White Paper: An Experience with Learning Circles

By: Katherine Lato & Barry Glicklich

Original release: 2/27/18


Ever since we learned about peer-to-peer learning circles at the June 2016  NDIA conference, we’ve discussed setting one up since P2PU provides an open source toolkit for running learning circles. One of the things we noted after the conference was that “P2PU has found a much-higher success rate of people taking online classes in a learning circle instead of on their own.” We can heartily endorse that finding, having finished our five-week session with all seven original participants having completed all of the course material. The majority said that it was the weekly class get-togethers that helped motivate them to keep doing the course material and practicing. One participant mentioned two months later that while she had signed up for  two other courses from Future Learn, she hadn’t completed either and to let her know when I scheduled another peer-to-peer course. She gave full credit to the weekly meetings for her completing the earlier course.

Since we opted to meet in our living room, we looked for participants amongst our friends and tried to pick a topic that would be of interest to people we knew. We also wanted something that was at least four weeks long and that was offered in a time frame that fit with our schedule which had six or seven Monday evenings free starting in mid-November. We found Maintaining a Mindful Life, a four-week class to learn how to apply mindfulness techniques to improve communication, relationships and emotional health from a site called Future Learn.

Though we knew all the participants, they did not all know each other, so the dynamics of group formation were at play despite the home-based locale. We planned on meeting five times, so that that first meeting could be about how the peer-to-peer learning worked, setting expectations, give people the chance to meet each other, and we could do a simple exercise or two together.

We mailed out the expectations for participants:

  • Can commit to meeting weekly on Monday nights from  7:30 – 9:00 for five weeks to attend discussions
  • Will keep up with the class — read material, watch videos, try exercises weekly.
  • Can bring  laptop or other device that can access the course material if you have a question or a specific area you’d like to discuss.
  • No cost.
  • Sign up for the on-line class
  • Sign up for the learning circle

Since we were looking for 5-12 people to participate, we sent out invitations to a number of groups that we belong to, and mentioned it to friends. We also posted the class on the Learning Circle website, but didn’t receive any enrollment through that mechanism. We had seven participants including ourselves. We offered that people could invite someone else who might be interested, just asked that it was someone they knew personally since we were meeting at our house.

The experience

We had the first session before anyone was expected to take the class material, which started things off on a  relaxed footing.  It was a good first meeting with people willing to take ownership of how the class interactions unfolded as a group. We agreed to a modified learning circle, where participants did most of the work outside the meeting, with occasional group activities. For the first get-together, we watched a video and did a mindfulness meditation. The participatory part of it was well received. People agreed to rotate who brought food treats.

Stuff that worked:

  1. Meeting at our house – made it easy and comfortable and cozy
  2. Doing most of the class work on our own.
  3. Having the first session before the class officially started. People commented afterward that it really took the pressure off to know that the first session was about getting started, that they weren’t expected to do anything except show up.
  4. Using the week by week material from p2pu worked well, with skipping things that didn’t apply and not being rigid about it.
  5. Writing down our goals during a session and sending them out to people, then coming back to them the following week and again during the last week. This also made the activity on victories work better.
  6. Email summaries and reminders to the group. (These were mostly done outside the p2pu site.)
  7. Having all class material available to participants throughout the class sessions. NOTE: This depends on the provider of the course material. Some provide the material in increments, and some will disenroll students who haven’t completed a certain number of lessons within a time-frame. Facilitator should pay close attention to this.
  8. Sharing experiences as a group with people chiming in with additional comments. We didn’t have to formally go around the room, everyone participated, some more than others, but that was personal choice. Everyone had the opportunity to speak if they wanted it. (It helped that the course we were taking stressed mindful communication.)
  9. The group was a good one. This can be key, as a single participant can destroy the group dynamics and significantly detract from the experience. Managing this situation can be a real challenge when it occurs.
  10. The facilitator did a good job keeping the discussions on track without being heavy-handed. She discovered that the amount of work involved was more than she had expected, given the “peer to peer” nature, but incorporating the suggestions from the recipe card required keeping an eye on that as well as the course material discussion and group dynamics. This was also complicated by trying to keep notes on the experience for this paper.
  11. Four to six weeks was a good class duration, less than four weeks would have been too short to bond. More than six and people might not have been willing to commit.
  12. P2PU and the facilitator community were both very supportive and encouraging of us to discuss issues and approaches to resolving those.

Stuff that didn’t work:

  1. While it is a good framework, the material does require tailoring, especially for some classes. It seemed that the amount of work required was undersold. There was a clear expectation that the facilitator should not be talking any more than other participants, but that wasn’t true, especially if the facilitator was also taking the class (and so had personal comments to make.) The group did require a bit of leading, not being taught, but facilitating does require talking and directing at times.The material made the facilitator feel that she was doing something wrong since the group wasn’t taking charge, but if we wanted to follow the recipe cards, someone had to keep the group on track with that information and be prepared by knowing which parts of it didn’t apply.
  2. There was a brief fluke that has since been corrected by p2pu that resulted in participants getting a 6 a.m. text message on a Sunday morning about the class (which was at 7:15 on Monday evenings, so people mainly didn’t understand why it was at 6 a.m.)
  3. It would be nice if the P2PU system allowed for co-facilitators without sharing a single login account.
  4. Couldn’t use the Learning Circle logins to communicate among participants, so we used a separate email and google document system.
  5. Recording feedback to the Learning Circle that was included in an automatic email that included a link to ‘are you coming?’ felt like we were pestering people. We just assumed they were coming and they would let us know if they couldn’t make it. That only happened twice and both times it was at the last minute. We had exchanged text numbers with participants and the host so people would know about any cancellation, or if they couldn’t make it.
  6. For our implementation, we didn’t need everyone to bring their own laptops and headphones. The online class had videos that we could display on the television. The practicing was doing meditations, which we also could do best as a group.
  7. The session on learning from failures was difficult to apply. We agree with the concept, but we didn’t really find it helpful and struggled with that a bit.
  8. The online survey arrived after we were done meeting. Luckily, we had scheduled a follow-up meeting so we could discuss it as a group and share comments, but we were confused during the last meeting since the website had a link to a pdf document, but not an online survey. I suggest having it as an option that people can click on, not just be sent afterward.

Stuff that worked for a while:

  1. Formally stating what worked and what didn’t work got less useful after two or three times. Comments were all about what had worked, or very specific minor things–like one participant should sit on a better chair. The first time, and even the second, this was good, but it’s not really needed every week if things aren’t changing.
  2. Relying on the recipe cards. Being a facilitator is more work than expected from the recipe cards. The facilitator had read through the pdf file months earlier, and glanced over it prior to starting this class, but it wasn’t easy to have the conversation proceed naturally and still cover the material on the recipe cards. Some of the material only applied to a computer course or a language course or something else with an end product that can be measured. It was important to almost role-play the session ahead of time to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t, so the session proceeded more naturally.

As mentioned earlier, we can heartily endorse the finding that P2PU has found a much-higher success rate of people taking online classes in a learning circle instead of on their own. The  majority of our participants said that it was the weekly class get-togethers that helped motivate them to keep doing the course material and practicing. One participant mentioned two months later that while she had signed up for  two other courses from Future Learn, she hadn’t completed either. She asked to be informed when we  scheduled another peer-to-peer course. She gave full credit to the weekly meetings for her completing the earlier course.