the ABC Study Guide home page The ABC Study Guide, University education in plain English alphabetically indexed. Click here to go to the main index, or the ABC image for the cover home page to all of Andrew
Roberts' web site

Be in Control of your Study

Autonomous Learning:

Be in Control

Autonomous means self-directed. This article is about how you work under your own direction and about using groups and networks to help you.

I am going to start with what some students thought about autonomous learning
  • When I first heard that phrase `autonomous learning` I could not quickly grab what it meant. The word was strange to me. But with time it sunk in that it meant reading and learning on my own, at my own pace

    My ideas have changed now. I can now sit down and read and I can do my research on my own. The skills I improved through autonomous learning included doing intensive reading and summarizing what I learnt in a book. The skill I would like to develop is writing a good essay and a good conclusion to an essay.

    Autonomous learning is a good thing because the skills you learn on one subject can even be applied to other subjects, because it encourages an independent style of study.
  • When I first heard about autonomous learning, I understood it as learning with no help and support from tutors. My ideas about it have changed now that I know that support is always there if one asks for it, but yet still everything depends on oneself.

    Autonomous learning is good but there is a disadvantage. The good thing about it is that it gives you the direction of your own studies. The disadvantage is that you sometimes do not know how to start your own learning because you need some guide lines.
Although autonomous learning is not a phrase that most of us understand easily, when we experience education based on it, we can form strong ideas for and against it. Click here for some more student opinions.

Self-Directed and Other-Directed

The opposite of being self-directed is being directed by others.
  • If you get lost in a maze and someone else leads you out of it, you are other directed.

  • If you get lost in a maze, but then work out for yourself how to get out, you are self directed.
Human life is a mixture of being other-directed and self-directed. There are times when being directed by others is very important. I will give two examples:
  • When fire alarms ring, trained people may tell you what to do. Lives may be lost if people panic and ignore the official directions.

  • When you learn a language, you follow the instructions about which word means one thing and which word means something else. If you make your own decisions about which words to use for what, you will not be understood.
Being other directed is an important part of life and education. The aim of others directing us, however, is often to allow us to direct ourselves.
  • A small child may be told to hold a parent's hand when crossing the road. This keeps the child safe, but it also carries the message that roads are dangerous. The parent aims, eventually, to teach the child to cross roads safely without being guided by someone else.

  • The further up the education ladder you go, the more you are expected to control your own education. In school, what you learn is much more decided by teachers than it is at university. The intention, however, is to make sure you have the skills, like being able to read, write and calculate, that you will need if you are to direct your own education more.
When we speak of autonomous learning it is a matter of degree. Some methods of education involve more reliance than others on self-directed learning. The more advanced the level of education, the more it tends to rely on the student taking responsibility for his or her learning.

Advantages and disadvantages of being in control

The more autonomous your learning is, the more you take control of your own learning.

The disadvantage of autonomous learning is that you become responsible for not doing it. Recent research in American universities has shown that the largest group of failing students are the students who fail because they do not try. They fail or get low marks because they do not take an active part in learning. If there are lectures, they do not attend; if there is reading, they do not read; if there are exercises, they do not do them; if they need to ask questions, they do not ask them. Then they get poor results. (
Brooks, D. 1997 pp 135- 136 )

Systems of education that encourage autonomous learning give students more freedom to fail by not trying than systems where teachers closely control what the students do.

The advantage of taking control of your own learning is that you will gain much more from education. Self-regulated students are more successful than those who rely on others to regulate their studies. To understand why this is so, we need to look at the importance of action in learning.

  Top of page

Kolb's learning cycle:

Active Learning
See also Action Learning

Where does learning start? Does it start with you, or does it start with a teacher? Much recent theory has argued that learning is something you do and that your tutors just help. You must take charge.

A model of learning often used, that starts with the learner's actions, is Kolb's learning cycle.

go to feedback

  • You start by trying to do something (e.g. draft an essay),

  • then you reflect on what you have done (possibly with the help of feedback from a tutor or friends),

  • from this you learn by forming some abstract concepts and generalisations about the activity.

  • You then apply your learning to a new situation (e.g. another draft of the essay), which tests the concepts and generalisations that you made.

  • You then reflect again on what you have done, and develop your concepts and generalisations further - and so on.

In Kolb's learning cycle, the learner is active.

Learning is often dependent on doing.

Listening to lectures and reading books is an important part of what we normally call learning, but in the sense that Kolb uses the word, you may only learn about the subject when you try to express it yourself by talking about it or writing about it.

To explain Kolb's ideas, I have used single words where Kolb uses phrases:

  • Actions are called concrete experiences by Kolb
  • Reflections are called observations and reflections
  • Learning is called formation of abstract concepts and generalisations
  • Testing is called testing implications of concepts in new situations.
go to feedback

Here is an example of a learning cycle:

Acting or doing: You are asked to write an essay. You look at the title, read a book about it, and then start writing.

Reflecting: You read the essay you wrote and think it is a bit of a mess. This observation is one level of reflecting. You feel defeated because you cannot put your finger on why the essay seems a bit of a mess. You are reflecting on what you have done, but cannot form any concepts that explain what you observe. You give the essay in and, some time later, a note from the tutor includes the statement that your essay has not got a "structure", but does not explain what a structure is. You discuss this with a friend who suggests it means dealing with issues in an order.

Learning: Thinking about your problem, you form the generalisation that essays should be planned or organised if they are not to be a "bit of a mess". It is at this point that Kolb says you have learnt something. For Kolb, and theorists like him, learning is the point at which you succeed in adapting your ideas to deal with a problem. It is the point at which you form a concept (general idea) which explains what you observed (the messy aspect of your essay) and which suggests how you can deal with the problem (by making a plan, with your ideas in an order).

Testing: This idea that you have formed is tentative knowledge (a hypothesis ) because you have not tested it. The test of your generalisation is your next essay draft, which you write a plan for.

The cycle continues: You find that planning works to an extent. Your essay seems better, but you run into new problems. You reflect on these, talk about them, form new ideas about writing essays, test them again - and so on.

In Kolb's model you learn by your mistakes.

Social Science History discusses what is meant by science or knowledge. It says

 Locke's idea is that we should be careful not to make mistakes about how our ideas relate to the outside world.

 Wollstonecraft, however, thinks knowledge is acquired by trying out new ideas. We need the courage to risk making mistakes if we are to learn.

  Top of page

Individual Work

keys to learning Good and Smith's Study Guide lists several keys to successful learning. They all involve being more active.

To be a more active student I suggest that you:
Set and revise your own aims
Think about your resources
Organise your time
Focus your reading
Think about your reading
Draft your writing early
Struggle for clear ideas
Seek and use feedback

keys to learning Set and revise your own aims

You should think about what your aims are in taking a course, direct your work towards those aims, and monitor your progress in achieving them.
keys to learning Think about your resources.

A resource is anyone or anything that can help you to learn what you want to learn.

It may help you if you make a list of what you have, and what you need. The earlier you do this, the more chance you have of making good use of the resources you have, and getting at least some of the resources you need.

You should also think about how well you use your resources, and how to learn to use them better.

Your list of resources could include:
  • what you know already
  • somewhere to study
  • guides or handouts from courses
  • books you own
  • books you can borrow
  • libraries you can use
  • a computer you can use
  • the internet
  • wireless programmes
  • television
  • other students
  • friends
  • tutors
  • people you can contact
  • a shoulder to cry on when it all gets too much.
I call linking in with your resources networking
keys to learning Organise your time.

Time is a resource that some students do not have much of.

Good organisation can compensate for this. A student who is bringing up three children on her own, working to earn money and studying part time may well becomes an expert in time management.

The skills learnt in response to personal challenges often enable students to excel despite difficulties.
keys to learning Focus your reading.

This applies to You will be mentally active if you anticipate what you expect to find in your reading. The course may give you clues, and the title and chapter headings of books will give you clues.

You should have ideas about what you want, rather than just reading what you have been told to.

When you find something that seems relevant too what you are looking for, mark it or make a note of it for recall. If the book is your own, you can mark the page. If it is borrowed, a bookmark will serve the same purpose.
keys to learning Think about your reading.
What you do with your reading is even more important. You need to think about it, playing with the ideas in your head, and working out what their implications are.

