Study Groups and WebQuests

“The inventor or introducer of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind†(Bumstead, 1841, as cited in Tack & Cuban, 1995).

Since the introduction of the chalkboard in the mid-1800s (the “system†referred to above), educational prognosticators have consistently anticipated a pedagogical renaissance with the unveiling of each new technological innovation. Movies in the 1920s and ‘30s, the radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the television in the ’50s, each heralded its own golden age in education and afforded multiple redefinitions of how schooling could and would take place. Of course, while each of these inventions has made its way into the classroom and had its own degree of acceptance and impact, teachers have not been replaced by classroom televisions and English teachers are more likely to be chided than praised for screening Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The advent of the personal computer and the Internet, however, seems somewhat distinct from the technological advances of the past. For one thing, the computer and the World Wide Web have become staple tools in the business world in ways that other technological innovations never have. Furthermore, the expectation that students, upon leaving the schoolhouse for the real world, will be able to use these electronic tools as tools changes the nature of their importance and the way in which educational institutions must approach them. Nevertheless, the early expectations by some that computers and the Internet would help to “teacher-proof†the educational process, and gradually even replace teachers, have quickly given way to a more reasonable belief that these tools can instead support and enhance the classroom teacher’s effectiveness.

Research suggests that, when used appropriately and effectively, technology tools can have a positive impact on student learning in a variety of ways, but the key is in defining and understanding what appropriately and effectively mean. One model of technology integration that has proved to be particularly successful is the WebQuest. Developed in the mid 1990s by Bernie Dodge and Tom Marsh, a WebQuest is “an inquiry-oriented activity in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the Internet†(Dodge, 1995). WebQuests give teachers the opportunity to employ a number of effective instructional practices including backplanning, cooperative learning, and using open-ended tasks and performance-based assessment with students. In addition, there are thousands of WebQuests already available online at hundreds of educational Web sites, and many teachers are able to quickly adapt pre-made WebQuests and implement them into their curriculum.

Simply using a WebQuest in the classroom, however, is no guarantee of improved student achievement. According to NCREL (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory), “The success or failure of technology is more dependent on human and contextual factors than on hardware or software†(Valdez et al., 2000). By defining effective use of technology in human and contextual terms, the prerequisites therefore shift from installed infrastructure and technical expertise to instructional vision and informed judgment, and from a simple question of how to use the technology to the more important question of when to use the technology.

Now, this is no argument against having the latest equipment, and the United States clearly has a long way to go in eliminating socioeconomic gaps in access to hardware, software, and Internet connectivity, but effective use still depends on those human factors, and that is where effective professional development becomes paramount.

  • Having enough Internet-connected computers in the classroom is a good start,
  • recognizing the WebQuest model as an example of effective technology integration is a solid next step,
  • but making the leap toward implementing a WebQuest in the classroom in a way that enhances the learning process for students requires compelling professional support.

Study groups are a logical structure for technology-integration training because they emphasize the incremental and collaborative nature of effective professional growth that is vitally important in learning new approaches to teaching. In the study-group model, a small group of teachers works collaboratively over the course of several weeks, months, or even years to focus on a pedagogical issue of common concern or interest. One of the most important benefits of study groups is the opportunity for teachers to learn from one another and to receive collegial support. Because one of the main barriers to using technology in the classroom is teachers’ own inexperience or lack of expertise with technology tools, the study group is particularly effective for technology training in that it provides the opportunity for less technically savvy teachers to receive direct support from their colleagues who have more advanced technical training or skills. It also provides teachers with an ongoing opportunity to receive targeted feedback and support to answer their technology implementation questions and concerns.

Making Study Groups Work in North Carolina

At a high school in Wake County, North Carolina, a group of five teachers participated in a study group from February to April of 2003, meeting five times to focus on the use of WebQuests. Each biweekly study group meeting lasted approximately 90 minutes, with participants meeting after school with a workshop facilitator. Between each meeting, participants completed homework assignments, which ranged from reading an article about the implementation of WebQuests (Garry & Graham, 2002) to actually implementing a WebQuest in their classroom.

Meetings typically began with the introduction of information about WebQuests or technology-integration issues. The majority of each meeting comprised participants exploring WebQuest resources online, with the focus on relating resources back to individual classroom curricula and educational objectives. Most importantly, each meeting also included opportunities for collegial discussion and feedback about classroom implementation, and the study group facilitator was available to answer questions both during the meeting and in between meetings, using e-mail. Most of the study group resources were taken from Bernie Dodge’s The WebQuest Page, which meant that participants had ongoing access to resources and examples outside of the scheduled meeting times.

