Study Circles in a Malawi Secondary School: Impact on Students’ Discipline and Development

By Frank Mgungwe

    Study Circles in a Malawi Secondary School: Impact on Students’ Discipline and Development

    About the Author

    Frank Mgungwe
    Ntchisi, C, MW
    2 Articles Published
    Frank Mgungwe

    Frank Mgungwe is a Malawian development practitioner with specialty and experience in education, human rights of women law, rights of the child law and youth justice law spaces. He has taught in national schools, district conventional schools and the hard-to-reach rural-based Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSS) for many years. CDSSs are found in areas where teaching and learning resources are acutely scarce, enabling him to acquire broad experiences in an education system in a resource-constraint country. He believes that more effective teaching can result from insider-practitioner research from which experiences can be drawn and shared. Frank also believes in shared learning and that good learning thrives in an environment where students are well disciplined and where the rights and dignity of each student are respected. He has also conducted various independent research studies in children's rights and education focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa and published several peer-reviewed articles which are widely cited in academia. As an education practitioner he enjoys teaching and hopes to contribute more to practitioner research.

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    Project Summary

    This practitioner research explored Study Circles and students’ indiscipline[i] cases in a secondary school in Malawi. The purpose was to examine how Study Circles contribute to the management of discipline in a Malawian public secondary school. I targeted members of prefects’ council who are in their final year in secondary school, with 18 students randomly selected from the council. I also targeted teachers, school administrators and members of support structures at the school, including chairpersons for the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), members of the School Management Committee (SMC) and participants in Mother Group (for a description of this group see, for a total of 37 interviewees. Focus group discussions also were conducted for data generation. School records and archival materials from the school were also reviewed. The research found that: truancy, rioting, teasing, bullying, vandalism, fighting, substance abuse, resisting use of school uniform, cheating in examinations, use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, use of abusive language and provocative dressing had been reduced during the time of the study. Through own experience-sharing in the Study Circles, vicarious learning appeared to have catalyzed increased personal and social understanding in many students. The research also found that students participating in Study Circles developed better relationships and trust with peers and staff, resulting in unlearning bad behaviors and learning new ones. This appears, in due course, to have reduced the mens rea (i.e., the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime) in potential offenders. Thus, in the thick of exchanging ideas, arguments and counter-arguments, misunderstandings, myths, misconceptions and misinterpretations of school life, issues and traditions were often corrected and diffused during Study Circles. In particular, students who participated in Study Circles were reported to have more self-discipline and self-control.

    Project Context

    In Malawi, Study Circles have now become “demonstration gardens – for theory and practice” (Banda, 2019, p. 12) for rural farmers and for many rural development projects in many parts of the country. The Ministry of Education introduced Study Circles into all secondary schools as an auxiliary teaching and learning tool in 2015 after an earlier pilot phase. I conducted the present research on Study Circles as an insider researcher, in the institution where I was working during my dissertation project in my MA Education studies. This paper is an abbreviated version of my larger study. The research was conducted at a remote rural school. The school draws its intake from 12 primary schools, scattered in the vastness of the surrounding 43 rural and hard-to-reach villages.

    Section 76 of Education Act of 2014 in Malawi emphasizes that a curriculum should foster self-discipline, promote moral and ethical behavior and promote respect for human rights. Indiscipline, which creates disruptive and unsafe environments for teaching and learning, is condemned. Managing discipline in schools at all times is seen as essential for effective teaching and learning. Study Circles were introduced by the Ministry of Education primarily to maximize learning for all students and improve students’ performance. The national guidelines for Study Circles define a Study Circle as a group discussion of students of the same class meeting regularly, revisiting and revising academic work to enable thorough coverage of class activities for better learning (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, MoEST, 2015). These study circles are conducted in the afternoon soon after classes, three days per week at a minimum and are supervised by the Teacher on Duty (ToD). At my school, classes end at 14:00hrs and study circles commence at 15:00hrs and end at 17:00hrs.

    Study Circles in My School

    Although Study Circles were established primarily for strengthening learning and academic achievement, I became interested in the relations between the use of Study Circles and the management of discipline in the school where I was working. My interest was sparked by the observation that behaviors among many students participating in Study Circles appeared to be improving.

    Each Study Circle is comprised of seven to nine students. The students are divided into the study circles by the class teacher in collaboration with subject-matter teachers and teacher-counselors while considering various factors including academic performance and behavior. At my school, all students are assigned to study circles. Each Circle is required to choose a group leader and a secretary. These leadership positions rotate every four weeks, and this continues to the following term to ensure that every student has a chance to experience the leadership position. The Study Circles examined in this research are held after regular classes three times per week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Before the introduction of the Study Circles approach addressed in this paper, after school meeting times were used for other non-academic extra-curricular activities such as clubs, hobbies and meetings for various church groups.

    Study Circles seek to ensure more time for academic engagements for students, maximizing learning time, and reducing time for idle chatting and non-productive activities. This is achieved through:

    • Structure: Active monitoring and supervision by teachers, administrators, community and inspectors
    • Support: emotional support by teacher counselor, autonomy support by teachers
    • Teacher-student relationships/ interaction (e.g. closeness, attachment)
    • Time: more times for study circles each week ensures no or little time for misbehaviour
    • Daily report/update by ToD audits substantive operations of Study Circles
    • Daily caucus updates by and for teachers ensures no relaxation

    Topics for discussion in the Study Circles examined in this research came from two sources: teachers and the students themselves. From the students, the topics arose from classroom lesson activities that they did not understand well. Teachers exercise autonomy to determine topics for study circle use. Some teachers use brief diagnostic tests or assessment in class, while others may provide input based on the results of in-class exercises and/or activities.

    There are two tiers of academic and material support for ensuring that the Study Circles are managed effectively: school administrative support (internal) and support from the larger community (external). The support from the community generally includes the School Management Committee (SMC) and the Parents Teachers’ Association (PTA). Their roles range from helping with resources such as providing food for students who commute particularly long distances to school,  encouraging students, rewarding well-performing teachers, to ensuring security of both teachers and students. The internal support from school administration and management includes planning the Study Circles by formulating the timetable and incorporating it into the school’s master timetable. The administration also provides resources to teachers and students such as notebooks and pens. Teachers are responsible for actual substantive supervision of Study Circles and give feedback to the headmaster who regularly updates the community and ministry of education officials on the progress of the circles. Direct supervisors of Study Circles are class teachers, subject teachers, the school counsellor and the Teacher on Duty (ToD) for the week.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Research Goal

    The goal of this insider research was to investigate the relationship between Study Circles and the management of discipline of students in a secondary school in Malawi. Based on observation and anecdotal evidence, I noted that since the introduction of study circles, indiscipline cases in the secondary school appeared to be reducing.  The major purpose of this insider research was to examine the contribution of study circles to reducing cases of indiscipline in this secondary school. The research was guided by the following three objectives: to identify which indiscipline cases  were being reduced,  to identify and bring to the fore the key aspects of Study Circles management which enabled them to contribute to the reduction in indiscipline cases in the school, and to examine the processes of Study Circles which might constitute best practices.

    As a practitioner researcher, I am uniquely positioned to give an insider’s view of how teachers and students construct knowledge through Study Circles (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1993). The “. . . systematic, intentional study of one’s own professional practice . . .” (Dana and Yendol-Hoppey, 2009, p. 6) supports teachers by fostering professional growth, enhancing teaching, and upskilling reflective skills (Smith, Yendol-Hoppey and Milam, 2010). As part of continuous professional development and growth, this is a form of practitioner inquiry which enables teachers to engage in continued systematic reflection to identify tensions and dissatisfaction (Loughran, 2002).

    The products from research work by practitioner researchers “. . . raises the good teacher to the next level….and can serve as information, confirmation and inspiration for teachers” (Campbell, 2013, p. 2). Thus, the results from this research work are envisaged as useful information on best practices for conducting Study Circles in Malawi secondary schools. Carrying out practitioner research as an insider offers a privileged level of trust and openness in relation to the engaged informants (Brannick and Coghlan, 2007) because “. . . there is an assumption of understanding and an assumption of shared distinctiveness . . .” (p. 58) (Dwyer, 2009). Further, Mercer (2007) reiterates that ‘the insider is . . . someone whose biography (gender, race, class, sexual orientation and so on) gives him or her lived familiarity with the group being researched . . . and has intimate knowledge of the group being researched . . . ” (p. 6). As a member of teaching staff in my institution, I have full intimate knowledge of the institution and of staff members as well as students.

    Schaenen, Kohnen, Flinn, Saul, and Zeni (2012) assert that “. . . practitioner research can check the errors and inequitable outcomes which may result from educational policies strictly reliant on the large-scale quantitative research designs . . .” (p. 67). Further, Eraut (2003) says that “. . . practitioner descriptions of their practices are reliable indicators of what an appropriately experienced researcher might observe” (p. 64). Being a member of staff in my institution, I am well positioned to identify on-the-ground issues in the study circle policy operational in secondary schools in Malawi. Accordingly, Mercer (2007) notes that “. . . insiders will undoubtedly have a better initial understanding of the social setting because they know the context; they understand the subtle and diffuse links between situations and events . . . .” (p. 6), and one has a starting point which gives accessibility into groups (Katz and Dack, 2014).

    Scheerens (2010) has emphatically expressed that “teachers have a responsibility to extend the boundaries of professional knowledge through a commitment to reflective practice, research, and through systematic engagement in continuous professional development . . .” (p. 12). It is argued by Hockey (1993 in Mercer, 2007) that “insiders are able’ to blend into situations, making them less likely to alter the research setting” (p. 6). In addition, Carr and Kemmis (2005) and Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) have again strongly contended that school-based research by teachers should be an integral part of school culture. Thus, according to Katz and Dack (2014), the culture of regular inquiry in an academic institution is required to provide support for teachers to do classroom-based research and actively participate in continuous professional development and improve the discharge of their duties, which accurately reflect my rationale for this research.

    Research Method

    This research relied upon focus group discussions and individual interviews for data collection. According to Krueger (2014), “. . . the intent of the focus group is to promote self-disclosure among participants” (p. 4). He further notes that “. . . the group must be small enough for everyone to have opportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide diversity of perceptions . . .” (p. 6). According to Krueger (2014), a focus group discussion is considered as a well-arranged discussion in order to elicit perceptions in a field of interest in a permitting and conducive atmosphere.

    In addition, Dilshad and Latif (2013) observe that focus group discussions are purposed to navigate through the differences in perceptions, understandings, attitudes, opinions, behaviours and experiences of group members in relation to issues in question. Members of a focus group influence each other as the group’s discussion progresses based on self-revealing sharing by participants (Krueger, 2014).

    I purposively targeted members of prefects’ council who are in their final year in secondary school, and thus, 18 students from the council were selected randomly. I also targeted teachers (16 of them), Headmaster of the school and the members of support structures, including chairpersons for Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), School Management Committee (SMC) and Mother Group (a community-based organization active at the school), which made a total of 37 participants. For all these, focus group discussions were conducted for data generation. Data from school documentation of indiscipline cases was also collected. The research was conducted between 7th June, 2022 and 18th June, 2022. All of these focus group discussions were conducted under a Mango tree a few metres from the school’s administration offices (see PowerPoint Slide #6 for Study Circles arrangement).

    I recorded the responses in my reflective journal during both focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. In analysing the qualitative data, firstly I transcribed the recorded data from the interview and focus group discussions from Chichewa, a local dialect, to English. Bryman (2004) says that transcription is a written translation of data that was recorded in the course of interviews and focus group discussions.

    From the school’s records, I tallied the indiscipline cases and noted the frequencies for each academic term and year. I then produced a table and a bar graph. I analysed the data which were generated from the focus group discussions, in-depth interviews and school records of indiscipline cases based on themes which I synthesized after collating the data. There were four emerging themes as I went through the data:

    1. People’s roles in study circles
    2. Changing discipline in the school since the introduction of the new study circles.
    3. Changing cognitive development among students evidenced in associated with the introduction of the new study circles
    4. Study circle best practices

    This methodology of analysing data was employed for its flexibility as it has no linkages to any pre-existing theoretical framework and it is therefore a good method to unravel the surface of reality (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Further, Braun and Clarke (2006) assert that the themes in thematic data analysis are identified using an inductive approach whereby coding is made depending on the data and not just following a fixed coding framework. In this research, the thematic analysis ensured a smooth flow in identifying key points from the data as expressed by my interviewees. Further, all the themes were identified based on the interpretation of the meaning of the data (Braun and Clarke, 2006).

    I corresponded about these emerging themes with my university supervisor and after an arranged virtual tutorial, I came up with the four themes above. After synthesizing the final key information and selecting quotes that exemplified each theme, I used summary tables (see results section below) to present the information.

    Conducting research as an insider does not lack potential challenges. In considering arguments against insider research and stressing its cons, Mercer (2007) quoting Brekhus (1998) has noted that “. . . greater familiarity can make insiders more likely to take things for granted, develop myopia, and assume their own perspective is far more widespread than it actually is . . .” (p. 6). Thus, thinking through my positionality in my institution and reflecting upon it regarding conducting this research work, I recognize that I am susceptible to pre-conceived ideas and conceptions and potential bias likely to affect the research. Having this at the back of my mind however, I also think it allowed me to be more in tune with the participants. My increased knowledge and experience of the school and education system in Malawi enables my deeper understanding of the context in which the results would be situated and perhaps would provide a wider picture than what is being presumed, even though Mercer (2007) stresses that ‘”. . . there are no overwhelming advantages to being an insider or an outsider . . .” (p. 5).

    Research Outcome

    A. Roles in Study Circles

    The roles in Study Circles were elicited from the data to understand substantive roles of various stakeholders and how these roles appeared to contribute to success in the operation of Study Circles in my institution.

    As subject teachers monitor and evaluate Study Circles’ progress and help students accordingly, it is also a good chance for them to leverage and audit their teaching methodologies and identify areas requiring attention in their classroom activities and to make pedagogical improvements.  

    For the roles being performed by different people in Study Circles, I synthesized the data in Figure 1 (see Slide #11).

    B. Changing Discipline Since the Introduction of Study Circles

    It is not easy for students to concentrate on academic work if they have to deal with teasing, disrespect, bullying, sexual harassments, threats or violence (Motseke, 2020; Obadire & Sinthumule, 2021).

    Table 1 (Slide #13) depicts indiscipline cases which are reducing and how study circles contribute to their reduction.

    From the school’s records, statistics are presented regarding indiscipline cases recorded along sixteen years: eight years “before” the introduction of Study Circles – see Tables 2 (Slide #14) and Figure 2 (Slide #15) – and eight years “after” the introduction of Study Circles – see Table 3 (Slide #16) and Figure 3 (Slide #17).

    As regards teasing, bullying and conflicts at the school, it seemed evident that routine engagement in Study Circles diminished the mens rea, the guilt mind or the malice afore-thought in students who were would-be offenders or perpetrators of delinquent behaviour. When topics in human rights were discussed, awareness of effects and evils of harming fellow students of lower classes appeared to be gained by all members of the Study Circle in the thick of exchanging ideas, arguments and counter-arguments. I extract a quote from Mpilo (pseudonym), one of the key student informants during focus group interviews:

    “. . . we discuss widely on effects and personal consequences of engaging in teasing, bullying and conflicts. Some speak from their experiences, the agony they went through. Human rights issues are also understood better in Study Circles . . . .” – Mpilo, Friday, 10th June, 2022

    Mpilo further enlightens that:

    “. . . these topics are related . . . those in Form 4 have foundational knowledge in Form 1. Thus, instead of teasing and bullying the Form 1 students, we ask help from them for the basic knowledge we have forgotten . . . ” – Mpilo, Friday, 10th June, 2022

    Each student is required to actively participate. Input from each member is sought on an issue under focus. Consequently, this compels each member to actively engage in academic tasks. Not all study circle participants were referred for ill-discipline. Every member of a particular class must participate. All students are involved: the well-behaved and the ill-behaved.

