'Bonding in a way like never before': Online study groups help U of T students connect during COVID-19

A person wears headphones while participating in a group video conference call
In U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science, Recognized Study Groups are small groups of three to six students who meet weekly to discuss course materials and prepare for tests and exams (photo by Leo Patrizi via Getty Images)

With in-person interactions still a challenge during COVID-19, many students at the University of Toronto are turning to Recognized Study Groups (RSGs) as a way to study and connect.

Created by the student success team in the Office of the Faculty Registrar within the Faculty of Arts & Science, RSGs are small study groups of three to six students from the same course who meet weekly to discuss course materials and prepare for tests and exams.

“They're able to engage in activities that help them think about the material on a deeper level instead of just memorization,” says Mary Stefanidis, the RSG student success programs officer. “We want students to engage more meaningfully and think about their course content in a more critical manner."

“Our second goal is community building. We’ve really seen RSGs facilitate new social connections, giving students an opportunity to meet and get to know one another.”

RSGs switched to an online format last semester in response to the pandemic, with all training, meetings, updates and announcements taking place in a private secure space within Quercus.

Each RSG includes a student leader who helps organize and plan weekly activities. Leaders are not tutors – they’re learning the course material along with other group members and undergo a one-hour training workshop on effective learning techniques.

Leaders are supported by student staff members who assist the group in finding useful academic resources and generally support the group’s goals.

“A lot of group assistants are involved in course unions and clubs geared towards academic support and life within the faculty,” says Stefanidis. “They're the resource for leaders to navigate academic supports.”

Launched three years ago, the RSG program has steadily grown and RSGs are now available for all Arts & Science undergraduate courses, attracting over 2,000 students since the fall of 2019.

Student feedback about the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Students say RSGs helped them better understand course materials and prepare for exams, while providing a welcome social outlet.

For Andy Ye, a member of New College, a third-year human biology major and an RSG leader, the group helped him boost his grade as well as his leadership skills over a rocky semester.

“I did a little research on leaders' responsibilities and decided to attempt it since I never thought I was a good leader,” he says. “To improve my leadership, the first thing I needed to do was to get rid of that negative mindset. I took this as a real opportunity and I showed my passion throughout this past semester.

“I’m someone who enjoys studying in front of a computer. The fact that RSGs moved online in light of COVID-19 made this program even more interesting to me.”

“Opportunities to build connections with other students are more important than ever while we deliver our course online,” says Liza Bolton, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of statistical sciences. “RSGs help students create effective study groups and this is strengthened through additional supports to improve their learning. I love that one of the activities is coming to my office hour as a group.”

Stefanidis also believes online RSGs are valuable because they provide some much-needed structure.

“Students in general have a hard time getting a routine going for their academics,” says Stefanidis. “And in an online setting they have more distractions studying [because they are] home more often.

“With an RSG they meet at the exact same time, the same day, every single week. Meeting on a regular basis helps keep them more accountable because they know others are depending on them to be prepared for each meeting. Plus, it’s nice to just check in with the same people each week.”

By going online, RSGs are now even more accessible for commuter students who normally wouldn’t be able to attend in-person weekly meetings.

“In addition to its convenience, our online RSG really brought us together,” says Ye. “Sure, we weren’t sitting in front of the same desk in the same room, but when we were on call, it felt like we were bonding in a way like never before.”

To join or lead an RSG for the fall semester, visit the Recognized Study Groups website. Registration for Fall course RSGs begins in September.

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