Guidelines for study circles

1. Memo to teachers – a short introduction to study-circle courses


Details found to be important at the CS Department

  • Give the study circle only one big assignment at a time. If you give a four-member group four assignments, for example, the group will most likely divide up the assignments and the members will not acquaint themselves with the problems and solutions of the others. You can complement larger assignments with individual tasks (like traditional exercise-session tasks, but briefer).
  • In general, study circles should not include more than 3-5 members. Larger groups require more internal organisation, and some of the members may too easily be passed over.
  • The study circle must have some shared studying time in their calendar. When forming study circles, make sure that the members have enough time to share.
  • The instructor of the study circle must monitor it and be aware of what is going on in it. It is not enough to just check the final results, but the instructors must also see how the study circle works. During an instructions session, the instructor should ask the study circle to describe how they have approached a problem, parcelled it out, looked for information on solution models, etc. It is more effective to ask a study circle to describe what they have done than to ask them if they have any questions.
  • The course staff should meet regularly (e.g. for weekly meetings), chaired by the person in charge of the course, to discuss their experiences with instructing a study circle and how the course is progressing.

Planning the course

Consider the learning objectives of the course. Plan and implement the course into a whole, where

• the course structures,

• the work methods, lectures and instruction,

• the assignments and learning material,

• the assessment practices


all serve attaining the learning objectives. The learning objectives should be clear and concise, emphasising in-depth knowledge. The learning objectives can consist of e.g. the new concepts taught during the course, as there are not that many taught in one-period courses. An example of a learning objective could be ‘the student can implement a polynomial-time algorithm that…’ or ‘can minimize an automat using…’


In order to organise the course work and learning content to encourage the active participation of students, the whole course should be based on assignments (rather than lectures). You learn by doing, and interesting assignments are a motivation to learn. However, the assignments must be suitable for study-circle work: extensive, challenging, emphasizing expertise. Most old exercise assignments are not suitable for study-circle assignments. To ensure that the group does not subdivide the assignment in parts, give the group one large assignment at a time. In addition to large assignments, you can also have them complete traditional exercises as individual work to complement any details that cannot be incorporated in the large assignments. You can start off the whole course by setting one challenging problem that everyone starts to work on in groups. The lectures become more appealing when students may find help with an assignment at them.

When assessing learning, concentrate on assessing how the learning objectives have been met. Portfolios and learning diaries are good tools for assessment, though they are wearying both for students and instructors.


Completing a course


You should tell the students why study circles are used. Some reasons include the utility of learning in a group, developing teamworking skills, the ability to explain and listen, and sharing expertise in a group. It is always best to follow a principle of transparency when it comes to teaching arrangements, i.e. instructors should always lay their cards on the table. The attitude of the instructor who encourages questioning and answering is important.


To complete a course successfully requires good directions. They must describe methods and schedules. Students have to be told what is required of them to complete the course (learning objectives, commitment, active participation in study circles, etc.) and then you must keep your word. In the early stages, it is also necessary to instruct them on how study circles work: role-setting, responsibilities, an active approach, and studying that emphasizes understanding rather than memorizing. It is also very important to give the study-circle supervisors (the assistants) directions, and to keep up with the feedback from the supervisors. The person in charge of the course should be one of these study-circle supervisors.

At the Department of Computer Science, experience has shown that co-ordinating the study-circle members’ schedules is a main problem at all courses. It is one possibility to start the first exercise session by handing out (or drawing on the whiteboard) an empty week schedule and ask the students to mark any times, when they could not work with the group in the schedule (so the unmarked times would be suitable for group work). On the basis of this schedule, the instructor can easily divide the students into study circles that are committed to joint working times. You can have students commit even further to study circles by making a ‘Study-circle contract’ with them.



2. Planning the course

You can plan the structure of the course so that the course forms an appealing whole, with structures that encourage or force students to cooperate, and all the stages of the course are carefully directed and scheduled. Note the division of labour, i.e. the responsibilities of the instructor, assistants and students, on e.g. the webpage of the course.

