What is the value of study groups? What does it take to set them up and keep them going? What can you do to ensure that study groups are a positive, productive use of time for teachers?
Study groups are a powerful vehicle for teacher professional growth. To help educators who are considering, or currently using, study groups, we offer some lessons learned from the study groups of our AAM two-year professional development program.
AAM study groups brought together middle school mathematics and special education teachers for collaborative problem solving and ongoing support, with the ultimate aim of increasing the accessibility of mathematics for students with disabilities. Each AAM study group had four to eight teachers and a facilitator. Members typically met every two weeks, for two years.
Study groups followed a Looking-at-Student-Work (LASW) protocol in the first year, and an Accessibility Planning protocol in the second year. In the LASW protocol, at each meeting one teacher would bring samples of work from three focal students to share with the group. The group looked at the lesson and its goals, and then closely examined the work of the three students, in order to understand them as learners (e.g., What evidence do we see of this student’s understanding of the math? What strengths do we see? What difficulties?).
In the second part of the meeting, members brainstormed strategies to make the math more accessible to the focal students and the other students in the classroom. At meeting’s end, teachers made follow-up plans to try strategies with their students.
AAM study groups each have 4-8 teachers who teach the same grade levels so that they share a common curriculum. Each group has a mix of mathematics teachers and special education teachers, so that they can learn from each other and benefit from different areas of expertise. This mix is a crucial ingredient in making mathematics lessons more accessible to students with disabilities.
The collaboration was invaluable. Special education teachers helped mainstream teachers determine how to meet the needs of students with diverse abilities; special education teachers learned content. Each learned from each other. (District Math Coordinator)
Groups meet at their school, in one of the member's classrooms. We recommend that they meet during the school day for a class period, typically 45-60 minutes, every other week. This schedule helps to sustain the work.
Because time is often in such short supply in school systems, schools take different approaches to scheduling the regular, consistent time that study groups need. Some schools have a weekly common planning period, and allot it to the study groups every other week. Other schools find that their best option is to have study groups meet after school, once a month, for 90 minutes to two hours. School administrators may have to make special efforts to ensure that both mathematics and special educators can attend study group meetings.
Finally, we recommend having study groups run for at least two years. Relationships among group members become more collaborative over time, and increasingly open to sharing both successful and less success experiences without fear of judgment. In our experience, it is important to allow this length of time for such relationships to mature.
Fundamentally, facilitators enable study groups to stay focused and follow their protocol, so as to use meeting time well. During meetings, facilitators guide the discussions on accessibility in mathematics, encourage reflection, and foster a safe atmosphere for discussion and collaboration.
Facilitators are typically experienced teachers, lead teachers, or coordinators from within the district. For example, in AAM, facilitators were math coordinators and math and special education teachers.
Because facilitators are critical to success, AAM developed criteria to help administrators choose effective facilitators. We suggest that facilitators be:
AAM staff led workshops twice a year for study group facilitators, on such topics as strengthening group process, effective questioning, and protocols. Facilitators valued the chance to grow as leaders and to share experiences with fellow facilitators.
I can feel the growth in my approach to the job. I’m more assertive… not afraid to say, “we need to refocus” or to demand that teachers be accountable for bringing work or coming on time. I think I used to say, “I’ll do it” or “I’ll take care of it” and now I can assign responsibility to other people without feeling guilty about it. (Facilitator)
Study groups received support from a knowledgeable other—in AAM, a project staffer—who attended meetings, provided resources, and contributed expertise in mathematics education, special education, and knowlege of the study group process. The presence of this "outsider" helped to promote accountability and validate the study group's work. This role can be filled by a math or special education coordinator, math coach, or other knowledgeable personnel from the district.
Following a protocol is important to using meeting time productively. Many programs have found the process of looking at student work in study groups to be a powerful means of professional development. We designed a Looking at Student Work (LASW) protocol to address our focus on math accessibility. AAM study groups used this LASW protocol in the first year of the program, and an Accessibility Planning protocol in the second year.
Facilitators and group members felt that using a protocol was extremely helpful in keeping the focus on students’ math learning and accessibility, and kept the meetings productive. The protocols also helped to ensure that everyone had a chance to participate and that teachers ended meetings with clear action plans.
I think they [study group members] like the organization… the protocols. They like the fact that it’s effective, that they get work done, that it’s set to a time limit and they’re not just spinning their wheels and I think they see their colleagues sometimes stuck in that position, without having a facilitator, without having some specific protocol. We talked about using [these protocols] with language arts and sciences. (Study Group Facilitator)
Meetings typically last only 45-60 minutes, so each meeting focuses in depth on the work of just three students. Each meeting has a presenting teacher, and study group members take turns in this role.
The presenting teacher brings in work from three focal students—students chosen to represent the range of learners in their class. For example, a teacher might bring in work from a struggling student, a typical student, and a student on an IEP.
The group members proceed to follow the LASW protocol, which involves examining the work samples and planning strategies. Click to see (in PDF format) the protocol, and the LASW Record that teachers write on as they work.
Using a protocol can feel awkward and artificial at first. We recommend that all groups try the protocols for several sessions. In the beginning teachers sometimes feel unsure or confused (“Are we doing this right? What are we supposed to do next?”), but as the protocol grows familiar their comfort increases and they take ownership of the process. Over time, the benefits of following a protocol become evident.
In observing the AAM study groups over two years, we saw many benefits accrue from using the LASW and Accessibility Planning protocols. Following the protocols:
These many advantages helped to build a positive experience for teachers both within the groups and in their classrooms. In the words of one study group member, “The most important benefit was to realize that SPED students can learn more sophisticated concepts and experience success.”
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This project is supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. 1621294. Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.