Over the course of the 10 weeks, each participant chose a WebQuest to implement in his or her classroom, implemented the WebQuest, and brought in sample lesson plans and student work samples to share with the other study group participants for feedback. A few of the participants were familiar with WebQuests, but most had never used them before in their classrooms. The study group’s objectives were to help participants:

  • Increase their effective use of technology
  • Identify and reinforce effective instructional strategies
  • Increase their understanding of WebQuests and the effective implementation of WebQuests in the classroom
  • Create a professional community
  • Each participant described his or her WebQuest implementation, focusing on the educational objectives and student outcomes (which included providing samples of student work).
  • Next, colleagues had opportunities to ask questions about the implementation.
  • Each colleague then provided two examples of aspects of the implementation they found effective in the participant’s description, using the statement, “I thought that ‘x’ was effective because ‘y’.†For example, “I thought that the student grouping was effective because each student had a particular role within the group so everyone was held accountable for doing work.â€
  • Each colleague provided one example of a possible enhancement using the statement, “If you were to do this activity again, you might consider ‘z’.†For example, “If you were to do this again, you might consider giving students a list of possible activity topics for them to choose from, because you mentioned that some students picked topics that you didn’t think were particularly appropriate.â€
  • Throughout the feedback process, the original participant simply listened to the feedback from colleagues.

Meeting Day 5: In the final formal meeting, participants explored ways to create their own WebQuests, identifying WebQuest Templates available at Dodge’s site and discussing the process for posting Web pages. Finally, participants provided feedback on the study-group process and had the opportunity to ask individual questions.

Achieving Success

The study group was successful on multiple levels. First, teachers responded very favorably to the WebQuest model, indicating that they planned to use additional WebQuests in their classrooms in the future. As one participant put it, “Teachers like activities that engage students and prevent off-task behavior—WebQuests do both if the right one is selected.†And another self-professed first-time WebQuester stated, “I plan on using these more often.â€

Second, teachers liked the professional interaction, and they felt they learned from one another. By sharing their implementation successes and challenges and hearing feedback from colleagues, participants gained new insights and new ideas. As one participant said, “Because of sharing our WebQuests, I saw how WebQuests can be a way to instigate discussions and debate.â€

Finally, the whole process gave participants an opportunity to reflect on their own instructional practices. One of the goals of any study group is to build mutual trust and collegial support that extends beyond the boundaries of the scheduled study-group meetings. Once this level of trust and collegiality is achieved, teachers are more likely to learn from one another and to consider either implementing new ideas shared by their colleagues or to continue implementing best practices they used that were praised by their colleagues. In the words of one participant, “[The study group meetings] caused me to think about my instructional strategies. I think I will revamp some of my lessons over the summer when I have more time.â€

One key piece of advice to come out of the process was the recommendation to ensure that participating teachers come from similar subject areas to allow for same-discipline collaboration. While most of the participants were science teachers, one was an English teacher and, while she appreciated the feedback and ideas from her colleagues, she could have benefited to an even greater degree from having additional colleagues from her department in the study group.

Implementing Study Groups in Your Own School

While study groups represent a powerful professional development model — they incorporate research-based professional development practices; they are inexpensive to run; and the development of technical expertise can be supported both within the context of study-group activities and through the collegial support relationships that develop as an intentional byproduct of study groups—they not are without their challenges. Simply designating a topic, a group of teachers, and a meeting schedule is not a formula for success; on the contrary, this type of arbitrary teacher grouping fails to meet many, if not most, of the criteria for effective professional development. By recognizing and addressing the challenges commonly associated with study groups, however, the model can be highly successful and lead to both near-term and long-term improvements in professional practice and student learning. The most common challenges associated with study groups are:

  • Identifying a topic of true relevance
  • Enlisting the aid of qualified and effective facilitators
  • Ensuring a positive and productive process
  • Integrating study groups into a larger, school-wide vision of professional growth

This final section addresses ways to meet these challenges to ensure a greater probability for true success.

Identifying a Topic of True Relevance

The cardinal sin of ineffective professional development is giving teachers something that they neither want nor need. For teachers to change and improve their teaching habits, they must perceive a high level of connection between the training topic and their own professional needs. In the North Carolina case, teachers were given the option to sign up for the workshop series but were not required to do so, and those teachers who found that the workshops did not meet their needs (or exceeded their available time) had the option of dropping out. Providing choice is one simple way of addressing the issue of direct relevancy to teachers’ perceived needs.

A second level of relevancy, however, pertains to students’ needs; that is, identifying the types of needs that students have and the ways the professional development, as a catalyst for changes in teacher behavior, addresses those needs. While the increased use of WebQuests and the types of instructional strategies that they encourage may have addressed the needs of students in this case, the explicit issue of “students’ needs†was not a deciding factor in the decision to offer the workshops (i.e., while teachers may have participated in the workshops because they individually believed that WebQuests would help them meet students’ needs in their own classrooms, the decision to offer the WebQuest workshops was made arbitrarily). Ideally, study-group topics represent choices based upon student data, which is drawn from a variety of sources such as student standardized test information, classroom observations, general student data (e.g., attendance, drop out rates, referrals), student surveys, school-wide portfolios, and so forth. In other words, students’ needs and achievement should drive professional development decisions and areas of focus, so that topical relevancy for teachers (i.e., what teachers say they need) follows directly from identified students’ needs (i.e., what data suggests the students and teachers need).

