Dr. Jim Culhane shares insights into what makes an effective study group
By Dr. Jim Culhane, Assistant Dean for Student Academic Success Programs and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Notre Dame of Maryland University
In my work with students both as a faculty member and academic coach, I know that study groups can be a real double-edged sword. When they work well, they can significantly improve your academic performance, but they can really drain students’ time and energy when they aren’t. Let’s examine some of the pros and cons of group study and some strategies that you can use to make your group study experience more effective and productive.
Group studying can be an excellent way to learn new material and improve academic performance. Surrounding yourself with people who will challenge and provide feedback on your performance can help keep you motivated and on track with your learning. Study groups can also act as an essential support network. Much like soldiers whose friendships are solidified in battle, the members of your study group are “in the trenches” with you. When times get tough, they will have the greatest understanding of the academic challenges you face and provide essential encouragement. They can also act as accountability partners, encouraging you to engage in studying when you might not want to.
Choosing and participating in a study group can be a tricky business. Choose wisely, and you will have made a significant step towards achieving your academic goals. Choose poorly, and you can potentially waste hours and become very frustrated. Suppose you are in a program that utilizes any type of collaborative learning (i.e., team-based learning). In that case, you may already possess some of the skills and knowledge necessary to ensure that your study group will be effective and successful. Implementation of the general strategies below will take a little time, but the return you get on this investment is worthwhile!
1. Discuss guidelines for how the group will function and set clear expectations.
These should include when and where the group will meet, individual preparedness for meetings, setting goals and regular agendas, and how the study group will deal with conflict, especially when group members are not contributing or pulling their weight. Experts in cooperative learning even suggest creating documents that outline group policies and expectations.1
2. Assign group members specific roles.
For example, one study group member is responsible for setting meeting times and location, while another sets weekly agendas (i.e., what subject material will be studied). Other group members might be responsible for creating practice questions or teaching other group members about a difficult concept.
3. Establish shared goals for learning.
There are many reasons for joining a study group. Some students want to join one for social purposes; others look to their groups for emotional or psychological support. Some students join study groups just to pass a course while others are in it for the A. There is nothing more frustrating than joining a study group in the hopes of performing well in a class, only to find that your fellow group members are more interested in socializing than learning. Being honest about your motivation to join a study group and clearly understanding the goals and motivations of the group you will join is critical. Be honest about what you hope to get out of the experience. If you are entering a newly formed group, ensure that group members have the opportunity to share their goals. The overall success and effectiveness of the group is dependent on how aligned, and compatible everyone’s goals are.
4. Take advantage of members with different academic abilities.
Group members performing well in a course can act as peer teachers for those who are not. This is one of the rare examples of a “win-win” scenario. The struggling students benefit from the expertise of stronger group members, while those teaching benefit from the peer-teaching effect. There is also an added benefit in that studying with academically stronger students can help push your performance in a positive direction. I am very familiar with this phenomenon through the sport of mountain biking. I have been an avid cyclist for almost 30 years. When I was first introduced to mountain biking, I began riding regularly with a group of people who were far above my skill and fitness level. At first, it was challenging to keep up, and I spent a ton of time getting pitched over my handlebars and dropped on hill climbs, but over time my fitness and skill level improved to the point where I could comfortably stay with the group on any ride. I became a far better cyclist than I thought possible.
Managing Study Group Meetings
Running an effective study group is not all that different from running an effective business or committee meeting. Inspiration for best practices for running a study group can be drawn from an article in the New York Times Business section titled How to Run a More Effective Meeting.2 In this article, Adam Bryant, a regular New York Times contributor, shares his insights and makes numerous recommendations to achieve this goal. These recommendations, which I would consider best practices, are based on conversations that he has had with over 500 chief executives for his weekly Corner Office Column. I believe that a number of these recommendations can be directly applied to how your study group operates. If these recommendations work for some of the country’s top CEOs, they should work for your after-class study group.
1. Set a regular agenda.
The agenda will provide a clear purpose for the meeting and, as Bryant puts it, “a clear compass for conversation” during the meeting. Things that are helpful to have on an agenda include:
- When and where the meeting will take place
- What subject or subjects will be covered during that study group
- How long will be spent on those subjects
- What is the responsibility of each group member
- What types of learning strategies will be used
Setting an agenda will keep you on task and limit side conversations that can turn into big distractors. Agendas also help to combat the “Illusion of Productivity.” If you set an agenda, stick to it and ensure that you accomplish what you set out to. This can help you avoid the 4-hour group study session in which three hours are devoted to complaining about the last exam, and only 1-hour is devoted to real study. The schedule should be prepared ahead of time to do the preparatory work necessary to engage productively in learning activities.
When determining what to cover during a study session, it can be tempting to only focus on one subject. However, this may not be the most effective approach. Experts in the field of learning recommend an evidence-based approach called interleaving when studying.3 Instead of studying one subject for 3 hours, mix it up by studying 2-3 related topics during that time. As you switch between topics, you introduce a desirable difficulty to your learning.
2. Set start and end times and stick to them.
Remember that as a student, your most valuable commodity is time. Group members that are habitually late to meetings delay the process of learning, prevent the group from achieving their goals, and demonstrate a lack of respect for one another’s time. If this is happening in your group, it should be addressed immediately. Having an identified ending time will help to ensure that you stay on task and accomplish the learning that you set out to do. It also allows you to plan other activities after the meeting is over. It is Ok to agree to go beyond the end time with your studying if you have accomplished the meeting goals and everyone agrees.
