Learning Circles - Making good use of the social capital of the students

Author Information
Margaret Riel
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Pepperdine University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

A learning circle is a highly interactive, participatory structure for organizing group work in online courses.  The goal is to build, share, and express knowledge though a process of open dialogue and deep reflection around issues or problems with a focus on a shared outcome.  Online learning circles take advantage of social networking tools to manage collaborative work over distances following a timeline from the open to close of the circle.  Circles have a final project which collects the shared knowledge generated during the interactions. 

Productive group interaction doesn't know happen without planning.  People might be inherently social but biology doesn't prepare people  to work effectively in groups.  Productive group work requires structured interaction.  Learning circles is a structured form of collaboration that balances the value of individual ownership with collective responsibility for accomplishing shared learning goals. Learning circles have been used effectively in to support learning in online contexts with learners of all ages. 

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

 Students are placed in learning circles with 4-8 students in a circle.  The students meet weekly sometimes with their professor and sometimes on their own.  Meeting without the professor is important as it encourages the students to take responsibility for the meetings.   Each member of the circle leads one of the set of projects that are accomplished by the group.  This balances individual ownership with group responsibility.  Everyone in the group is responsible for the quality of the circle projects.  But each member is responsible for organizing and leading the circle work for one of the projects.  This way the group has many leaders and everyone has the reciprocal responsibility to work on the quality of each of the circle projects.

 In a synchronous online meeting, there is a short introductory phase where students connect and share short summaries of what has taken place over the week with respect to the work.  Then each student has  a ten minute session on the project they are leading, checking to see what others have done or can offer to help, to move the project forward.  When each person has had an opportunity to lead the group, there is a lighting reflection period where each person indicates the most important learning they will take from the session. 

Honoring the collective efforts to build knowledge, and trusting the process to create deeper understanding -- the heart of learning circles--students work together on projects. The collaborative approach to circle management in online Learning Circles helps students to design learning activities to extend knowledge and skills.


Online learning circle model is described by a (1) set of defining dimensions, (2) norms that support the interaction; and  (3) the phase structure that guides the process.  

1) The online learning circle model is defined by six characteristics:

  • Diversity of Participants
  • Distributed  Leadership
  • Knowledge Building Dialogue
  • Centrality of Project-based Work
  • Phase structure for interaction
  • Final group Shared Product


2) Norms that Guide Learning Circle Interaction

Norms are implicit rules that develop among group of people which guide behavior. In setting up learning circles, the facilitator needs to think about ways to develop these norms. Talking about norms is one of making them explicit but one of the most effective way of setting norms is through modeling them. Where circumstances allow, the first meeting of the circle should be in person. It is much easier to develop these practices and habits when there is shared experiences in a face to face setting. However, the best use of this time might be to engage in activities that surfaces some of the issues that result in norm setting by the group. 


  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Open and Flexible Approach to Thinking
  • Individual Responsibility 
  • Group Reciprocity

Phase Structure Guides Interaction

Learning Circles have a beginning, a set of steps and an end, which distinguishes them from other forms of community development.  The first phase begins with the organization of the circle. Circle size is determined by balancing the need for diversity of perspectives with opportunities for interaction. The circle opens with activities to build trust and cohesion, moves to framing the projects, is followed by shared work on the projects, and  then exhibitions or sharing of completed work leads to the end of the circle. At the end of a learning circle, the participants often join a new circle if they choose to continue and thus repeat the above cycle.   The timeline and deadlines are an important part of the Learning Circle experience.  While this dimension resulted from years of empirical experience, social networking theory can be invoked to explain why this is evolved as a practice of learning circles. Granovetter  (1973) described the strength of weak ties in a social network.  The people in our close networks have already shared what they know or provided the help needed, but those who are a bit more distant are likely to be of more value as they have unknown connections.  Learning circles mine the strength of weak ties by continually working with people who are not immediately a part of one’s working group. That is why the diversity of the participants is such an important part of the learning circle structure.

 Getting Ready 

  1. Opening the Circles

  2. Defining the Set of Projects

  3. Working on the Projects

  4. Sharing the Outcomes

  5.  Closing the circle


The outcome of the learning circle is a set of texts, media, or web documents summarizing the circle collaboration.  The use of learning circles in different contexts with different groups of students will shape the phase structure for learning circles and the form and content of the projects.  


The learning circles model is described in detail at onlinelearningcircles.org.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

In course evaluations year after year, when students are given an opportunity to add something about  the class, they describe learning circles as the most effective part of their course and their learning experience.   In the learning circle survey, 80-90% of the students say that learning circle interaction on multiple projects was was more effective in increasing their skill and knowledge as well as the quality of their project than working alone, only on their own projects. From an instructors point of view, watching students work collaboratively to support each other's learning makes the course more rewarding.  There is a shift in the role of  instructor role towards feedback and evaluation as the students are working a team to shape ideas.

The other very strong finding over the years has to do with the distributive leadership structure of the learning circles.  Students were asked if they felt that there was enough structure and 83% either agreed or strongly agreed.   And the negative-- learning circles would be more effective with assigned leaders--was also asked and 87% disagreed or strongly disagreed.  When working in pairs was suggested as a better alternative to learning circles, 73% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement.  And when it was suggested that learning circles were a great way to connect socially but were not effective in supporting their work, in most years,  100% of the students disagree with this statement. 

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

 This practice addresses a number of the pillars,  but centers on learning effectiveness with a secondary influence on teacher and  student satisfaction.   Students  find that putting their work up for public examination, while stressfull, is a power way to improve the quality and develop new skills. Where attention has been taken to create trust and respect, this process is very effective. Learning Circles increase the learning of students and professors.  By drawing on the resources and life experiences of the students,  the range of expertise is greatly increased.  The professor learns from the students while supporting their learning. It is cost effective in that it increases the time that students meet and learn, without adding more classtime hours for the professor.  It scales to large numbers,  although there does need to be some support for students as they work.  Since the activity is both synchronous and asynchronous in forums, students have ready access.  The tools that are now freely available make this form of collaboration easy to arrange. 


Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

 Students use Google+ and etherpad (ietherpad) to meet each week in learning circles.  Google+ allows them to see each other and share visual tools. Etherpad makes it possible for everyone to be engaged in the discussion at the same time.  While one person is talking the other people are typing-- both to record what is said and to add ideas, links and resources to the discussion.  This way everyone is fully engaged in the process. Students also work in the course forums so the interaction is both synchronous and asynchronous.  

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

 There are no additional course costs for the use of learning circles.  While students meet weekly,  about 2/3 of the meetings are without the instructor. It is similar to breaking up a face-to-face class into small group with the professor spending some of the class time with each group.  In this case the circles are meeting online and the professor taps in to different groups each week. 

References, supporting documents: 


 The learning circles model is described in detail with different groups of learner at different ages at onlinelearningcircles.org.

The two university examples are:

 The Action Research Course

Learning Circles are an effective way to have students support one another in the process of doing action research. The diversity in this case comes from the different careers of the people in the program who comes from different sectors of employment-- education,government, corporate, service , and organizational. For each of three 14-week sessions, students work in different learning circles to develop plans and carry out action research in their workplace.  The students plan together, help each other search for resources,  experimentation, evidence collection and analysis and through the final writing and presenting phase.  They are collectively responsible for the quality of action research projects  in their group. They meet for one hour weekly with the professor joining the circle every third meeting. 

 The Global Conversations Course

This course offered by a coalition of different universities, joins students from diverse countries and uses learning circles to foster a global,  collaborative effort to address societal and environmental problems. Participants have the opportunity to collect diverse information and opinions, think critically about the effects of globalization, and propose ways to address global problems.  The learning circle model gives the students a experience of being a leader of their group’s project, and a contributor the other projects in their circle. Students “meet” virtually with  circle regularly during the eight weeks of the course. Learning Circles encourage collaborative and democratic education as students work to help their classmates in the Circles to address common concerns that transcend borders. While facilitators are involved, the real learning comes from the efforts of the circle members to share information and educate each other.



Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Margaret Riel
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