    C. Changing Cognitive Development Since the Introduction of Study Circles

    At times, as Kehily (2004) asserts, students “. . . indulge in wrong acts because of ignorance, even innocence . . .” (p. 17). Thus, learning from each other’s personal experiences in Study Circles seemed to enable members to avoid engaging in unbecoming behaviours contrary to school rules and regulations.

    According to Rabin (2008) “. . . children are incapable of foreseeing the long-term implications of their decisions . . .” (p. 274). This was illustrated in a point made by Thapelo (pseudonym), a student, who said:

    “. . . what I note is that most students who engage in drug and substance use and abuse including alcohol intake do not know the future implications and consequences of their habits. They copy what others do in our community . . . .” – Thapelo, Friday, 10th June, 2022

    In her paper, Hollingsworth (2013) emphasises that “. . . childhood is a time for gathering and developing assets which are considered essential for all to enjoy equally a fully autonomous adulthood . . .” (p. 3). As students engaged in Study Circles, they had an opportunity to acquire skills and develop assets, which is illustrated in the statement below by a participant. Lilungile (pseudonym) had this to say:

    “. . . study circles assist in good understanding of issues in school….look, issues which commonly cause violence and rioting such as those in boarding section and in sports department are clarified….now most students cannot gang up or participate in riots . . . most students are able to assess consequences before they join . . . . It brings understanding of taking care of school property . . .” – Lilungile Friday, 10th June, 2022

    Study Circles involve questions, counter questions along with solutions from amongst members. Participation in Study Circles appeared to help students become critical thinkers. During Study Circles application of analytical and critical thinking skills is necessary to counter-argue a particular point put forward by other interlocutors as and when required.

    Through open discussions, ideas opened up and the scope of thinking grew for young minds as new horizons were explored. Evidence indicated that Study Circles helped students develop better communication skills. Each student had to construct good sentences on their own to convey their thoughts appropriately. This linguistic construction requires great command of the language. Gradually students became experts in articulation of a point to communicate and became better speakers and listeners through improvements. During the Study Circles students learned to hold healthy debates and this included enhancing their articulation skills.

    Evidence also indicated that the Study Circles promoted the interactive abilities of students. During the Circles, students acquired skills of when to chip in their views and when to remain attentive to what others wished to say. Eventually, this helped them strengthen their capacities for conducting better conversations. Study Circles also led to topic exploration in greater depth, beyond that which was covered in class during normal learning time.

    Mamberty (pseudonym) explained that:

    “. . . before Study Circles I was unable to ask a question even when I had one . . . when I first participated in Study Circles, I was also nervous to articulate my point in class as well as in Study Circles . . . but now I speak freely whenever I feel I should contribute both in class and in our Study Circles…all the pressure of shyness and nervousness is gone, completely vanished . . . .” – Mamberty, 10th June, 2022

    D. Study Circle Best Practices

    As I examined the data, I identified particular areas which I thought represented best practices needed to be highlighted and strengthened further in managing and administering Study Circles in the institution. I employ SWOT Analysis in order to better evaluate and synthesize these study circles. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, has been a tool used in analyses of businesses. In using the results of SWOT Analysis (Humphrey, 2005) to improve the situation of the program, it can reduce the probability of developments that negatively impact beneficiaries (Sammut-Bonnici and Galea, 2015). It is a good framework which can be used to evaluate an institution’s program and to develop strategic planning for improvement. Gürel (2017) notes that SWOT Analysis highlights the resources that needs to be developed and evaluates internal and external factors, as well as current and future potential in order for the program to remain relevantly competitive. Thus, identifying the key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of our Study Circles can lead to fact-based analysis, neutral perspectives, and new ideas. Table 4 (Slide #22) presents SWOT-analysis for Study Circles.