This is internalising knowledge, or making it your own. It sometimes helps to make ideas your own if a friend will listen to you talk about them. The friend may be more a sympathetic listener than someone who knows about the subject. The main point is that you are talking about the ideas you want to be able to
keys to learning Draft your writing early.
Struggle for clear ideas.

Why is writing so important in education? Is it only because you need to show what you have learnt and writing it down is a good way to do it? Or is it also because writing helps you to learn?

I have said that when you read you need to play with the ideas in your head until you can
use them. Writing is a good way to use them, because it allows you to look at your thoughts from the outside.

For example, if I write this today, I can read it tomorrow as if it was written by someone else. When I read what I have written, I usually have problems understanding myself. I can think about what I meant, and try to make the writing clearer. As I do this I will not only be making my writing clearer, I will be making my thinking clearer.

Newby's writing guide (p.2) says:
    "Writing is a way of slowing down and making more clear the process of thinking itself. Good writing is a means to good thinking. If your writing is not of the quality you would like it to achieve, it will mean your thinking cannot find the precision and clarity of expression which it deserves." (Newby, M. 1989 )
keys to learning Seek and use feedback.

You should seek the most useful kind of feedback on your work from friends and family members, other students and tutors.

The most encouraging feedback is not the most useful. You do not want your spirits broken, but you cannot do much with feedback that does not point out areas for you to improve.

When you get feedback, think about it, and act on it to improve your work.

Click here for more on feedback

  Top of page

Kolb's learning cycle:
Active Learning

Individual Work:
Keys to successful study

Group Work    Networks


Time Management:

Career Skills

ABC Learning

Words to help you work with other people

the place of discussion in
academic life

Group Work

the place of discussion in
academic life

Most study guides are mainly about individual study, which probably means we think of adult study as something we do on our own. When we start school most of our learning is in groups. But, in the school classroom we learn how to use social artifacts (like books and writing materials) to study on our own. By the time we become adult learners it may seem that most of our study is a private thing. It is something we do on our own with books and writing.

But even when most study time is private, there is still an important place for public activities - for things we do with other people. Group work is important because thought is both a private and a public activity. Individuals vary in the emphasis they put on working alone and working with other people, but we all need dialogue (discussion) as part of our studies.

Because Universities attach great importance to the development of autonomous learning, students have to take an active part in developing their group work.

Go to advice about working in groups Go to top of page
Networks read about networks Begin to form your own network by making a list of names and addresses of students and others that they can contact to exchange ideas and get feedback on essay drafts.
By networking I mean students linking in with things and people to help them make a success of learning.

We all belong to networks, but we only know directly the people and things that we link to directly. From your point of view (and that of every individual in a network) the network is a star, with lines radiating out from you in all directions.

A good point to start thinking about your own networks would be to read through the
list of resources you might have.

Everyone's circumstances are different. You will not only need to take stock of what your resources are, but you will also need to make new links with new resources.

The following list may help you


Book sources


People to talk to about problems

Ways of solving your problems

People to talk to about your course

People to exchange drafts with

Top of page


Much of this has been developed from information compiled by Alison Britton of South Bank University. Alison Britton says her information was taken from: Gibbs, G. 1994 Learning in Teams: A Student Guide, but she also recommends: Gibbs, G. 199? Learning in Teams: A Student Manual; O'Sullivan, T; Rice, J; Rogerson, R; Saunders, C. 1996 Successful Group Work.

Team and Group Skills in Study and Work
Seminars, Workshops and Self Help Groups
Forming and shaping a group
Group Aims
Making rules and guidelines
Formal and informal group roles
Well ordered meetings
Informal roles: Group Personality Caricatures
Group Problems
Working Together on Essays
Group Reports and Presentations

Team and Group Skills in Study and Work

skills needed to be a successful student are also employability skills. This is especially true of time management, communication and group work. In fact, most books on team building and group work are designed for management and industrial teams.

Research suggests that the transfer of skills does not "just happen". Students need to think about the skills they are learning and how they could be applied in other contexts.

Click here for notes on the different names used for study groups.

Seminars, Workshops and Self Help Groups

Group work in colleges takes different forms and is given different names. One major difference is between groups that are often called a "seminar" or a "workshop" and groups that we will call "self help groups". The difference between these is that seminars and workshops are run with a tutor present.

Most of the skills that students need for seminars are also needed for self help groups, and self help group skills will often make seminars more valuable. There are however, skills which the tutor needs in leading, or chairing, a seminar which have to be learnt by students in self-help groups.

Seminars are what Patrick Dunleavy calls " conversational" as opposed to "instructional" classes. The flow of information and ideas should be between all the members of a group rather than from one person (the tutor or the person presenting a paper) to everyone else. The same applies to workshops and self-help groups.

This means that everyone has to participate in the group - but not that everyone has to talk. You can participate by "active listening". Everyone needs to develop this skill - it means listening to what the other person has to say, thinking about how it relates to what you know, and thinking about what you agree and disagree with.

Forming and shaping a group

Your group size and membership may be decided for you, but if you do have choices bear these points in mind.

Small groups (less than six) work faster and it's easier to manage and coordinate the work of the group members. If the project is relatively small and short, go for a group of three or four. But, a small group may lack a range of expertise, and if one member drops out, is ill, or does not work you could have problems.

Large groups of six to eight can cope with larger projects. They can share out the work, get more done, do more reading etc. But, large groups can be difficult to organise. It can also be difficult to pull together the work of a large group and write a
group report or give a group presentation. A large group will need more structure, more formal meetings, clearer individual roles, and so on, if it is to work well.

Groups of eight or more are not suitable unless you have excellent group work skills and plenty of time.

Members Selecting group members is not just about being with your friends. Effective groups contain a balance of types of group members with different strengths to complement each other. Thinking about group personality caricatures may help the individuals in your group to define their strengths and weaknesses. Even if your group has been chosen for you, it will be useful to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

A cluster of people does not automatically become a team capable of doing good group work. You have to work at becoming a team. The work you do at the start might be very important and will form a pattern for the way you go on working.

You will benefit from getting to know each other as individuals. This may involve disclosing personal information about yourselves, which group members will have to treat with respect. Doing something social together may help to build group relationships and trust. You should also look out for tasks that you can carry out together. These could include brainstorming an issue, compiling lecture notes together, making a collective mind map, role playing or drawing.

It is probably a mistake for group activities to be just formal and mental, avoiding any expression of feelings. Members should be able to express feelings about being in the group in a civilised way, and to say what ways they prefer to work together. But it is destructive to use the group meetings to express criticism and hostility towards other group members.

Identifying the groups strengths and potential shortcomings as a team will be part of the work, and members should say what skills they have that may be useful to the team.

Other mistakes are not joining in, or allowing other members not to join in, having an aimless chat and allowing an individual to dominate.

Group Aims

All self help groups have to make decisions about their aims and structure. Groups started by students on their own initiative need to decide everything about their own structure and aims. Groups started as part of a course, will be partly structured and have some of their aims already set by tutors.

Self help groups only succeed if their members take responsibility for the aims and structure of the group. You need to discuss and decide:

  • what you are doing,
  • why you are doing it and
  • what you want to get out of it.
The decisions on each of these points will be influenced by the requirements of the course or course that members are studying, and by the desires of the members.

If the group has come together as a required part of the course you will need to look at the course papers to see what they say about the group's purpose. Are there guidelines for what your group should be doing? What, if anything, are you supposed to produce? How will the achievements of the group be assessed? What are the main parts of the group's work? What is the timetable for the work and what are the deadlines? Who is available to help your group?

Making rules and guidelines

There are rules in every social situation, even though we do not think about them until they are broken. When a group is formed it is helpful to make some explicit rules or guidelines about how the group will operate.

Attendance One area that causes many problems is attendance. In tutor lead groups a register is often kept and attendance is often a course requirement. A self help group is dependent on the good will and good manners of its members to turn up to arranged meetings or to notify someone that they are unable to attend (because of illness, for example). It could be an explicit rule that all members will turn up to all meetings unless they tell someone in advance that they are unable to come.

Participation One of the guidelines a group could lay down is that its members will encourage contributions from everyone - and accept the value of everybody's contributions to discussions and to decisions.

Division of Labour Divide the project up and share it out. When you start a project it can seem difficult to tackle and it may seem impossible to divide the jobs up between the members of your group. You may feel that you are going to get an unfair share of the work, or an unfair share of tasks no-one else likes to do. So, it is important at the start to make a list of the tasks and try to divide them fairly between members of the group. The list may not be complete to begin with (because you may overlook some tasks) so you will need to come back to it once you have started. Be as specific as possible. Do not just write down "Do background reading," but say what needs to be read, what needs to be found out (clarify concepts, photocopy examples of similar studies, produce notes on the methodology, etc.) Estimate how long the task will take and set a date for completion. Decide who will do what, and write it all down. What needs doing? Who will do it?

Roles such as chair of a meeting of a meeting and note-taker should be clearly allocated and should rotate round the team so that responsibilities and leadership are shared.

Formal and informal group roles

Working together in groups we play
roles. Some of these are formal, such as minute taker. Others are informal. The following list of possible formal roles will help you organise your groups. The list of personality caricatures will help you think about the informal roles that people are playing in groups you work in.

Formal Group Roles When we give out jobs or divide tasks in a group, we are assigning roles. Dividing tasks can make a group effective, because, when everyone is supposed to do them, nobody may do them. Group members may take on jobs they know they are good at, or they may take an opportunity to learn some new skills. One person may carry out the same task throughout the life of the group, or you may chose to rotate the jobs.

Two roles that are important in most groups are the Chair and the Secretary. The three traditional officers of a group or society are the chair, who coordinates the others, presides over meetings and speaks for the society, the secretary, who keeps the society's records and keeps minutes, and the treasurer, who looks after its money. Self help study groups are unlikely to need a treasurer, although student societies will.

Chair: The person who chairs meetings takes responsibility for clarifying aims and setting an agenda, and for introducing items. She of he will need to summarise discussions and decisions. In tutor led groups, like seminars, the chairing skills are exercised by the tutor. They often include progress chasing and time management - Skills that a self-help group may want to delegate to other members.

If a group finds that members are interrupting one another, or that some members are talking all the time, and others not at all, it is sensible to have someone as chair who will go round the group asking for everyone's opinion, and making sure that everyone's ideas are considered.

Secretary: The secretary takes notes at meetings as a record of what has been decided: who has agreed to do what, by when, date of next meeting etc. The note-taker needs to be sure what has been decided and to ask for clarification when s/he is not clear. After the meeting this person should prepare an outline of the important decisions and this should be copied for each member of the group.

Other roles you may think of giving people are Progress Chaser and Time Keeper.

Progress Chaser: The Progress Chaser checks that everyone is doing what s/he agreed. This means checking up between meetings.

Time Keeper: In meetings there will be a limited amount of time. So you need to divide it up carefully among the things you need to discuss so that nothing gets left out. Sort this out at the start of the meeting (or even before). Then it is the responsibility of the time-keeper to see that the group "keeps to time." This might involve saying things like "We've had 15 of the 20 minutes we are going to spend on the questionnaire design." "The ten minutes we allowed for this is up."

A group of students working on a project had four members called Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done. Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but nobody realised that Everybody would not do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Well ordered meetings

Meetings to discuss group work should be more than a social chat. You need to learn to run a meeting where the academic (or other) work gets done and (where necessary) decisions are made. You will need to order your meetings. Adopting some of the procedures of formal meetings may help.

Formal meetings:

    have roles, like chair and minute-taker
    have an agenda, listing topics to be discussed
    take notes (Minutes) of decisions that are made.

You could try holding a formal meeting like this - with an agenda, chair, note-taker, and time-keeper. Then discuss how it went and to decide how to change things to improve future meetings.

Issues you may want to review include how the tasks of chair, notetaker and time-keeper assisted the group, and how they could be improved. Whether the business was conducted efficiently.

Before members arrived they should know what the meeting planned to achieve. Sometimes they will have a clear list of things to work on.

Did you move through the topics in an orderly way, spending the right amount of time on different topics? Were discussions focused on the things you needed to discuss? If decisions were needed, were they clearly made and noted? For example, have you agreed a time and place for the next meeting? What kind of written summary of the meeting has been or will be produced?

    Example of an agenda layout:

    Notes of the last meeting: a list of who was present and missing and a record of what was discussed and decided, to remind everybody and allow everybody to check that they are correct: these notes should have identified who was responsible for doing what.

    Matters arising from the last meeting: what happened as a result of the decisions taken, what progress has been made on action.

    Items for discussion: these have usually been agreed beforehand, and form the core of the meeting.

    Any other business (AOB): additional items which have arisen as a result of the discussions or which have been raised since the agenda was formed.

    Time and place of the next meeting: and a statement of what the meeting will be for.

Group Personality Caricatures

Based on the informal roles identified in
Belbin, R.M. 1981

People play different roles in teams and the success of team work can be helped by thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of different personalities. Because Belbin's descriptions are caricatures, comic stereotypes of human personalities that you should not expect to find in real world groups, they stick in the mind. They can help us to sort out our real world characters and laugh at the same time.

Chairpeople The chair is a formal role in groups, but here we are looking at it as a personality caricature. Chairpeople are good at presiding over and coordinating people. They may not be clever or creative, but they are balanced and self-disciplined. They focus on the task or issue and think positively about what the group can do. They are good at guiding the team. As self-confident speakers who command respect they are good at representing the group. But all this attention means that they can also be domineering and bossy.

Evaluators are called "Monitor Evaluators" by Belbin. Like the innovators, they can have a reputation for being clever, but they have a critical rather than a creative intelligence. They analyse ideas and are good at picking the flaws out in arguments. Evaluators are careful, they make intelligent judgements, test out ideas, evaluate proposals and help the team avoid mistakes. Although they are dependable people they can be cold and tactless. They may be less involved than other members of the group, and may upset or depress people by focusing on what is wrong, but they are invaluable as a check on the quality of the group's work.

Finishers are painstaking, conscientious people who follows through and work hard to finish things properly. They meet deadlines and pay attention to detail. Without finishers the group might never complete its work, and certainly not on time. Finishers can be over-anxious perfectionists who worry themselves and others. Their relentless chivvying may make them unpopular, but it can be very important.

Innovators are called "Plants" by Belbin. They produces ideas and are imaginative. They also tend to be unorthodox, radical and uninhibited. They can have a reputation for being clever, but also for being over-sensitive or prickly. They may need careful handling.

Investigators are called "Resource Investigators" by Belbin. They find things out, bring information back to the team, and make useful contacts. They are not original thinkers, but the kind of smooth, diplomatic people who could sell you an encyclopedia on the doorstep. They tend to be enthusiastic and to love company, but they can also be lazy and complacent.

Organisers are called the "Company Worker" by Belbin. They are methodical, hard-working and reliable. Their ideas are orthodox and practical. They are good at turning ideas into plans that work, and they get down to the tasks which need doing. They are not excited or distracted by the visions of the innovators, which means they can be rather inflexible and uninspiring. They are the administrators rather than the leaders of the group.

Shapers are the people who drive everyone along. They are energetic and determined to succeed and they make things happen. If the group has not got a chair, a shaper will take over because it has to be done. But shapers may not be good at chairing. They can be disruptive and argumentative, impatient and a problem if things do not go their own way.

Team Workers are supportive of the other group members. They can put the groups interests above their personal concerns. They are sympathetic, understanding and sensitive. They show a strong concern for social interaction in the group, but lead from behind rather than in front and are more interested in cooperation than in competition. They may be indecisive and they are often unobtrusive. They do not shine in the group, but you really miss them when they are not there.

Team workers, organisers and chairpeople hold the group together in different ways.

keys to learning
keys to learning

Kolb's learning cycle:
Active Learning


Group Problems

Working Together on Essays

Generating ideas

Advice about working in groups - Team Skills - Seminars, Workshops and Self Help Groups - Forming and shaping a group - Aims - Rules - Roles - Well ordered meetings

Group Reports and Presentations

Swim not drown Swimming rather than drowning: A presentation by students

    "I find it easier to work on my own - in the library or at home - and at my own pace when writing essay's or doing coursework. However I also find it very helpful to discuss ideas with class mates and get their comments on my writing. It is helpful to bounce ideas off each other and exchanging essays helps you understand if your work is written in a way which is easy to understand" Brenda Otto


Group Problems

All groups working together will have problems and it is often not easy to discuss them and sort them out. The key to doing so is, I think, students taking control of their group work. This will include withdrawing from groups which are of no value and complaining politely but firmly when placed in unhelpful or destructive group positions. But it will also include seeking ways to resolve problems and establish in groups the qualities of academic dialogue that are the major stimulus to creative thought.

Familiar problems with groups are

In an academic group it is important to allow members to explain what they are saying fully. Taking notes about what somebody is saying and trying to see the links between their thoughts will benefit you.

  • dominant members are allowed to dominate

  • some people do not contribute

  • The group does not have clear tasks or objectives

Problems like this suggest that the group needs a chairperson

  • members put each other down

  • people do not always remember that others have feelings.
Rewards and dangers of working together on essays

Working together has dangers, as well as rewards, and one of these is the risk of plagiarism if you prepare written work together.

Sometimes you are required to prepare a group report that will be presented under the name of the group. This is the group's work. Usually, however, you are assessed as an individual, so your work must demonstrate your achievements, not those of someone else or of a group.

When students are preparing individual essays, it is often most helpful to work with students who are preparing different essays. If two students present an essay with the same (or very similar) content, they run the risk of being accused of cheating.

The Benefits of Working Together on Essays

Part of the development of a successful essay is feedback.

You will need to show your draft to other students (or friends or relatives) to get their suggestions about how it could be improved. You will particularly be looking for feedback on:

  • how easy your draft is to understand

  • whether all the points are clear to someone who does not know about the subject.

  • does the essay flow, does one thing follow another logically, is everything explained?

It is important that you work with people who will be honest with you - and not just say that your draft is great! See advice about giving feedback

The best feedback on comprehension and clarity usually comes from people who are not working on the same essay, although many students also like to discuss issues with others who are working on the same title.

Reaping the Rewards and Avoiding the Dangers

A group of students were asked:

Who do you plan to work with on your essay? How will you exchange drafts and receive feedback? If you plan to work with other people who are doing the same essay, how will you do it, and how will you avoid any risk of plagiarism (one person submitting another person's work)?
Here are some of their suggestions:
" When I was talking to people doing the same essay, we just tried to work out what the theorist was really saying. I did not plan what I would actually write with anyone. The people I did show my essay to were not doing the same essay - so it was interesting to see if they could understand what I wrote and could see clearly what I intended to say."
" I intend to work with another student on this course. We will both be writing an essay on the same question, and so we will be doing the same reading. This will benefit us for discussion purposes, but we will be able to avoid plagiarism because we will not actually be writing the essays together. We will discuss our reading, but we will not show each other our writings, at least until we have completed our essay drafts. "
" I will avoid the risk of plagiarism by ensuring that we both read each others final draft essays before submitting. I will also ensure that we use different sources of material for research and use different essay titles if possible. "
" We will avoid plagiarism as we will choose different essay titles. I do not think it is a good idea to work with other students who are writing the same essay. "
" I will work with a friend who is doing the same essay title by discussing the theories used in the relevant books. This will avoid plagiarism because we will not discuss or show what we are writing. "
" I plan to work with a student I usually work with as we work well together. We have never copied each others work and do not intend to start. We get together and have excellent discussions on our subject of study, putting across ideas and advising one another. "


  • Be clear about who is doing what and set deadlines.
  • Have one (or two) people who take responsibility for seeing that the final report is put together and meets the course deadline.
  • Plan some meetings where you can practise your presentation. Do not just hope that it will be "all right on the day."

Study links outside this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Picture introduction to this site
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

© Andrew Roberts
"As far as I am concerned, groups are tried tested and failed"

"The logistics of getting groups together makes them a waste of time"

"The tutor thinks they are talking about something academic - Most of the time they are just chatting"

"I always end up talking about anything and everything"

"Groups are an excuse for lazy students to get other people to do their work"

Swim not drown

A Student Learns to Swim

A presentation by students about swimming rather than drowning.