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Study Groups

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I have been leading email, online, and face-to-face study groups off and on for more than ten years. At one point I charged for participation (to discourage the weak-willed). Following is what I have learned needs to be done to make a study group successful:

1. One person must be recruiter, leader, and moderator.

2. As recruiter, the SG organizer must:

- define the purpose of the SG.

- select the text.

- propose a schedule (one chapter of text per week, beginning on Monday and ending Sunday evening, works best).

- privately interview prospective SG members.

- launch each week with his own post, on Monday morning.

3. Recruits must make a commitment to post in at least two-thirds of the weeks.

4. The posting requirements should not be onerous. One page (250 words) per week is plenty. Posts may be in the form of a summary, an outline, a "chewing" on some point, or an elaborated question (a question plus an explanation of the importance of it and why it is difficult to answer). A post must not be a random dumping of notes.

5. The post organizer must make clear to all participants that the SG is really a study group and not a series of lectures by the organizer or a wide-open discussion group (that can come after the last week of the scheduled SG). The purpose of a SG is to enhance independent (solitary) study -- not to replace it.

6. The SG must have a critical mass, usually the organizer plus five other people. However, the critical mass depends on the length and difficulty of the SG. The more difficult the material or the longer the schedule, the more drop-outs there will be, so the initial enrollment should be higher.

7. Every participant should be prepared to describe his background and his purpose in studying the text. He should also state his expectations. These factors set a context for responses.

8. Having a wide range of levels of background knowledge -- novices and experts -- helps the SG because it facilitates trade.

9. Participants must realize that there will be no time to resolve issues that arise. A function of the SG is to extend the gains made from independent study. One of those gains comes from being exposed to the questions and comments others in the SG make -- perhaps for later, in-depth study on one's own or in a special forum topic-thread.

10. Moderator intervention is seldom required when the SG organizer selects participants carefully and lets them know his standards are high. But when moderation is necessary, it should be swift and sure.

11. The participants must share the same philosophy. That enables participants to concentrate on the text and not on debates about their philosophical premises.

12. Lastly, but very importantly, the SG organizer should encourage everyone to prepare their posts in advance, before the SG officially begins. That way, there won't be a mad scramble to post on Sunday evening -- and then have no time to raise questions and discuss them because the next week begins the following morning. This expectation of preparation in advance means the organizer should announce the SG and begin recruiting at least three months before the start date.

Edited by BurgessLau
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