3. End with action in mind.
At the end of each group study session, group members should have a clearer idea of what they know and don’t. This clarity can be achieved through your observations or by observations and feedback made by other group members as you test one another on the material. Group members can use this feedback to help determine what content and application need to be focused on after the session.
4. Beware of Hitchhikers and Couch Potatoes!
This next piece of advice comes from Barbara Oakley about turning student groups into effective teams1. At the end of the article is an excellent section adapted from an earlier essay that provides some common-sense advice for dealing with group members that are not pulling their weight. According to Dr. Oakley, “Hitchhikers are group members that do not respect group norms, do not show up for meetings or are chronically late, may do substandard work, complain about all the work that they must do and do not accept constructive feedback about their performance. Hitchhikers can be manipulative and are usually out for their self-interests.”
Couch potatoes share some of the same characteristics as hitchhikers, mainly that they don’t pull their weight. They tend to be less manipulative than hitchhikers and may respond better to firm and explicit expectations. Regardless of which type you are working with, having a clear set of expectations set at the beginning of the semester and being willing to firmly stand by those expectations can help avoid some of the problems that these group members’ may have. As a last resort, you may have to ask these group members to leave the study group. This can be difficult and uncomfortable, but if the offending member is not confronted, they will continue to take advantage of the group and hurt what you can accomplish. Remember that hitchhikers and couch potatoes are not just found in study groups. They are out there in vast numbers in the real world. Learning how to identify and deal with them is important as a student and as a professional.
5. Do a meeting audit.
This last piece of advice from Mr. Bryant is much in alignment with the goal of metacognition. Take time at the mid-term to evaluate the effectiveness of your study group. Ask members what they feel are the strengths of the group and what aspect of the group’s activity could be improved. If a learning activity was helpful during the group study session, the group should decide when and how that learning strategy will be used in the future.
Using Evidence Based-Learning Strategies
1. Retrieval Practice
What you do during a study group session is just as important as how you run one. One of the most effective strategies that you can use in your study group for learning is retrieval practice. Retrieval practice involves actively recalling facts and information that you are trying to learn. The more you engage in this activity, the stronger the information becomes encoded in your long-term memory, and the faster and more accurately you will be able to recall that information in the future.4
There are several ways that study groups can engage in active recall. One method is for each group member to come up with a series of questions and answers dealing with a specific component of the material you are trying to learn. Each group member will be asked to pose a question or problem and then allow for a certain amount of time for each group member to formulate an answer. Once the time has elapsed, each group member should share their answer and explain how they came up with that answer. The group member asking the question should gauge each solution’s accuracy, depth, and breadth and provide appropriate feedback.
Other ways for a study group to engage in active recall involve some of the methodology recommended by the STATMed Doctor Study Skills Course. Members of the group can use the framework generated from lecture notes or readings to quiz one another on various concepts. The person asking the question should use their notes as a self-check for those answering the questions. The timed self-lecture is also a great way to self-test on facts and information you need to remember. A fun way to do this is to generate a list of topics you want to study during the session, write each down on a small sheet of paper. Put these in a hat or bowl and have each group member randomly select one. Then have them go in front of the group and explain the concept aloud using a chalkboard or a whiteboard. Elaborating aloud while drawing pictures or diagrams is an excellent example of an evidence-based learning strategy called dual coding.5 The other group members should be listening and checking the presenter’s information for depth, breadth, and accuracy. The self or group check is an essential part of any type of retrieval practice and should not be left out of the process!
2. Application of Concepts
Many courses will require you to complete problem sets as part of homework or exam preparation. These problem sets can come from the book, developed by the instructor, or come from other sources and can be used by study groups to help members practice application. Coming prepared to a study group meeting that will be focused on practicing problems is extremely important. To be successful, you must have a strong foundational knowledge of the concepts the problems are associated with. Preliminary practice on the type of problems that your group intends to work on can also be helpful.
When solving problems in a group, each group member needs to have an opportunity to attempt to solve the problem on their own. If the problems being practiced are likely to mimic those you will see on an exam, then the group should attempt, as closely as possible, to simulate exam conditions. This is especially important as the exam date approaches. Exam conditions can include setting a time limit for solving problems, not allowing notes or other learning materials to be used, or group members to work together. All of these resources can be used after the time has elapsed.
Study groups can be an effective way to study and learn, as long as you keep the above principles in mind:
1. Establish common learning goals
2. Set and run your meeting with an agenda
3. Use evidence-based approaches like retrieval practice, elaboration, dual coding, and interleaving as the primary modes of learning.
4. Attempt to simulate exam conditions when practicing the application of concepts.
Are you struggling with studying in a group or solo? With the STATMed Class, we provide a wide range of tools and strategies so that every time you sit down to study, you’ll know exactly what to do to get the most bang for your buck.
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1. Oakley, B, Brent R, Felder R, Elhajj I. Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2004, Vol 2. No. 1 9-34
2. The New York Times. (n.d.). How to run a more effective meeting. The New York Times. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/guides/business/how-to-run-an-effective-meeting.
3. Dunlosky, J. Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning. American Educator. Fall 2013. 12-21.
4. Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L., III (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471– 479.
5. Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2018). Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide (1st ed.). Routledge.
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