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Five on Friday: Social Studies

Five on Friday: Social Studies

Welcome to Five on Friday, a round-up of views on a theme. This Friday we look at whether it’s better to learn alone or with people, how to make study more social, and which people you can turn to, to help you with your course. As they say, two’s company, three’s a workshop (well no one says that, but they should).

There’s a reason why class sizes are an issue. A ratio of one teacher to 20 students is going to be a different learning experience to one teacher to 120 students. But then there are lecture theatres filled with hundreds of students and MOOCs (massive open online courses) with thousands of enrolments and somehow at the end of it people reach educational enlightenment. So what’s the best way to learn?

Well, it turns out there’s a big difference in how you learn and how you study.

1. Does size matter?
Learning environments with a smaller teacher to student ratio, that is, more teachers to fewer students are highly desired because people perceive they are better for students. In essence this is mostly true, but size is an indicator, not a factor in itself. For example, with fewer students the class is easier to handle and therefore more likely to be better behaved, making it easier for students to absorb lessons. So small teacher-student ratios are more effective when the students are younger and/or more rowdy, but this becomes less important when the students want to be there, such as with adult education. A Salon.com article unpacks some of the myths about size.

2. MOOC: funny name, serious future
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are web-based platforms designed to take lessons from some of the world’s best academics to a global audience of thousands per class. I’ve written about MOOCs before, about whether traditional degrees will become a luxury and their struggle for credibility but there’s no doubt MOOCs will revolutionise the way students learn.

Because there are so many students to relatively few staff, MOOC infrastructure relies on a more social learning system, using platforms such as wikis, forums and groups to support students. At times academics participate; at others the student learns from the group with the benefit of numbers as well as the diversity of students, who come from different countries, have different learning backgrounds and different work experience.

3. Who is teaching whom?
Which brings me to remind students that the best teachers are not just the content providers. As adults, we are less inclined to see teachers as the be-all and end-all of our learning experience. Simply talking to fellow students can be a crucial way to get a grasp on a concept or subject, which is why online courses work well when they provide a forum for students in disparate locations to interact with one another.

But don’t forget there are also teachers outside the education system, from more experienced colleagues (if you are working) to more formal mentorships.

4. Does group study work?
The simple answer to this question is ‘it depends’. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Individual study tends to be better for reading and other activities that need a lot of focus, whereas groups study is great for discussion (and getting another perspective) and sharing knowledge.

It also depends on who is in the group. Each member needs to add to the group for it to work, not just mooch off everyone else’s brains. A diversity of strengths is therefore important so you don’t all get stuck on one problem. Group study can also mean that you’re more likely to actually study.

5. Friends with (study) benefits
Or not...

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