    Cozolino (2013) notes, “. . . fear and stress impair learning . . . fear also shuts down exploration, makes our thinking more rigid, and drives ‘neophobia,’ the fear of anything new” (p. 6). It is difficult for both students and teachers to focus on learning when they also have to manage disrespect, bullying, sexual harassments, threats or violence (Motseke, 2020; Obadire & Sinthumule, 2021). Overall, the study circles examined in my research seemed to contribute to reducing fear and stress in the school.

    Evidence was obtained that students in Study Circles developed close supportive relationships. According to Cozolino (2013), “. . . close supportive relationships stimulate positive emotions, neuroplasticity, and learning. . . .” (p. 2), and furthermore, “. . . a brain without connection to other brains and without sufficient challenge will shrink . . . modern human brain’s primary environment is our matrix of social relationships . . .” (p. 2). Teamwork to find solutions leads to deeper understandings on topics in questions. According to Cherry (2022), “. . . learning environments that offer plenty of opportunities for focused attention, novelty, and challenge have been shown to stimulate positive changes in the brain . . .” (p. 1). In the Study Circles examined in this research, the environment provided a variety of stimulations for such positive changes.

    Limitations of the research

    The research was carried in my institution where I work as an insider conducting a research study with a total of 37 participants. This number of participants is small and in a single school and thus, the findings may not reflect reality in other schools. Further, it was very difficult to evaluate the level of honesty with which the participants responded to the focus group questions. Realizing this, the participants were selected purposely to include as many and as varied stakeholders as possible to achieve fuller heterogeneity among members of PTA, SMC, Mother Group, teachers, school administrators and teachers. Thus, the data generated pulled in more validity, trustworthiness and reliability. The participants were repeatedly reassured that data collected will be kept with maximum confidentiality and that pseudonyms would be used throughout the final report to further protect the identity of the participants. As an insider, a bias towards people whom I am comfortable within collecting the data could crop in. Being fully cognizant of this, all teachers of the institution were included in the sample and prefects of each portfolio were included in the sample as well. Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011) enlighten that research reliability “. . . hinges upon the identification of sources of bias and the application of techniques to reduce them . . .” (p. 214).

    Positionality Statement

    I acknowledge that my positionality in the dimensions of this research and, therefore, my lenses on the data generated, as Scharp and Thomas (2019) argue, call for careful evaluation of how, as an insider-researcher my own positions and experiences might contribute to interpretations and research results in general. As a member of teaching staff in this institution, I acknowledge that to some extent my positionality influenced this research project and especially from personal experiences related to the topic. It allowed for the study participants to feel comfortable sharing their experiences in the Study Circles in a way they felt could best express their responses. Although when conducting research as an insider there is always a chance of encountering ‘guilty knowledge’ (Williams, 2009), I believe I was able to successfully manage the experience of my personal and professional investment in seeking to understand what works in educational practices.


    The results of this research were analyzed and synthesized into four themes: impact of the Study Circles on ill-discipline; roles in study circles; Study Circles’ impact on cognitive development; study circle best practices. The decreasing cases of indiscipline in the institution included: going out of school boundaries without consent or permission from authorities, boy – girl sexual relationships, truancy, drug and substances use and abuse, vandalism of school property and rioting, cheating during examinations, teasing and bullying, use of abusive or obscene language, conflicts and fight.

    Fostering and nurturing supportive relationships with fellow students in a school environment is a fundamental part of a student’s educational experience. This research indicated that as students engage in ‘learningful conversations’ (Senge, 1994) in Study Circles with their peers, they co-created a platform to develop, reflect, unlearn, think and learn new concepts and skills. The research also points to an array of best practices for conducting Study Circles which can help contribute to the reduction of indiscipline in secondary schools.


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     To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Mgungwe, F. (2023, March 8). Study circles in a Malawi secondary school: Impact on students’ discipline and development. Social Publishers Foundation.

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