When people think of social networks and studying they usually view these services as a way to procrastinate, but logging on can actually help students boost their grade point average if used correctly.

Using social networks to create study groups is becoming more popular. Like traditional groups, online study forums are a place to share information and collaborate. But in order to be effective and avoid drifting into an off-topic chat session, they need to be well organized.

Students looking to form an online study group have several options. “Facebook is the venue of choice right now,” says Alisa Johnson, the dean of enrolment management at Unity College in Unity, Maine. “Part of the reason for that is because more than half of our students already have an account.”

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But Twitter is gaining ground as well, according to Brooks Doherty, dean of faculty at Rasmussen College in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Some professors use Twitter to send regular class updates and students have used it to tag and share information with others, he shared.

Determine which social networking tool you feel most familiar with is the first step. Then create a closed, invitation-only group, designed either for a specific course or even an individual test or assignment, Doherty said.

Be certain to clearly outline your expectations for the group and the commitment necessary to participate, said Brenda Sadler, dean of student advising at American InterContinental University Online, in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Try to limit the size of the group to between four and six students to allow for good discussions.

Whenever possible, involve the instructor of the course, said Johnson. The instructor can either serve as the group administrator or provide you with a list of students who might want to join.

The role of administrator is a critical to the success of a group, and anyone who signs on for the job should know the position comes with a substantial time commitment. A strong administrator should log in daily or weekly to post relevant content, including links and reading material. Some professors in health care specialties at Rasmussen are even posting videos of their more complex lectures, according to Doherty.

Keep topics well organized to head off aimless chatter. Use the course syllabus to chart out how the group will progress week-by-week to keep discussions on track, Johnson advised. Students who choose to work on Facebook can use the wall to check in, create tabs for discussion topics and use boxes to add links and information.

It’s important to remember that the study group is not a social site; it is an academic exercise. Steer clear of casual language and avoid code. “This is not the place to ‘LOL’ about last night’s party,” Doherty said.

Well-organized online study groups can provide tools and support for students looking to get ahead. “Higher education is moving toward an online realm. Social networking is really an opportunity to bridge the gap between that online world and the brick and mortar campus,” Doherty said.