Study Circles

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What they are

Study Circles  are voluntary, self-organizing adult education groups of 5-20 people who meet to explore a subject, often a critical social issue. 

See 1. Learning section for background models

How they Work

Each meeting commonly lasts 2-3 hours and is directed by a moderator whose role is to aid a lively but focused dialogue

Between meetings participants read materials they were given at the end of the last meeting.   These materials are used as springboards for dialogue, not as authoritative conclusions. 

The materials are usually compiled by the sponsor or organizer of the particular study circle; but groups who want to form a study circle on a particular topic can create their own materials or get ready-to-use packs from organizations like The Study Circle Resource Center.

Why they Work

By encouraging people to formulate their own ideas about issues and to share them with others, the study circle process helps overcome people's lack of information and feelings of inadequacy in the face of complex problems.

Very Multi-Functional 

Study circles, being small, democratic and non-expert, can be adapted to virtually any use.    Civic organizations, activists, businesses, unions, churches, discussion groups and governments can all sponsor (and have sponsored) study circles to educate and activate people about social issues. Millions of citizens use study circles.


Study circles were born in New York in the 1870s.   By their peak in 1915, 700,000 people were participating in 15,000 study circles in the U.S. 

The idea was carried to Sweden by union, co-op, and temperance organizers and by the fledgeling Social Democratic Party to educate their followers. Study circles flourished in Sweden even as it died away in the U.S. 

Today nearly three million Swedes participate in over 300,000 study circles annually, most funded (but not controlled) by the government with a per-participant subsidy.     

Swedish communities have even convened study circles to work through major issues facing their towns, with study circle participants turning into activists who then have a significant impact on events. 

The U.S. is now blooming with renewed interest in study circles. In 1992, for example, in the small city of Lima Ohio, the Mayor's Office, Ohio State University and a multi-racial Clergy Task Force initiated grassroots study circles on race relations involving hundreds of people. 

These were so successful that participants created further waves of study circles involving businesses, neighborhood associations and schools -- and the next year created a conference in which 40 community leaders from around the Midwest came to learn how to create community-wide dialogues on race in their own cities, triggering a movement that has now grown nation-wide.

Team Based Learning

A good example of students learning through a college study group: