GradeGuru: Bringing peer-support and collaboration to online learning with web 2.0

Award Winner: 
2010 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Vendor EPs
Author Information
Emily Sawtell, Senior Director of Student Innovations, McGraw-Hill Higher Education
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
hundreds of universities across the US and UK
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Through ethnographic research into student study habits and their use of technology, the idea was born for a collaborative online application that translates students’ skills in using social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like) into constructive behaviors within an educational context. This web 2.0 study-tool is called GradeGuru, a free knowledge sharing network, where college students can share and find class-specific study materials, collaborate, engage in peer-review and build their academic reputations to earn rewards, internships and career opportunities. GradeGuru’s university and class specific communities provide a relevant and intuitive social learning environment for thousands of students from over 300 universities. In many ways, the effective practitioners here are students - either with instructor guidance/ assistance or directly, students are using GradeGuru to help themselves:

  • Accessing peer-support and a class community from whom they can learn and get constructive feedback
  • Improving their study methods by learning from others
  • Increasing their confidence and engagement in the course by sharing with others
  • Exposing themselves to multiple ways of thinking about course concepts
  • Building a sense of their own academic achievements, progress and profile


Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

GradeGuru is facilitating the practice of knowledge sharing, peer support and online study groups. Students are increasing their exposure to course-specific materials, getting a fellow learners’ perspective, giving thoughtful feedback on each others’ study materials, receiving encouragement and increasing retention.


This web 2.0 tool offers students access to a breadth of peer-generated study materials:

          Mind-maps showing their understanding of how concepts hang together

          Lecture notes with their interpretation and follow-up questions

          Study guides, capturing the key themes of the course

          Extra readings and bibliographies

          Other materials that helped them succeed in the course, such as flash cards and pneumonic devices


Students on GradeGuru are:

  • Exploring other students’ study methods and materials from peers whose learning style works for them, from amongst their classmates and/ or other students in similar courses across the country. Students are getting ideas for improving their study methods, finding new ways of preparing for lessons and assessments, seeking inspiration and determining what’s expected in their classes to build their confidence.
  • Sharing their own study guides and materials to help others, giving their perspective on how the course concepts hang together, what they think is important and their methods for absorbing and applying the concepts.
  • Receiving constructive feedback from their peers on how to improve or how else they might approach a concept.
  • Building your academic status and confidence through peer-recognition. The more students contribute materials and ideas, the more feedback they receive and the better their chances of becoming a peer-recognized “Guru.” As Gurus and recognized thought leaders in their study methods, these students are offered career opportunities through the site and its corporate partners, including internships and full-time positions.
  • Students are making correct academic citations a part of their ongoing everyday practice using our Citation Manager tool which automatically helps them capture and structure their sources.


Professors are encouraging the use of the site by:

  • Giving students extra credit for contributing study materials and feedback
  • Including GradeGuru in their syllabus and curriculum, for example, requiring students to share their class notes, share their study guides and requiring feedback on student work


Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

 GradeGuru’s effectiveness has been and continues to be measured in several ways with various metrics:


1)       Member Surveys and Focus Groups: over the last 18 months we engaged an objective, external Professor of Education to conduct independent research into the impact GradeGuru is having on students’ study habits. We intend to look at this data both longitudinally and point-in-time. The analysis of this research is being completed presently, but the early output shows GradeGuru has had an overwhelming positive impact and effect on student behaviors and sentiment towards their course work. We will be publishing the full research approach and findings in the Fall, but have included a summary of high-level preliminary findings below.

2)       Site Statistics: the growth of the site is testament to its reception by students and faculty. GradeGuru has very high page-views, long average site visit durations and very low bounce rates versus other web-sites; indicating our visitors are impressed when they come across the site, and once they become members they visit often, and engage deeply with the content and tool

3)       Unsolicited feedback: students often contact us directly through the site to express their opinions, give us suggestions on how the site can be improved, etc. Some quotes from these emails are shared below in “How this practice improves the pillars” – collectively they indicate that students’ practice of using GradeGuru is having a positive effect on their study habits, their engagement with the concepts and their self-perception in an academic context.


Early Findings from Our Member Research Survey*

* Please refer to the Supporting Documents section for research approach and validity details


Our early findings show directional support for some of hypotheses on the value GradeGuru will add for students. Wheeler in 2002 established that “Students feel they gain more out of collaborative discussions via electronic communication as it is faster and more efficient than current methods.” Our findings support this claim and more specifically begin to indicate the effect GradeGuru is having on student outcomes, including:

  • Increased levels of student engagement with course concepts: Our hypothesis was that students may be more engaged in preparing and creating their study materials and thus more engaged with course concepts when they know other students will be reviewing their work. In our survey 79% of regular GradeGuru contributors** and 66% of students who had ever contributed materials to the site** agreed** or strongly agreed** that “Because I share my notes, I am more careful when putting my notes together.” 77% of regular users of the site** and 66% of students who had used materials on the site at least once respectively agreed or strongly agrees that “Looking at other students’ notes on GradeGuru gives me new ideas for my classes.”
  • Greater student confidence with their coursework: For many years educational researchers have been studying the implications of student collaboration and its potential to improve student self-perceptions. (Wheeler 2002). 70% and 59% of regular contributors and students who have contributed at least once respectively agreed or strongly agreed that “Knowing other people are looking at my notes makes me feel proud.” 57% of regular users agree or strong agree that “Knowing I can refer to notes on GradeGuru makes me less anxious about my classes.”
  • Increased peer-support: 99% of regular users of the site and 61% of students who have ever used the site agree or strongly agree that “Seeing the feedback and ratings on notes other students have posted to GradeGuru has been helpful for studying purposes”, strongly suggesting that students are reflecting on how their classmates are approaching their studying and on how their peers perceive those methods. It is interesting that students look at feedback on others’ work has been even more helpful than direct feedback – 56% of regular contributors and 50% of those who ever contributed agreed or strongly agreed that “Getting feedback and ratings on notes I've uploaded to GradeGuru has been helpful for studying purposes.” This offers early directional support for our assertion about the importance of open feedback and access to all peer-review of all materials, not just one-to-one review approaches.
  • Improved student performance: 68% of regular and occasional users agreed or strongly agreed that “When I look at other students’ notes I get ideas for improving my study methods.” 79% of regular users agreed or strongly agreed that “GradeGuru is helpful when I don’t understand something.” 68% of regular GradeGuru users and 58% who had used the site once or more agreed or strongly agreed that “Looking at other students’ notes on GradeGuru helps me work out what is important in the course.” 76% and 67% respectively strongly agreed or agreed that “GradeGuru is helpful when I don’t know where to start.” 
  • Summary of the Perspective of Students who Access Other Students' Study Materials on GradeGuru




    % of Students who Regularly Use Other Students' Materials on GradeGuru Who Agree or Strongly Agree with the Statement


    **Includes users who visit monthly, weekly or daily to view notes.
    Agree and strongly agree were options 1 and 2 on a 5 point scale.



    Looking at other students’ notes on GradeGuru gives me new ideas for my classes


    reading other students' notes posted to GradeGuru has been helpful for studying purposes.


    When I look at other students’ notes I get ideas for improving my study methods


    Looking at other students’ notes on GradeGuru helps me work out what is important in the course


    GradeGuru is helpful when I don’t understand something


    Knowing I can refer to notes on GradeGuru makes me less anxious about my classes


    GradeGuru is helpful when I don’t know where to start


    Seeing the feedback and ratings on notes other students have posted to GradeGuru has been helpful for studying purposes


    Control question: Looking at other students’ notes on GradeGuru makes me feel overwhelmed


    Control question: Looking at other students’ notes on GradeGuru makes me confused


    Control Question: I do not like looking at other students’ notes


  • Summary of the Perspective of Students who Share Their Study Materials on GradeGuru






    % of Regular Contributors of Notes that Agree or strongly agree with the statement

    % of Students who have contributed notes once or more who Agree/ Strongly agree


    Includes users who share notes monthly, weekly or daily to view notes
    Agree and strongly agree were options 1 and 2 on a 5 point scale

    Agree and strongly agree were options 1 and 2 on a 5 point scale




    Knowing other people are looking at my notes makes me feel proud



    Getting feedback and ratings on notes I've uploaded to GradeGuru has been helpful for studying purposes



    Because I share my notes, I am more careful when putting my notes together



    Control question: Sharing my notes has no impact on my studying




How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Access: GradeGuru ensures all students, including non-traditional, mature age, part-time students and those in distance learning/ online courses get equal access to peer-support. Particularly where students do not have a face-to-face relationship with their peers, or naturally developed friendships in an on-campus environment, the lack of support and community engagement can result in students feeling isolated. GradeGuru brings class communities, knowledge sharing and peer-feedback to students who might not otherwise have access to these opportunities. It makes academic collaboration more efficient even for those in traditional classroom settings. Some students have always found ways to get help from their peers, forming study groups etc. Others have been left out. GradeGuru makes sure everyone has equal access to shared knowledge and support.


Faculty satisfaction: GradeGuru is in many ways about students helping each other and themselves. The site is very intuitive and requires little to no faculty support or training. It was built using the internet concepts students and many faculty are already familiar with – sharing documents (like sharing photos on Facebook), sharing ideas (like on blogs), giving ratings and feedback (like on Amazon, eBay, major press/ media sites and blog commentary), building up status and a profile (like on Facebook, Experts Exchange, Yelp and other social media sites). Even for faculty who are not comfortable with technology, it is a tool they can share with their students just by distributing the URL and let students work it out for themselves. Of course for interested faculty, GradeGuru runs WebEx sessions, has 24 hour turn around support and also has a network of campus ambassadors, students who are well versed on the site and are ready to answer faculty and peer questions. GradeGuru is moreover a time and cost effective way for faulty to be able to facilitate additional support in their classrooms in an intimidation-free environment. Hundreds of faculty have taken an explicit interest in GradeGuru and are encouraging its use amongst their students.


Learning effectiveness: GradeGuru helps build a sense of connection and community for students across their classes and offers alternative perspectives, increasing students’ time spent with learning concepts and materials. By rewarding students for productive study habits, GradeGuru increases their engagement and their concentration and pride in creating their own learning materials. Giving peer-feedback gets students reflecting on the concepts and methods and viewing receiving feedback helps students assess and review. We hypothesize that both the peer-to-peer, voyeuristic nature of the class communities and the support/ comradely feel of the site combine to make it compelling.



Scale: GradeGuru is free and accessed through a web-browser. It is easily scalable. GradeGuru is already nationwide present in 300+ US universities (as well as active in the UK). In terms of GradeGuru’s role in helping institutions scale their online courses, GradeGuru helps take on some of the support role that otherwise falls to faculty and adjuncts – leveraging the other students in the class. While there is no substitute for instructor contact, having peer-support as an alternative/ back-up or in addition makes for engaged and successful students by cost-effective means.



Student Satisfaction: The feedback from students on how GradeGuru is impacting their studies has been overwhelmingly positive. Our survey data indicates GradeGuru makes students feel more confident about their courses; it helps them when they don’t understand something, easing the frustration that can occur if students are stuck and it gives them new ideas for their classes. Our more qualitative feedback indicates students really enjoy their site experience and the sense of achievement they get from being awarded the status of “Guru.”

Quotes derived from emails from our student members:

  • “I enjoy GradeGuru very much. It is a very unique site that really helps many students stay on top of their classes.” Bowling Green State University student
  • “I really appreciate this service. It allows me to connect with other students and get help from a student's perspective, which is often easier to identify with than that of a professor.” Saint Louis University student
  •  “I am glad that I contributed because it has improved my study habits.” University of Michigan student
  •  “It’s nice to see the styles other students use when taking notes. It shows me what is effective and how I can incorporate better note-taking techniques into my own studying.” University of Wisconsin student
  • “I think the rewards program is a great tool in helping students understand that their hard work will pay off. It provides an incentive for students to contribute to the site and to ultimately help their peers.”  Penn State student
  • “As a senior in college, I am currently looking for a full time job after graduation. With that being said, the Guru Careers program is a great way to hear about job opportunities and network with professionals in my field of study.” University of Delaware student
  • “I am happy I get to impact some student out there that may learn a thing or two from my acting notes.” New York University student
  • “I think it’s a great idea to have students sharing notes-and I love being able to look at stuff other kids have written and compare that to my own ideas.” University of Illinois student
  • “Knowing that I will be uploading my notes onto GradeGuru has forced me to take better and more detail oriented notes. Since my notes have increased in quality, my grades have gone up.” University of Delaware student
  • “GradeGuru has helped me maintain my grades because of the valuable resources it has to offer. All of the notes and tools I can use really help me when it is time to study for an exam.” Jenn Sague, Penn State
  • Other student feedback, university/ college unknown:
    • “GradeGuru made me think more carefully about the way I take notes and organize my exam preparation.”
    •  “GradeGuru is a great tools for students by students. It makes me feel good to know that I contributed to the success of other students in courses that I have already taken.”


Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

 The only equipment needed is a computer with internet access, a browser and a flash reader which can be downloaded for free. Part of the functionality of GradeGuru is that it takes content of any format and renders it in flash - so students and faculty can share materials created with any application they usually work in (word processors, mind mapping tools, flash card applications, graphical tools, quantitative tools, etc) and everyone else can view those materials through GradeGuru without needing that application.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

  Access to GradeGuru and its associated tools is free. Moreover, getting started is simple and using the site is very intuitive – in our experience it requires no training. Students can set up an account in under a minute or just login using their existing Facebook account. Their class communities are ready and waiting – no cost, limited set-up.

References, supporting documents: 

 Details of the above survey results are yet to be published – this data represents our early analysis of our survey, to which there were a total of 732 undergraduate student respondents from across the US at a spectrum of 2 year and 4 year universities, in a wide range of majors, including freshman to seniors. Of these surveyed students, 154 were in the category of regular contributors of student materials to the site** as defined above, 433 had contributed to the site once or more**, 189 were regular users of others’ study materials on the site** as defined above and 451 had used other students’ materials once**. The survey was conducted and data was collected by an external party. This data represents the findings of survey 3. The final research report will include investigation into the relationship between students’ uses of GradeGuru and their studying strategies and attitudes at three time points across three surveys: 1) baseline (beginning of academic year 2009), 2) mid-year and 3) end of academic year.



Wheeler, M. (2002), Can Web-Based Environments Talk the Talk?, Sheffield Hallam University, 2002


Other Comments: 

 Given its innovative use of web 2.0 technologies for education, GradeGuru has been much discussed in the press and in academic circles. For example:


Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Angela Santiago
Email this contact:
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Emily Sawtell
Email contact 2: