Online Study Groups And The Mastermind Technique


How to facilitate online study groups without turning it into a training session

This is my second year with Women Who Code Manila. Last year I started off as the technology lead for the DevOps study group. I continue that this year along with being the technology lead for a new study group on Go Programming.

One problem we always had for our study group sessions was that it always turned into an ad-hoc training session. According to our usual intro:

Study groups are events where members can come together and help each other learn and understand a specific programming language, technology, or anything related to coding, engineering, design.

Study groups are not classes, workshops or lectures.

So for the longest time we had been trying to figure out a formula on how to keep study groups as a study group. I think I found a possible solution.

My friend Kahlil Corazo (https://medium.com/life-tactics) tweeted about using the Mastermind Group for online learning. He has been conducting Project Management seminars for more than 10 years and was trying to find a method for conducting training online. I was intrigued and read up about it. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s a technique that’s used in business where people take part in a mentoring group and help members solve their problems with input and advice from other members. Well, that sounds a lot like the makings of a structure for Women Who Code Manila!

How I implemented the Mastermind group

The first thing I needed was to set up a baseline. That means announcing the agenda and the main resource that the session will use. I had been doing this for a while now as part of the details of the meetup.com post. The meetup.com post is usually created a week before the session. Then I would announce the agenda again in the community’s FB group as well as my own FB feed.

I had wanted to test the new structure for the study group on my Go Programming and DevOps sessions. But unfortunately no one showed up for the former. The DevOps session has a slightly different structure from the Go Programming session since it was just a continuation on the topic of Docker from last May 2020. While this pushed through, I only had one participant. I also had one of the Women Who Code Manila directors during the Zoom conference.

For the DevOps session, I introduced a new section called Quick Share where I asked four questions that I based on the Mastermind technique.

  • What have you learned since the last study group session?
    Participants get a chance to share what they’ve learned so far. This also sets the tone for the session. Instead of me starting off with a review of the topic and turning it into a training session, posing this question opens the floor up for actual discussion.
  • What challenges are you facing while learning today’s topic?
    Here we start finding out who is having trouble studying. Those gives everyone a chance to help someone in need. Again, I just facilitate and come in as needed.
  • What cool thing have you discovered in learning the topic?
    Knowing how self-studying can sometimes make people suddenly go down a rabbit hole, I let everyone share what else they’ve learned accidentally while trying to learn the session’s topic. It doesn’t even have to be connected to the topic. Hey. If it was interesting enough for them to know more about, it would most likely be interesting to us as well.
  • Have you tried using what you learned at work?
    The final question allows me to see if what they’ve learned has become useful in their work. Even if the technology they’re studying isn’t formally used in their work environment, it should not stop them from trying stuff out if it means making their work a little bit easier to do.

The Quick Share wasn’t really quick. This easily took up 40 minutes of the time with just one participant. The discussion was lively and eye-opening. Even our director who was just there to oversee the session got interested in the topic because of this discussion.

After that, I followed it with the Show and Tell where the participant had already done a sample project using Docker and showed me how it was implemented. More discussion ensued on how to make the implementation better, more understandable. Because of the demo, more questions arose that were remembered just then.

Finally I wrapped up the session by stating the goals for the July session.

Overall, this turned out to be how a study group was supposed to be like. We had finished our session with 15 minutes to spare. But then we still ended up going overtime. Remember how I said that our director got interested in the discussion? I handed over the Zoom conference to her so she could wrap up the session. But she just needed to ask one question about the topic. We ended up having a whole new discussion that lasted another 30 minutes. I didn’t mind. Now she wants to try out the tech and see how it could be helpful at her work.

A Retrospective Look

The director and I talked a bit more after the study group session ended. She liked the new format and found the discussions smooth and easy. But she did have one concern.

The whole structure depended on the participants having studied the material prior to joining the study group. The org has been having trouble getting people to read the pre-requisite material in the past. What happens when people with absolutely no background or did not do the pre-requisite reading join in?

I mentioned that we’ve experienced this before with face-to-face sessions. These people tend to become lurkers. They just listen in on what everyone else is saying. This is fine. Let them listen.

But we also have people who are actively engaged with learning. I just need ONE PERSON to be active in the session in order to have an interesting discussion. Hopefully this entices lurkers to be even more interested in the topic and start asking questions even if they are basic questions. When the lurkers start asking questions that are outside the topic, I keep note of this and make sure to field those questions towards the end of the session.

I used our director as proof of concept. She didn’t know anything about the topic. She was just listening in. Then she asked questions about it because she got interested.

Improvements To Do For The Next Session

Establishing the baseline is really important for this structure to work. I realized that announcing the agenda and resources one week before the session is not enough lead time for most people. So even when I don’t have a specific July schedule yet, I already announced next session’s topic details in our FB group.

I have to figure out ways to engage those who are studying the topic in between the study group sessions. Even a simple “How is everyone doing?” would do wonders.

I’ll also need to limit the sessions to a maximum of 10 participants if I want this to be effective.

Overall, I think this first experiment on the modified structure turned out nicely even when it was only a participation of two people. I hope to see how this works in a larger group.


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