Enlisting the Aid of Qualified and Effective Facilitators

In the North Carolina study-group example, the participating teachers had access to a volunteer professional facilitator who had considerable experience both in the topic of study and in the delivery of professional development. In most cases, however, this level of professional support and guidance would be quite expensive. This presents a second challenge: how to create an effective study group process that does not rely on expensive, external expertise?

One possible answer comes from an unlikely place: nutrition research in Vietnam. Jerry Sternin and Robert Choo, two researchers with Save the Children, went to Vietnam in 1991 to address high levels of malnutrition throughout much of the Vietnamese child population. Rather than bringing in a pre-fabricated program or solution, Sternin and Choo looked for examples of families whose children were not malnourished, and tried to identify how these exceptional families were successful despite the fact that they lived in the same conditions and suffered from the same levels of poverty as other families who had malnourished children. They found that the successful families were supplementing their diets with shrimps, crabs, and sweet potato greens, easily and freely found in the local rice paddies. These were not foods typically fed to children, but Sternin and Choo latched onto these successful practices and gradually created opportunities for the successful families to spread these practices throughout their villages (Sternin and Choo, 2000).

Sternin and Choo called this approach “positive deviancy.†By finding those representatives from the population who were able to succeed in the existing, local conditions and creating opportunities for those positive deviants to spread their successful practices throughout the community, Sternin and Choo were able to achieve significantly higher levels of success than other external agents who attempted to bring in their own prescriptive solutions. A similar approach would serve schools well as they look for qualified study-group facilitators. Study groups allow for the dissemination of information from individual to individual, in fact, that is their primary purpose. After selecting relevant topics for the study group, a school’s next step is to determine those individuals in the school who are already doing an exceptional job in those areas; in other words, the school needs to find the positive deviants. If a high school has recently moved to a block schedule and some teachers are struggling with adapting their former instructional practices to the longer time blocks, the school should identify the teachers who have already adapted successfully and arrange for them to become study-group facilitators. While these teachers may require some support to identify appropriate materials and create an effective study group structure, their expertise eliminates the need to rely on external topic experts. In the words of PositiveDeviance, “An essential element of the process, increasing the likelihood of sustained impact, [is] ownership and management of the process by the community rather than by external experts†(Positive deviance and nutrition in Viet Nam, 2003).

Ensuring a Positive and Productive Process

Once study-group topics have been chosen and study-group facilitators have been identified, the process needs to be given structure. The best way to ensure structure is to set clear expectations, provide facilitators with the necessary resources, and monitor and support the process on an ongoing basis.

The first step is to set clear expectations with all participating staff. This means answering a few key questions. For what study-group outcomes or deliverables will teachers be held responsible? For example, will all teachers be expected to implement a WebQuest in their classrooms? Will each teacher turn in a reflection every week? How frequently will study groups meet, and how long will meetings last? What expectations will be set for study group facilitators, and how will the facilitators be supported? What types of rewards or incentives will be offered to teachers (for example, continuing education credits) and to facilitators (for example, a free Saturday luncheon)? How will the school community measure if the study groups have had a positive effect on teacher practices and student achievement? For example, will surveys be distributed to teachers? Will a school-wide work fair be held? Will teacher-made WebQuests be published on the school’s Web site?

After the school has clarified the expectations for facilitators, it must ensure that facilitators are supported throughout the study-group process. This should include some initial training in group facilitation, which would ideally involve taking facilitators through their own study-group process before taking the practice school-wide, and must definitely include resources and resource templates (e.g., meeting agenda templates, lists of online resources, sample e-mails to send to group members, etc.). While facilitators should have the freedom and flexibility to modify resources and plans to fit the needs of their individual study groups (in fact, positive unanticipated consequences often result from modifying the “standard†plan), these modifications should occur within the larger framework of clear expectations and accountability. And finally, facilitators will need ongoing support and backing from administration throughout the process, including opportunities to meet with other facilitators to share challenges and best practices.

Integrating Study Groups into a Larger School-wide Vision of Professional Growth

If study groups are seen as nothing more than a nice, hands-off way to provide some professional growth opportunities for teachers, then they will never be anything more than a potentially pleasant and possibly rewarding blip on the school-wide radar screen. For true impact, study groups need to become a large component of professional practice in a school, resting on the underlying belief that structured communication and collaboration, coupled with high professional expectations and accountability, are the true tenets of the kind of powerful organizational growth that results in improved student achievement.

Email: Parry Graham


Some thoughts about webquests. Retrieved January 3, 2003.

How to succeed with webquests. TechLearning. Retrieved January 21, 2003.

Positive Deviance and Nutrition in Viet Nam. Retrieved March 31, 2003.

Computer-based technology and learning: Evolving uses and expectations. Retrieved January 7, 2003.

Sternin, J., & and Choo, R. (2000, January–February). The power of positive deviance. Harvard Business Review, 14–15.

Tack, D, & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward Utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College.