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