So, You Want To Start a Study Group!

Studying for certifications is hard, and a lot of people are studying for certifications. It would be great to be able to leverage the thinking of other people: their viewpoints, opinions, ways of solving problems you might not have thought about.

You’d like to join a study group for the cert you are working on, but everyone else is just looking for a group too, and there isn’t an active one to join. Lots of people express interest in joining a study group, but no one seems to know how to set one up. Never fear, we’ve put together some suggestions that will help you start a group and keep it working like a well-oiled machine, carrying the occupants to Certification Valhalla.

Getting Started

The first step in starting a study group is trying to find a group of people looking to join a study group. Thank God for the Internet. There’s Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Discord (shameless plug for IAATJ) and other social media platforms out there where people are studying and collaborating already. You pretty much can’t throw a rock without hitting people looking to study for certifications. Now stop throwing rocks at people, you monster.


Study Group Do’s and Don’ts

Starting and running a study group requires a very different set of skills than joining and participating in the same group. Just like Dungeons and Dragons, someone has to be the Dungeon Master so everyone can play. Here’s a list of suggestions on creating a running a successful study group:

DO:

  • Decide on a common platform for collaboration

Whether it be Discord, Slack, Google Hangouts, Facetime or Webex, the first step in forming a group is establishing what technology you use to meet/collaborate.

  • Decide on common training materials, or agree to focus on the exam blueprint agnostically

This is where a lot of study groups tend to stumble right out of the gate. Let’s be honest, all training materials are not created equal, and people may have acquired their study materials any number of ways. This could be a constraint on your group and the first hurdle to clear.

As a group, it’s better to decide if the group prefers to stick to one provider or approach the topics vendor-agnostically. There are pros and cons to each. One of the biggest pros is that it makes cadence easier and focuses the entire group on the exact same topics and labs. The biggest con of going with this approach is it could be exclusive to people who don’t have and can’t acquire the agreed-upon materials, and thus the group misses out on the added value that some might otherwise bring.

  • Develop ground rules early in the process

Here is another large stumbling block that most don’t even see. So much is assumed that often causes problems down the line, and when dealing with people of different cultures and expectations, it’s really imperative to declare the ground rules for the group and make it accessible to anyone who wants to join. This isn’t just administration for its own sake, it helps defuse arguments before they arise and streamlines the whole process.

Ground rules cover the basic expectations of the group and how it will interact. Cameras on or off? Mute when not talking? What common language will the group work in? Do we raise our hands (digitally or otherwise) and wait to be recognized or can we be more freeform? What is the expectation if late? Is there a consequence for habitual lateness?

  • Establish the frequency of meetings

This seems like a no-brainer, but it can get complex. How often will the group meet? Weekly? Twice a month? Monthly? The frequency influences a lot, including expectations of what can be accomplished outside the group meetings, and the the target dates for taking the exam.

  • Scheduling the meetings

What day of the week should the group aim to meet? What time? Which time zone will the group use as the reference? This could be very simple or extremely complicated depending on where study group members live. Some groups that want to be hyper-focused restrict membership to within 2-3 hours of the reference time zone. Some are more loose but place the burden of making it to meetings on time on the members who live far outside the reference time zone. There’s no right answer here, but in general, the closer the group is to the reference time zone, the easier scheduling the meetings (and making them) will be in the long run.

  • Agree upon the group’s topic format

It would be foolish to study only when the group meets. However, a pace must be set to keep the group somewhat synchronized. To ensure optimal study time when the group is together, it’s important to establish what should be covered in the group and what should be covered on your own between meetings.

For example, simply reading a chapter of a certification guide together in a meeting is a waste of time. It would be more efficient if everyone reads the chapter ahead of time and brings certain review items to the group. That could be questions on the text for review, it could be creating some sort of virtual lab based on the chapter(s) and reviewing that with the group. Generally, reading should be done outside the group and discussion should be the goal of the group meetings. The whole reason to join a study group is for accountability and exchange of ideas, after all.


Now, let’s look at a few things we should NOT do.

DON’T:

  • Establish everything prior to creating the study group and saying, “Take it or leave it”

Study groups aren’t dictatorships. The reward for starting and running a group is that you can drive these discussions, but not decide them alone. Start with finding interested study group members, then start discussing things like ground rules, materials, and let the above details come out of that discussion.

  • Leave the above unvisited for long

Study groups change over time. Someone may get the cert knocked out before others, others may get refocused to something else. Someone new may join, People change and so must things like scheduling, ground rules, etc. Every 3-4 meetings it’s worth revisiting and ensuring all the details are up to date.

  • Waste your own time and others’ by being habitually late and/or distracted and failing to do the work

Time is a precious resource for us all. Most of us are busy professionals juggling work, family and other obligations. A study group is an investment of time towards a goal and that investment is easier for some, harder for others. It’s important to be respectful of your time and the time others are investing by being focused when the group meets, on time, and most importantly, on schedule.

Things happen and you may not be able to do the pre-meeting work one week, but it can’t become a habit. If the group is meeting to trade/review OSPF labs, as an example, failing to create your own OSPF lab to share means you’ve failed to contribute to the group’s learning. Once or twice, life can get in the way, but if this happens habitually, you’re taking from the group without giving back. Just don’t.

  • Forget the point of a study group is to get different ideas and views

IT is full of introverts but there’s a few of us extroverts here too. We extroverts have to be very conscious of ourselves because often, people who are introverted are content to listen. For some, English is a second or third language and they are self -conscious about speaking. The point is, don’t dominate discussions. Make an effort to engage everyone.

  • Fail to participate in group discussions and activity

On the other side of that coin, failing to share your ideas, views and knowledge also makes for an ineffective group. Teaching others is a powerful way to cement knowledge you have and find your gaps. Don’t deprive yourself of that opportunity. Others also benefit from your questions and clarifications. A lot of times, people are wondering the same things but are not brave enough to speak up thinking they may be the only one who isn’t ‘getting it’. Speak up, the study group is a place to get information you can’t get from a book, video or blog post. It’s real human explanation addressed to your specific question.


I hope this has given a solid framework of things to pay attention to when starting and running a study group. It shouldn’t be a stressful endeavor, though at the outset it can feel like herding cats. Don’t be afraid to do what works for the group as a whole. Don’t be afraid to firmly refer to the ground rules when they are broken. The study group has an ultimate goal of ensuring those within the group get certified. That’s the mission statement and so focus on that.

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