Learning objectives – clear and concise


What is essential in your course? What do you want your students to know after the course? Write a clear and concise description of what the student will be able to do after taking the course, and tell it to the course participants, e.g. on the course web page. Present the learning objectives in the following form: By the end of the course, the student will be able to list, calculate, assess, apply, explain, predict, model such and such things. Do not use words like 'learn' and 'understand' in the specification of onjectives, because it is hard both for teachers and students to assess whether they have been realised.


We can discern between different levels of knowledge in setting the objectives (e.g. according to the classical taxonomy by Bloom). We hope that not all the objectives of a course are on the lowest level of the hierarchy.


• The lowest level is 'memorising’: an example of the objective is to list, to pick.

• The second level is ‘elementary understanding’: explain, describe.

• The third level is 'application': apply, calculate, solve.

• The fourth level is 'analysis': derive, categorise.

• The fifth level is 'synthesization': design, formulate.

• The sixth level is 'evaluation': deduce and justify, select and justify.


When everyone is aware of the learning objectives, it is easier for the instructors to focus on the essentials in their teaching. The students know that they have to have command of certain things, and then they can commit better to learning. It is also easier for the students to assess their own skills.


Every detail does not have to be discussed by the instructor in a lecture. The lecture can include the things that are interesting or necessary, and why the lecturer thinks they are interesting or necessary. A constant stream of details is not essential.

Teaching that emphasizes understanding does not necessarily require specific learning objectives, but merely a context; the focus is on the students’ striving to become aware of what they can do and what they cannot do, and thereby learn to direct their own actions towards increasing their skills through the right questions and information searches. Traditionally, this approach has only been used for seminars at the department, but it can be used in basic courses, as well, as long as there is a good enough concept base to build on. You can organise debates at the study-circle meetings, for example, where each participant has to argue for a certain tool, such as a sorting algorithm. Typically, you can reach a good enough concept base quite fast during a course; you do not need to require 35 credits of major studies for that.


Learning contents – what is the material necessary for attaining the learning objectives


The person in charge of a course is an expert in the field. For them, the most extensive job is to work out lectures and especially study-circle assignments that support the learning process. It is challenging and time-consuming: the assignments must cover the concept being taught as extensively as possible, and they cannot be divided up among the members of the group. If it is possible to divide the assignments into smaller tasks, the course structures must be adapted so that the skills of each student can be assessed individually.


This means that you should create assignments that enable the students to reach the learning objectives you have set. Some of the objectives can pertain to knowledge, some to skills. Learning conceptual things is part of academic study (developing your 'own system of concepts' and not just 'looking for the right answers to anticipated exam questions').

In order to understand concepts in depth, examples are generally needed to anchor the student to a new conceptual level. Keep in mind that, if a new concept is the starting point of teaching, it is harder to understand than if understanding the same concept is the objective of the teaching. What basic knowledge and skills are necessary for the course can be brought to the students’ attention e.g. on the course webpage; auxiliary lectures are another possibility that is often easier than making online material.


To assess learning -- focus on assessing how the learning objectives have been met


In the examinations, it is essential to focus on assessing whether the learning objectives have been met. An exam in the traditional sense is not the best way to assess knowledge if the course has consisted of teamwork in relatively long-term projects on open problems.


The purpose of assessment is to guide and support learning so that students receive feedback on their own learning and can reconsider their own weaknesses and strengths. However, in practice, assessment is often just a way to check up on progress, which steers students towards bad studying habits (memorising instead of in-depth understanding). Some examples of forms of assessment that support learning and develop self-assessment are portfolios and learning diaries. At mass courses, though, it may be more practical to have an exam, as long as the exam problems are in line with the course methods and can measure whether the learning objectives have been met.

Assessment also gives the instructor feedback on how the course has succeeded, and can thus help to improve the teaching. The students’ answers will show whether the main concepts have been understood. It is especially problems that require modifying of information that will show whether the students have gained applicable knowledge during the course.


Learning methods – how do we attain learning objectives?


Different öearning methods can be used during a course, depending on what the learning objectives are. This guide only details courses with study circles.


When working in groups, it is important to implement the two basic principles of cooperative learning:


  • a positive dependency of the group, and
  • the individual’s responsibility to the group.


Each member of a study circle must be able to trust that the others will do their part of the job. If one of the members does not carry out their part of the work, the whole group has to take the consequences. Furhter, all the group members have to be able to prove they have reached the learning objectives (i.e. even if the work was divided up, everybody must have learned everything). You should make this very clear to the students from the start.


Since communication between the students is a vital part of study-circle work, the study circles must have enough time together from the start. It is also good to encourage students to use flexible tools for spreading internal information and organising the group: email, social software and wikis, internet phones or mobile phones, or any other tools that are best suited for the study circle’s work.


3. Completing a course

General transparency

The instructor of the course is there for the sake of the students. Instructors must, to the best of their ability, help the students learn. Instructors are not the opposite of students, but both instructors and students are on the same side – that of learning. This is why instructors must lay their cards on the table when they plan and implement a course. The learning objectives must be clear and the students must be told what they are. In fact, it is a good idea to tell the students why teamwork is a part of the course (motivation). Clear and extensive directions and schedules are also vital.



Not everyone likes team work; some of the students will have bad experiences in their past and some will think the group will hold them back. However, experience with study-circle courses at the department has shown that they will learn to appreciate the value of team work. Thus, you should justify the use of study circles in your class from the beginning of the course.


Teamwork is an important skill in the job market. When you find out something for your group, you will learn ‘without noticing.’ The purpose of academic study is not to prove what you know, but to know how to learn (understanding your own potential and managing to surpass yourself). This can mean that the exam option may not even be necessary at all, but rather all the students could be required to take part in study circles (especially in small courses). If the course structures (work practices and assignments) support the method and the students feel they receive enough support and instruction, even those who are opposed to the idea will participate sufficiently. Furthermore, you can remind them of the numerous studies that have shown that teamwork leads to more efficient and in-depth learning than working alone.

Growing into a culture that supports teamworking is worth encouraging. Even if your course is not a study-circle course, independent study circles are a great way of studying. The same study circle may stay together for many courses.

To repeat, when it comes to general motivation, keep in mind that


• assignments should be related to phenomena that the students know, things that have been discussed earlier during the course, or real-life jobs that present themselves to a computer scientist, etc,

•the learning objectives are clear and known to the students,

• the course work has an obvious connection to attaining the learning objectives (i.e. assignments that develop the skills set in the objectives),

• the students have at least some degree of choice, e.g. to choose assignments or which methods to use, and

• the exams will measure whether the learning objectives have been attained (no trick questions or Gaussianism, i.e. the grades do not have to follow a bell curve; if every student knows the subject matter, they all must have good grades).



When a course includes many different working methods, it is essential to have a clear and extensive set of directions. Lack of information causes the most opposition. The directions must describe methods and schedules. They must explain what is required to complete the course and must keep their promises. In the early stages, it is also necessary to instruct the students on how study circles work: role-setting, responsibilities, an active approach, and studying that emphasizes understanding rather than memorizing.


If a course is structured so that the students are expected to read some material in advance, few students will do so. It is best if the course structure gently pressures students to reading the material. The assignments can give them a good reason; in order to be able to complete an assignment, you need to read the material.

If it is not possible to include all the material that needs to be learned in lectures and assignments, you can say that the rest will be in the exam. This could raise some protests, which may be prevented with clear ‘reading instructions’ to the students. Experience at the CS Department has shown that, at their best, study circles lead to a situation where students do not rely only on the lecture material, but rather the work is distributed inside the group when students are faced with a difficult problem, and they will use books and online material in addition to the lecture transcripts.

The instructor must also give careful directions to the assistants. If the course is of a type that is very different from what they are used to, the instructor should maintain good contacts to ‘the field’ and not think that a trimmed number of lectures will be enough to fulfil the teacher’s duties. The instructor and assistants should meet regularly for follow-ups.

Other issues (to support yourself and others)

Documentation before and during the course (e.g. a journal) is very useful for yourself and as a tool for sharing experiences. Some questions to consider during and after the course:


• Work methods: assessment practices, course structure and work duties, tricks to solve problems, scheduling.

• Learning contents: learning objectives, core material.

• Collaboration and social interaction: teams, roles, teacher and peer support.

• How can scheduling problems be solved?

• How do you deal with the students’ resistance to change?

• How do you motivate the students to study?

• How do you cope if the students have gaps in their prerequisites?

• How can we avoid freeloading?


If more teaching resources (working hours) are required than before (excluding the time used to modify the material – mostly developing new assignments), either the planning or completion of the course has failed. The responsibility, and in a way, the burden of instruction, is supposed to be transferred to the student teams and peer students.


If the instructor feels that the students have learned less during the course than during an equivalent lecture course, it may be because you can follow how the students learn more closely during a study-circle course, so that when they do not learn, it is easier to see.


Forming teams


Though it is easiest and quickest to let students form their own groups randomly, the literature shows that the best working groups are formed from students at different skill levels. Thus, it is important to make sure that the advanced ones do not form a team among themselves and leave the less advanced ones in another team. You can do it the hard way, through an entrance-level exam, or easier, as part of the team-forming process, e.g. with ‘each team may only have one member who got a 3 in this-and-that pre-requisite course.’ Since the synchronisation of the schedules of all the participants has proven to be the main condition for the teamwork to be successful, the best way to divide the students into study circles is to pass around the week schedule as mentioned in chapter 1. As the study circles are created in an exercise-session setting, the instructor must give the assistants directions on how to do it so that the schedules of each student are primarily taken into consideration.


There are several stages in the work of the study circle.


• First comes the creation stage, where the instructor must be able to give clear guidelines on conduct and the work of the team.

• Next often comes a stage of turmoil, where the members test each other and the instructor.

• At the stage of setting norms, the atmosphere will clear up and the participants will start to set norms for their work and to set common goals.

• It is not until the implementation stage that the team will start to work effectively on the assignment.

• In the final stage, the team stops to consider the results of its work. When the work is carried out well, the team members will have an experience of success. The feelings of success will motivate them to learn more.

What if (when) the roles in the group are divided so that some of the members finalize the work and others solve the problems (though they’ve worked hard, the finalizers do not do well in exams)? All the students have to be encouraged to attack the problems and outline solutions instead of just finalizing them. The roles can also be shifted around on purpose (a leader, a secretary, a cleaner, an editor, an evaluator of the team’s work...), so that all freeloading, whether done on purpose or by mistake, is avoided. Having to take on duties that are at the limits of your abilities is only for the good.

How do we make the teams work well?

Review the main and necessary team-working skills during lectures:

• Help others succeed

• Besides for yourself, take responsibility for the team.

• Take responsibility for the products of the team.

• Prove your trust in others by your own openness.

• Listen to what others say.

• Ask for other people’s opinions.

• Ask others for help.

• Be active, participate – it is nicer to be active than passive.

• Exchange common knowledge and material and describe your work methods.

• Encourage others.

• Be critical about issues, not people.

• Complete your own assignments as agreed and as scheduled.


Students ned to be motivated to help their team mates. This is why you cannot e.g. force the course results into a Gaussian curve, but helping others must be useful in reality; if everybody is doing well, they must all gain good grades.


What if the team does not work at all? The team can be given the right to fire a hopeless case after e.g. two warnings. Or the team leader may threaten to resign. (Anyone who has been fired or has resigned must find their own new team – a resignee usually has no problem finding a new one, but someone who has been fired may be in trouble.) NB! These measures are seldom needed.

It is best to tackle problems as soon as they are observed. The instructor (assistant or the person in charge of the course) must consider how to tackle problems. In order for the responsibility for the team's work to remain with the team, the intervention should be carried out in a guiding, coaching and discreet manner.


How do we prevent freeloading?


One good method is the above-mentioned rotation of explicit roles. In any case, the students should be made to feel that you are keeping up with each one individually, not just as a group (positive interdependency in the group and individual responsibility)


Freeloading is no big problem if a large part of the grade is based on the exam. You can also use an ‘exam cutter,’ i.e. set a certain point limit that students at least have to achieve in the exam, even if the most points will be awarded for team work. Another way to avoid freeloading is to make the team evaluate their own work so that the evaluation has a considerable impact on final grades. The tough way is to require that any team member be prepared to present the work of the team and grade the whole team on the basis of this one individual’s presentation. You can also make attendance at general meetings mandatory.



14.05.2012 - 12:28 Marina Kurtén
14.05.2012 - 12:28 Marina Kurtén