Short form: How should one lead a collaborative "book study group" amongst one's peers, particularly when the leader does not have deep prior knowledge of the book?

Long form: I'm an undergraduate CS student (rising junior). In the remaining time before I graduate, I thought it would be a fun idea to read a volume of Knuth's Art of Computer Programming each semester and work some of the problems. Since I know others in the department might be interested in studying this work, I decided I would organize a "book club" where we read ~40-50 pages a week and then meet up to discuss what we read and/or solutions to exercises that we have solved.

So, my biggest question is: Besides solutions to exercises in the book or clarifications on what we read, what else should or could be discussed during our weekly meetings?

There are plenty of resources online about "how to lead a book club," but they all primarily focus on literature/story analysis, etc., not something suited for scientific writing. Many book clubs will have a time where they read a chapter aloud, which also is not applicable to Knuth's work. I feel as though I'm searching for the wrong term when I use the phrase "book club." Is there a standard term for this form of study group that I could use in searches?

Furthermore, I have not read AoCP before. Thus, I don't have a strong basis of knowledge upon which I could draw to guide discussion. Obviously, a great solution would be to get a professor or grad student who has read AoCP to act as a mentor for the group; however, I do not know if any have done so--assume for sake of this question that such a mentor is not available.

I know that issues facing undergraduates are generally off-topic here. However, I believe this situation could also be faced by a grad student or a postdoc--the primary difference would be the difficulty of the source material they are studying. I simply mention my background so readers may understand where I'm coming from.

  • I just took a best guess as far as tags go... I'm not as familiar with tags on Academia.SE as I am on Math.SE. ;-)
    – apnorton
    Jul 26, 2015 at 4:42
  • Issues facing undergrads, in my opinion, are completely relevant insofar as professors should be paying good attention to them.
    – Kwaaaaaah
    Jul 27, 2015 at 16:17
  • 4
    I would just say that it seems to me that reading a volume of AoCP, as an undergraduate, in one semester, in your spare time, with any reasonable level of depth, seems...ambitious. Jul 28, 2015 at 18:15
  • @NateEldredge Since when do I let hard work stand in my way? :P /teasing. Seriously, though, I am aware it is ambitious, but I'd much rather try for it all and find out I need to slow down than play it safe and not be stretched.
    – apnorton
    Jul 29, 2015 at 16:36
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    I would call it a Study Group. Perhaps you could circulate some discussion questions or points to the members a few days ahead of each meeting, as an ice breaker or skeletal structure. Jul 30, 2015 at 5:31

4 Answers 4


I ran one of these a few years back. Here's what we did:

  • Start by publicizing the idea with your friends/colleagues and setting up an initial meeting. You'll get a sense prior to the meeting whether there's interest. The more advertising you do here the higher chance you'll actually have a showing at the first meet.

  • At the first meet, re-state the purpose—group of people working through the ideas in the book—and decide the meeting cadence (weekly, biweekly, monthly). This is important; reading through books like this take time, and for the group to work it's critical that people actually read the content and come prepared to discuss questions. You need to give enough time to let them read, and not so much that they'll forget what they read.

    On this note, we also split the book up by chapter (we were reading [Elements of Statistical Learning](http://statweb.stanford.edu/~tibs/ElemStatLearn/, chapter splits made sense there). You may decide to split by topic or whatever else. The main idea is to ensure that everyone's on the same page, and comes to the next meet prepared to discuss the same content.

  • During the break, read up on content. As the group leader/organizer you may want to take notes on what you read to prompt discussion (itemize points covered, questions you thought of, points for discussion). Send out one or two emails reminding them about it.

  • At the first meet, come with discussion points and be prepared to lead a discussion, as it's likely no one else will take the lead. You don't have to be an expert, you just have to lead the conversation and bring up talking points. If you're not comfortable in this role, find someone who is and make sure they come to the meeting.

    I recommend you keep the meeting at 60 minutes or less. If the first one is a success the rest then just wash, rinse, repeat.

  • 1
    Agreed. Any time I tried to go in some "new direction," the best way to start is get the team together and come to a set of shared goals. From there...
    – Raydot
    Jul 28, 2015 at 18:23
  • 3
    One more point: make sure that the workload of reading, doing problems, and meeting to discuss fits everyone's schedule and energy level. Don't assume that just because you can do this, on top of your courses and social activities, doesn't mean other people will be. Start with modest work load and increase if everyone agrees. Jul 28, 2015 at 22:35

While I did not lead a book club, I was second in-command in two and I, currently, lead a study group as an undergraduate. Here's what I learned in both experiences.

On Recruiting

You should always keep in mind how many members you want. Maintaining a book club with 4 to 7 members is easy because you can get to know each member individually, and you can keep tabs on who's coming to the meetings and who isn't. Larger groups take more work, and inevitably attendance will drop because each member will be contributing less and less as the group grows, so they don't really get attached to the group.

Some people have great intuition, some don't. Follow yours if it has yielded good results before. If it hasn't, find someone on whose intuition you can trust. Example: In one of the book clubs I assisted, the leader was easily influenced by flattering. I met one of the possible recruits and I was immediately struck by how unsettling he was. He did not seem trustworthy at all. Later I discovered he had many rape accusations on him, among other illegal activities. He took over the discussion and derailed the entire group, and after I left all the female members left because of how unsafe they felt around him.

Quality is harder to achieve than quantity. Once you have achieved a number of members slightly higher than the ideal, cease recruitment and focus on improving quality of the research/debate.

Some people will drop out and that's OK. It's inevitable.

On the Group's Structure

Ideally, you should at least have a second in-command. Someone who can share some your responsibilities, who understands the group's missions and objectives, who can recruit and evaluate members, who can take decisions in your absence.

Each member will eventually show his or hers personal skills and tendencies, and you'll have to watch out for that. You might have a member particularly prone to joking and changing the subject, and that can be good if he or she raises morale when everyone is tired of debating. You might have someone who likes cooking for the group, which brings many benefits. Someone might have a great place where you can bring everyone to discuss the book. And, of course, everyone has negative points and you have to deal with that as well. And so on. Example: I recruited a young man to my research team. I already knew him for some time, and knew that he struggled with a deep depression, that he had a terrible family environment and that, while hard working, he struggled with his grades. At first, he lagged behind and was a constant drain on my time and resources, which made me reconsider my decision of accepting him on the group. As of now, though, he is our most dedicated researcher and one of the few people I always seek when in doubt about how to manage the group. He is, now, my assistant and most loyal researcher.

You don't need to know everything about the subject, but it's unforgivable if you come across as knowing more than you really do. Set your boundaries, clarify how inexperienced you are. You are an undergraduate and no one should forget that. Still, you absolutely need to know how to lead a discussion so that people expose their thoughts and experiences. You'll need some charisma for that, and it often helps if you know each member individually, even if superficially. Example: I am an undergraduate and I lead a research team. One of our members, hierarchically inferior to me, is someone with years of experience in the area. She alone has more publications than everyone else in the group together. Still, she has never questioned my authority. Because I lead the group well enough, because we work great together, and, mostly, because I know when to shut up. She knows more than I do, so I let her talk without interruptions.

Get to know you book club members. Some will be shier, some more vocal, and that has nothing to do with the quality of their contributions. Learn how to make the shy genius speak, and control the vocal minority who often derails the discussion. Control the debate so that everyone contributes, otherwise you'll be bleeding members after some sessions.

Eventually, every group develops a culture. Respect and cherish it. Example: On my research team we often organize lectures. Our marketing is often humorous, it's our opportunity to joke about our research. Most of our attendants comment that our relaxed approach to the subject matter was a deciding factor in attending our events.

On the Meeting

Prepare a list of subjects to be discussed and send it to the members some days before the meeting. After the meeting, send a summary of what was discussed and decided.

If the meeting is going for too long, make a short break to drink water, eat something and use the facilities.

Try to make the meeting someplace where you won't be interrupted or bothered. Be there some time before the expected time so you can make sure everything is there (number of chairs and tables, for instance.)

If someone is not taking part in the debate, ask for their opinion on the subject. Try to make everyone participate.


An alternative format to a book club that is well-suited for what you want to accomplish is that of a reading seminar/reading course. You may even be able to arrange to get credit for it, depending on your department/university.

The organizer of the seminar distributes the content you want to cover to the participants. Each participant is responsible for learning his or her content deeply enough to teach that material to everyone else at the assigned meetings. However, ALL participants are responsible for reading ALL of the material prior to every lecture to gain at least passing familiarity, and their role when not lecturing is to ask questions to the lecturer about anything they don't understand. Solutions to the associated exercises could be discussed immediately after the lecture, or at the beginning of the next meeting, as you prefer. My personal recommendation is to meet multiple times a week, since it's too easy to neglect readings if you only meet once a week or less.

Keep in mind:

  1. The benefit of the lecture is primarily to THE LECTURER. Teaching material to others forces you to internalize it more deeply than simply discussing exercises would. To that end, the lecturer should take the opportunity to learn how to develop simple examples to illustrate and clarify concepts and definitions.
  2. The point of asking questions, beyond learning the material, is to promote discussion, foster a collaborative environment, and, well, to learn how to ask questions. Treat this as a mandatory exercise.

I'm not a CS person, so forgive me if I'm wrong, but a quick look at the table of contents leads me to believe that the content is relatively basic and fundamental. I would expect probably any of your professors to be proficient enough at the material to mentor such a reading course, even if they haven't read this specific book. If a mentor really truly is not a possibility, you may consider having pairs or small teams of participants give each lecture, so no one gets stuck during preparation without having anyone else to talk to about their problems.


One of the topics not covered by other answers is the importance of food and departmental support. Fortunately they can be one and the same.

I would ask your department chair or director of undergraduate studies if you can have funds to help support your group.

For example, in my department we want undergrads to take these kinds of initiatives and provide a small amount of money to make sure that you guys are well fueled with pizza and soda during these sessions.

US$50/session would not be a terrible burden for most department budget lines but would likely help increase your sense of camaraderie (and perhaps productivity). Happy undergraduate majors attract other students to the major and it's a win:win for everyone.

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