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On the STATMed Podcast: Pros and Cons of Group Studying in Med School

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Group Studying in Med School: Is It A Good Fit For You?

Love them or hate them, study groups can be a big part of many medical students’ study strategies. In this podcast miniseries, we dig into the pros and cons of group studying in med school and systems to implement to maximize the productivity of a group.

In this episode, host Ryan Orwig sits down with Dr. Jim Culhane, Assistant Dean for Student Academic Success Programs and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Pharmacy. In part one of this miniseries, they discuss the pros and cons of study groups in medical school. 

“My take on it is that study groups can be an effective tool in your learning toolbox if they are run appropriately and if we use some best practices. Unfortunately, often when I work with students, helping them plug up the canoe and bail water, I find out that the study groups they belong to aren’t terribly effective. And because of some of the things they’re doing in the study group. So I think it’s a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. There is a mixed bag. It depends on how you use the tool.” – Dr. Jim Culhane 

Are you spending countless hours in a study group without results? 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 out of your study sessions. 

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Announcer —  Welcome to the STATMed podcast, where we teach you how to study in med school and how to pass board-style exams. Your host is Ryan Orwig, a learning specialist with more than a decade of experience working with med students and physicians. This episode is the first of three in which Ryan sits down with Dr. Jim Culhane from Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Pharmacy. They talk about some of the pros and cons of group studying in med school and related fields.

Jim — It’s the illusion of productivity, right?

Ryan —Yeah.

Jim —So, you know, you’re in a study group, you guys spend three or four hours one evening, you know, studying a particular subject, you think that you’ve accomplished a lot and you walk out of there and in reality, you’ve just wasted three or four hours of your time.

Ryan —Hey, this is Ryan Orwig with the STATMed Learning Podcast where we talk about studying time maximization and board-style test-taking for doctors, med students, and those in related fields. Today, I’m here with my friend and fellow medical educator, Dr. Jim Culhane where we’re gonna talk about study groups. Jim, can you introduce yourself to us?

Jim —Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Ryan. It’s a pleasure to be on the podcast again with you. For those of you, your listeners, that haven’t heard me speak with you before, I am a professor of pharmacology and Assistant Dean for Student Academic Success Programs at Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Pharmacy. I’ve been in pharmacy education for just about 25 years. I love my job and about, over the last 10 years or so, as I’ve met and gotten to work with Ryan, I’ve gotten really interested in study strategies, metacognition development, and helping students just generally perform better in their academic work.

Ryan —And that’s sort of how we bonded because we met in a professional environment.

Jim —That’s right.

Ryan —But then you and I just sort of bonded over our fascination and interest with how highly intelligent professional students learn and study through the medical sciences. And yeah, I think we just, we’ve been bouncing ideas off each other for years. And it’s always fun to sort of compare and contrast where we are because I sort of sit outside. I guess if students are in a canoe going down the stream, you’re sort of in the position where you’re helping them plug the holes in the canoe. Yeah. I’m in the canoe plugging holes and bailing water, yeah.

Ryan —Keeping them afloat, which is where a lot of medical education happens. I sit on the outside. I’m like, I’m there for whenever we take the canoe out of the river, and we say, okay, let’s take the canoe apart and put it back together with new learning strategies, test taking methodology, time management tools. So what we wanna talk about today is this idea of study groups. I mean, it’s a big concept, right? I mean, this is something that I, I mean, we talk about it to every group. We’ve been talking about it over 20 years, but it’s not something I spend a ton of time on with my STATMed class students where we’re teaching study methodology, right?

Jim —Right.

Ryan —And I, you know, it’s a big concept. So what is your big broad take on study groups? And then I’ll sort of share mine.

Jim —Yeah, absolutely. I’m gonna take, put my faculty member hat on and again, just tell you what my experience has been like as a faculty member with study groups. So, you know, in our program, we typically have a culture where our faculty and staff members love to suggest to our students join a study group. It’s a major study strategy that I’ve heard over the years recommended by faculty members. Unlike you, in my role at Notre Dame as an academic coach and some of the programming that I do for our students, I don’t really talk too much about study groups, either. My take on it is that study groups can be an effective tool in your learning toolbox if they are run appropriately, if we use some best practices. Unfortunately, oftentimes when I work with students, you know, helping them plug up the canoe and bail water, what I find out is that the study groups that they belong to aren’t terribly effective. And because of some of the things that they’re doing in the study group. So I think it’s a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. There is a mixed bag.

Ryan —Yeah. Oh, I’m sorry. You said it was a mixed bag?

Jim —Yeah. Mixed bag. I think a lot of it depends on how you use the tool.

Ryan —Right, right. Well, I think what you told me is when they’re run right, they’re great.

Jim —Yap, they are great.

Ryan —And when they run wrong, they’re miserable.

Jim —They’re miserable and generally not effective, yeah.

Ryan —Yeah. My take on it is more from the student learner side, right? And I say, I guess if it works for somebody, great, I don’t care. Wonderful. If somebody can say like, I love study groups, it’s the best thing ever, well, cool. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

Jim —Right.

Ryan —But I never wanna be in the position as the learning specialist, working with a med student, a physician, a Pharm. D student, I don’t ever wanna be in the position where their fate is beholden to finding the right study group. My whole, and you know where I’m coming from on this.

Jim —Yeah, absolutely.

Ryan —It’s like, I’m not against study groups but I’m like, I want students to be autonomous and self-sufficient in their learning. But, hey, if you find a study group or if you can implement the structure and the guidelines optimized, then great. But what I hate is this idea that you’ve got a drowning student and the one life preserver thrown to them is, hey, find a study group.

Jim —Yes. Great.

Ryan —That to me is bleak. And it’s Russian roulette. It’s so random. Like, yeah, if you find the group that aligns with your needs, then maybe it works out. But what if it doesn’t align? That’s just, it’s too random. It’s too haphazard. It’s too loose for me to be comfortable with, right?

Jim —Yeah.

Ryan —So maybe, let’s talk about, sort of share our aggregated wisdom with some of the things we’ve seen and heard from frustrated students over the years when it comes to study groups, okay? And then again, when we talk about study groups, we’re talking about this in the realm of the med students, of the Pharm. D student, and those in related fields, that’s primarily where we’re coming from on all this.

Jim —I expect a lot of this misery shared across the board no matter what kind of student you are and what year you’re in, yeah.

Ryan —It’s probably true, yeah.

Jim —I’m sure it is.

Ryan —It’s just the, it’s a matter of the stakes and it’s a matter of like, if you’re under it like, say, it’s an undergraduate environment, maybe you have more time to kill because you’re not maxed out time-wise. And so it’s like an inefficient thing you experience. And so it’s inefficient and it’s low on efficacy, but it’s not a mortal wound, it doesn’t kill you academically. But it is a waste of time. But a lot of students get through an undergrad wasting time. Efficiency and effectiveness are not always the primary thing because of excess time. And I’m not saying that’s true across the board for all, all undergrads, of course, but for many that might be the case. But yeah, I think there’s gonna be a lot of across the platform validity to what we’re talking about. So I don’t know. What’s something that you’ve seen that sort of frustrates you, or that students get frustrated by talking about study groups?m

Jim —I think the number one complaint I hear from students about their study group is that despite good intentions, these study group meetings can tend to devolve into social hours.

Ryan —Yeah.

Jim —Or, you know, they can become psychological support groups for students that are struggling an opportunity to complain about people like their professors like me.

Ryan —Yeah. Complain about you and complain about the test.

Jim —The tests.

Ryan —This test was unfair.

Jim —Right.

Ryan —Or waste time prognosticating what’s gonna be on the test and arguing about what’s gonna be on it and what’s not, or all the stuff, right?

Jim —Yeah. Absolutely. I think another thing that I hear from students too, is that sometimes they get themselves involved. Well, actually, let me back up and say, as an educator, one of the things that I see with students, they get themselves into trouble with study groups, is that I’ll have a student that I’m working with, let’s say an academic coaching and they’re like, well, I’m involved with a study group. And I’m like, okay, well, tell me a little bit about what’s going on and they tell me the students that they’re studying with and those particulars students aren’t doing very well in the class that they’re studying for. So there’s, you know, they might be picking up that information from one another or misconceptions. And so that’s a real red flag for me as well, too.

Ryan —So one of these red flags is this idea that the struggling student has teamed up with other struggling students, yeah?

Jim —And other struggling kids, yes.

Ryan —That doesn’t sound great.

Jim —No.

Ryan —I feel like one of the things that I’ve sort of heard and seen over the years is that a student feels pressured either by a faculty member or an advisor, or even their peers to be in a study group in general or a specific study group. And so the student knows they’re not getting anything out of it for whatever reason. We’ll talk about reasons for that. They know they’re not getting anything out of it, but they feel obligated to go because the advisor says to go or it’s a peer advisor. Like if they’re a first year and a third year, that’s advising like, well, what works for me was study groups. So you got to go to the study group and then they go to the study group, they’re not getting any value from the study group, but they feel guilty if they were to say, I don’t wanna do this.

Jim —Right.

Ryan —They feel obligated to be there because, hey, if I’m not doing it, then I’m not trying hard. Or maybe the reason I’m not getting enough out of it is I’m not trying hard enough, or I don’t want this badly enough. And it’s a very toxic mentality.

Jim —Absolutely. I see it all the time. That guilt that you feel. My friends are all studying together and I’m not. And so, there’s that pressure to feel like, well, I’ve got to join them without taking that time to sit back and say, you know, if I’m enjoying them for three hours, am I going to be as productive doing that versus working independently myself?

Ryan —Yes. And this idea of like, well, it works for them, therefore it should work for me. And that’s just trying to fit a square peg into a round hole where not all learners learn the same, not all learners are gonna learn the same. And just because your friends learn in that environment, doesn’t mean it’s gonna work for you. And I guess one of our main takeaways, or sort of one of our mantras is like, it doesn’t have to work for you. Your job is to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Jim —Yes.

Ryan —And if something doesn’t work, you’ve got to pull that ripcord sooner than later and get out of it. Once the semester starts, you know, the student can’t afford to get behind.

Jim —Oh yeah. You’re on the freight train to insanity, you know, and it’s hard to get off.

Ryan —Right. And you don’t wanna get run over by this thing. So it is about sort of analysis and making those decisions upfront. So yeah, social hours is a bad thing, right? Feeling pressure to be there when it doesn’t fit for you, that’s a common issue. What’s another thing that sort of comes to mind for you?

Jim —Yeah. So again I’m trying to think. Another thing that probably, you know, that I hear complaints from my students about is that you have these students that may actually be in study groups with students that are, well, ahead of where they are academically. So they’re doing well in the class, the student that joins the study group doesn’t and, you know, there can be a mismatch there, especially if all the members of the study group aren’t on kind of the same page with regards to what their goals are and what people should do to pull their weight and those sorts of things. So that can also be an issue.

Ryan —Yeah. I was talking to one of my former students about this. And it’s almost like, let’s say, the group comes out of lecture and they’re studying later that evening, just as a random construct. And let’s say that the majority of the group comes out of lecture and they are ahead of the game. Like they’re a single tracker, or they’re a dual-tracker or whatever their study methods, it lets them so that they already understand the structure of the content and they’ve already started to encode and process the details and started to integrate and apply it. But if you are coming in and you don’t even have that structure, that will be called the framework in place.

Jim —Right.

Ryan —They are a it’s a way to say, like what you were saying, like they are ahead of you. And so they’re talking about stuff that’s like on level four, but you’re still on level one. So now that that’s an example of that mismatch. And so yeah, you’re there. Yeah, you’re hearing stuff that is somewhat related. So it might feel like this is good for me, but it’s not because you’re coming out and you still… Learning to me, especially when it’s not working at this level, has to start with the student understanding the organization of the information. So if students A, B, C, D, and E are going into the study group, and they have an understanding of structure, and they’re starting to do retrieval practice and tie things in, and now you’re just hearing the details, but you don’t have that framework. Yes, you’re gonna come out feeling like maybe you got something out of it, but you haven’t passed the… Gone through the first gate, which is understanding and building frameworks. So that leads us into something that you and I always talk about a problem with a study group might be the illusion of a variety of learning illusions, right?

Jim —Yeah.

Ryan —But one of them is that illusion of mastery, right?

Jim —Yes, right.

Ryan —So you think you know stuff because the group is reinforcing it by talking about it. And you’re like, yeah, I totally get this stuff as these guys are all saying it, but you’re not the one saying it. You’re not the one connecting it. You’re not the one who can actually reach into that database of your memory and pull that information out and connect it, right?

Jim —Right.

Ryan —So sort of segwaying into another issue here is I feel like for certain students, they are definite that the study group is forming this horrific nightmare of the illusion of mastery. What else can you say about any of the illusion mastery or any of the other sort of illusions that we see our students fall into? Because of… And I think these illusions can happen anywhere, but I think they can specifically happen in study groups.

Jim —Yeah, no, absolutely. The illusion of mastery or familiarity trap, or illusion of knowledge, I mean, that’s a huge issue. I think another big one that you and I… And I don’t even know if this is in the educational literature. I call it a learning illusion, but it’s the illusion of productivity, right?

Ryan —Yeah.

Jim —So you’re in a study group, you guys spend three or four hours one evening, you know, studying a particular subject. You think that you’ve accomplished a lot and you walk out of there, but in reality, because of the organization of the study group, the lack of organization, mismatch and expertise, lack of consistency among goals, and most importantly, the methodology that you choose to use to study the material that can all give you that illusion of being productive. And in reality, you’ve just wasted three or four hours of your time. And so…

Ryan —Just churning, just churning through stuff, but not in an organized manner using best practices. Right?

Jim —Yup. Absolutely.

Ryan —Yeah.

Jim —Absolutely. And I think, you know, and one of the things I know Ryan, that both you and I, I mean, even though you work outside of the academic context with students and I work directly in that academic context, I think one of our major goals for any of the students that we work with is really to help them to develop into independent learners that can self-regulate, recognize what are good learning strategies and what are poor learning strategies and that we’ll choose to use those good effective evidence-based learning strategies that you and I are both big fans of. So and I think that…

Ryan —Absolutely. That is our, both of us have that mission. And you can arrive at that place. You can get a student there, a variety of avenues, right?

Jim —Yep, absolutely. I think so.

Ryan —And that’s where we’re coming from. And I think you and I would, I mean, I don’t know how much we’ve talked about this, but I just don’t think we teach smart students how to be these master learners. We were talking about our daughters earlier. We both have daughters in high school right now. I do not know that my daughter and her friends is smart, motivated, is sort of alpha students, but they don’t know, nobody’s teaching them best practices. Nobody’s intervening and teaching them robust, diverse learning strategies. When I’m driving home from club soccer with her and whichever unfortunate friend gets stuck in the car with us, I’m going on diatribes about retrieval practice. Like the other day, they were studying for some history quiz and they use Quizlet, which is like a tool that they’re now using, which gets into retrieval practice. Right?

Ryan —Yeah.

Jim —But what we did is we tweaked it, we juice it. And I’m always given rationale, rationale, rationale. I have good relationship, so I think with these kids, so they liked me a little bit so I think, and that’s all that really matters. But we sort of talk about this and, you know, but it is interesting ’cause I do ask them about what it means to study and how to study. But we did modify it because the one girl just wanted to read through the Quizlets and we made her say it out loud. You know, like if you can’t say you don’t know it. And she was like, you know, and I was like, if you just go through it in your head and then flip the card over, are you really giving yourself that time to attempt retrieval? And if you can’t say you don’t know, and if you say you’re gonna learn a better student and it’s funny ’cause she took that quiz the next day ’cause she had missed it for a soccer tournament. And actually the teacher gave it to her out loud and she had to say the stuff. And she actually texted me the next day and was like, Hey, it was an oral test. And I knew it all because of the quizzing on the way back.

Jim —Yeah. Absolutely.

Ryan —Using best practices with these young kids. So anyway, when our students get to med school and Pharm. D programs, many of them have not been taught how to be master learners, you know?

Jim —That’s crazy, yeah.

Ryan —And you would think that that’s the case, but you and I both know that’s not the case.

Jim —Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it’s, you know, and we’ve talked about this too. I think that we’ve the advances in our understanding about how human beings learn. The research in this area has just exploded in the last 25 years or so. And there’s so much good research and evidence out there to support the use of very particular types of learning strategies like retrieval practice which you and I, I think, would put at the very top of the learning strategies that we teach our students. But it’s crazy, you know, this stuff really should be taught at the primary secondary level.

Ryan —Yeah, all of it.

Jim —So that when kids get into undergraduate and even in the professional degree programs, they have a high degree or high aptitude of being able to apply these skills to learning. You know, it’s just like trying, if you just take someone off the street that might have watched football for their entire lives and played pickup game in the yard and ask them to go play professional football, well, that would be a total disaster. And the reason for that is because they’ve never been taught or trained in the skills that they need to be a professional football player. Now it’s kind of a simplified analogy, but I think it works really well. And that’s what we’re doing with our students, our pharmacy students, medical students, we’re asking them to learn at a professional level and without having developed the skill set that they need to be able to do that.

Ryan —And I think soccer’s an even better example there. Like, let’s say you’ve got like a really, like a robust athlete. They’ve got all the fast muscle twitch, they’ve got the stamina gene or whatever and they’ve played soccer, but they never played at a high level with advanced technical training. Right?

Jim —Right.

Ryan —So I do meet some of our med students and Pharm. D. that come in and I’m like, oh, it’s like the raw athlete who’s never been taught technical or tactical awareness. So you teach the technical and the tactical. And I mean, in this analogy, I mean, in soccer, it’s probably too late when you’re 25 years old to learn that stuff, but here it’s not. Here it’s not, we can actually… You can onboard this stuff really quickly. Because to tie it back to our study groups, we want these people to not just be able to, you know, I’m gonna deploy frameworking and retrieval practice and finding the missing categorical layer and make self quizible hierarchies, or what have you. We want them to also be able to analyze, use their natural analytical skills, the metacognitive skills to say what’s working and what doesn’t in this context, in this study group or for this topic versus that topic. And this is what we rely on and we bank on with students. Like this is why it’s more fun for me personally, to teach our med students. Because I powered into light. And our Pharm. D’s are very smart, very motivated. They’re hungry and they’ve probably been burned. And that’s why they’re coming to me ’cause they’re mad or they are scared or they’re frustrated. Right?

Jim —Right.

Ryan —And so, yeah, you can bring all this stuff to a study group. Anything that we talk about learning independently, can then be brought to a study group. And then, you know, one of the other big issues we see with groups, and you mentioned this a few seconds ago, is a disorganized study group. And this organization can be, it’s a party, it’s a social thing, it’s a complaint session. It’s a… But it also could just be they’re all there using low yield methods. It can be a mismatch of roles. So one of the things I sort of talked about, and I think you’ve got your own things on this as well, sort of categories and roles within a study group. Like some people will take the role of the ringleader, is what I call it, right? The ringleader is the one who’s dictating the action, doing a lot of the teaching and that person benefits from the teaching. You know, you might consider them as like the presenter or the lead actor, the general, the captain, the CEO, whatever, whatever floats your boat, right? There might be somebody there that’s like the primary interact or, I mean, when I’m presenting nationally, if I’m presenting in front of 500 doctors at a conference for emergency medicine doctors or something, you find one or two people in the audience who are vibing with you, you know, who are like nodding. Like I’m looking at that. That’s my interactor, you know. Like in a smaller group, maybe that person is asking me questions and she’s getting something from the question she’s asking and it’s spurring me on to other things. Maybe somebody there silent sponging it, they’re just soaking it up without any interaction. A lot of us might want to be the silent sponge, but just because she can do it, doesn’t mean I can do it.

Jim —Yeah.

Ryan —if I personally, am in a group and I’m a silent sponge, I mean, I’m not a silent sponge. I might get it. I need proper interaction. But I think a lot of the students who find their way to us, they are the cannon fodder. So cannon fodder, I don’t know, is this a term people even know? I don’t even know if it’s a term people now.

Jim —I’m familiar with it, yeah.

Ryan —You, you know it.

Jim —I know what it is, yeah.

Ryan —It’s like the people that are in the front of the artillery line and like the civil war and Napoleonic wars, they’re just there to eat bullets and eat cannon balls. None of us wanna be that person who’s just here to fill out. Well, nobody wants to be. We all wanna be the main character, right? We don’t want to be the person taking that or the other term that you and I would know is the red shirt, the classic Star Trek, you get like the three main characters going on. Yeah, the one random person that goes on the trip in a red shirt, you’re like that guy’s not coming back.

Jim —He’s not coming back.

Ryan —You don’t wanna be the red shirt. You wanna be one of the ones in the blue shirts or whatever Spock’s wearing or whatever. So you have to sort of figure out what role you are playing. And look, if it’s not the right role for you, get out. And this is another reason that I see people stay in groups. That is, and this is true. I’ve heard this so many times over the last 15 or 20 years, they feel like they kind of implicitly know they’re cannon fodder, but they feel like the group needs them because the group needs cannon fodder. Everybody can’t be the general. In this situation, you’ve gotta be the general. You gotta be the general, gotta be. I think like a lot of the students I meet, I mean, they want to help people. So they feel like, it’s like this weird, obviously it’s unhealthy, an unhealthy mentality. But I think it’s important to have somebody like me say this, the group needs me to be there because like the ring leader needs cannon fodder.

Jim —Yes.

Ryan —It’s too bad. Too bad for them. You wanna help people you focus on, and this is not meant to be selfish, but you help yourself. You figure out what works for you. You get through med school, that’s it. You get through your Pharm D program. You get through your dentistry program. You get through your PA program, whatever it is. You take care of yourself you get through. When you get on the other side of your boards and whatever else is there training wise, then you can help all the people in the world that you want. But I mean, especially in these first few years of studying in the didactics, like we’ve got to like find ways to optimize our study. There’s just not enough time. Time is the biggest form of currency.

Jim —Absolutely.

Ryan —In life of course, to get existential about it. But like, I quite literally, when you are in one of these programs, when you’re in med school, when you’re in your Pharm D program, there is just not enough time. So you have to really regulate and moderate that stuff. So, yeah so that covers a lot of the things that we’ve seen with study groups, I think. Anything else that sort of comes to mind for you? I think that covers it. Doesn’t it?

Jim —Yeah I do. I think we’ve covered most of the major points in terms of what we seen. Now, maybe, Ryan, we can talk a little bit just briefly about maybe what some of the upsides of a study group might be, because they’re not all, I mean, they’re not all bad.

Ryan —It’s true. They are not.

Jim —Let’s make an assumption of a study group that is incredibly functional and is working well, that all the members are using evidence-based approaches just to learning and what are some of those benefits? I mean, I think that being in a group like that, can be a fantastic support network for students. I mean, like you said, medical school, pharmacy school incredibly difficult, incredibly stressful. And, I mean… The only people that can really understand that, are the people that are going through it with you. They’re the people in the trenches with you. And I think it’s a real great opportunity to bond and connect as long as that’s not the primary motivation for the group. And it’s a secondary sort of effect. I think it’s very positive.

Ryan —Oh, absolutely, yeah. Thank you for saying, yeah, there are some positives here. I mean, somebody on the outside of medical education, it’s really hard for them to empathically bond and connect. Like when my wife was my girlfriend, my wife is a Pharm. D, she’s a clinical pharmacy specialist in infectious diseases. I might have told this story out here before. So forgive me if I’m repeating it to all of our avid listeners. But so when I was living in Baltimore, I had a great life. I was teaching up there. I was playing. I had a soccer team I played with. I had all my friends, but my wife was going into residency match. And I didn’t understand this because I was just a lowly educator who didn’t understand the medical education world. And so I was like, well, you should move to Baltimore. And she was like, well, yeah, I’m going to try, she was in Indianapolis, but the match. And I was like, okay, match in Baltimore.

Jim —As One might say, who doesn’t, who knows nothing about the match.

Ryan —nothing about the match. So she doesn’t match in Baltimore. She matches back in West Virginia. And I was really upset because I wanted her to match in Baltimore as does she.

Jim —Sure, absolutely.

Ryan —As one does. Right? So I do what anybody does, I throw a fit. I’m upset, probably consider breaking up with her ’cause I’m tired of being in this long-term relationship. And then I decide I’m gonna throw everything away in Baltimore and move back to West Virginia where I do not want to live to be with her, so that we’re not long distance. And she says, Ryan, that is a terrible idea.

Jim —What?

Ryan —I’m in residency. I’m gonna be working 12 hours a day on call every other weekend. Just wait a year, just wait a year. And I was like, no, I can’t wait. So I throw everything away. I moved to West Virginia with her and within a month I would say, I’m outraged and we have a fight. And I’m like, Kara, this is terrible. I left my entire life in Baltimore. I moved all the way down here to be with you. And you’re working 12 hours a day and you’re working every other weekend on call. And she’s like, yes, that’s exactly what I told you. And I was like, yeah, but I thought you were just being hyperbolic.

Jim —No way.

Ryan —This our relationship in a nutshell. So we broke up and I moved back to Baltimore and we eventually got back together. Difficult. But you know, like somebody on the outside, it is hard for them to understand these things. So yes, back around. I mean, number one, yeah, you can sort of, if you can bond with them. But also I think a benefit of a study group, if it’s set up properly is that it’s going to emulate a lot of really valuable learning activities, right?

Jim —Sure, absolutely.

Ryan —It might, you know, that might be a place where retrieval practice is happening organically. It might be a thing that’s filling in gaps with what, you know, connecting structure with details. It might help you discover what you actually don’t know. ‘Cause I think one of the challenges at this level of learning is, what do I actually concretely know?

Jim —What do I know?

Ryan —What am I familiar with but don’t actually know? And then of course, what do I not know? So it can fill in those gaps. These are all really good things. It can be motivating. It can be encouraging. It can be somebody that picks you up and makes you move along. It might be a thing that helps you get more juice between studying independently and going to the study group because you’ve got a deadline to meet there. These are all positive things. And absolutely, they’re great if they work.

Jim —Yeah. It’s kind of interesting when you were saying that too. I was thinking, you know, some of the students that I’ve worked with in the past, they come to me and they say, you know what? I was doing horrifically bad in my classwork. I joined a study group, my grades started to improve. I’m still not where I need to be, but I got a jump. And as I start to talk to them, what I recognize is that the benefit of that study group for them was it was the only time when they met with that study group that they were actually in retrieval practice and active recall. And that was, you know, the rest of the time when they were studying independently, they’re rereading their notes. They’re recopying their notes. They’re re-listening to lecture, all of those passive ineffective strategies. But for three hours a week, they’re getting together with people and they’re quizzing one another and they’re getting a lot of benefit out of that. And so, there’s a situation where a study group help. And so what my job again, and your job obviously too, is to, okay, how can we take the student and get them doing all those good things that they’re doing in the study group independent of that study?

Ryan —Yeah. Yeah. You don’t want to have to rely on that. _ [Jim] You won’t rely on that.

Ryan —No, you don’t. Well, and what’s happening there is that sort of, it’s implicitly happening sort of on the side. So that student doesn’t know the name of the strategy. They don’t know why it’s helping. They just know the end product is at its worth, that there is benefit. So if we can teach them the why and the how, and then how to implement a diversity they can. I’m thinking about the student who’s taken my class, the STATMed class we have coming up here in December. She’s I think in between first and second year of med school. And what she said to me was, I think part of my problem this year as a med student is, in undergrad I used study groups and they were so helpful. And since it’s COVID, and since we’re having all this sort of staggered, like live in person online, like everybody’s not connected as much, she’s like I never found the study group and that’s why I’m struggling. And to me, I’m like, that’s a logical conclusion. But I think it’s a flawed conclusion. It’s like, so she is studying and it’s easy to say like, well, I’m not doing this one thing that I did. And, likewise, you might say, well, I had this amazing study partner in my undergrad or my master’s program and I don’t have her now. And if I have that study partner, then everything would be fine. Maybe then maybe not, because we’ve got to factor in the speed volume density equation of med school, of the Pharm. D program. We’ve got to figure in like where the benefits of the study partner and were autonomy needs to kick in. So I think we also just have to be careful for the individual student, like looking back and just because a study group helped you in the past, in a different lesser academic environment, doesn’t mean that just by landing in a random new study group is gonna fix it. Now, maybe it fixes it just because you get the good spin of the wheel and you plot down it in something that happens to align with your needs. Or as I think we’re talking about, maybe the group is built in a way upfront to optimize learning. So I think that’s where we’re going with this next part. Right?

Jim —Absolutely.

Announcer —  Thanks for tuning into the STATMed podcast and be sure to look for part two of this conversation where Ryan and Jim discuss ways to set up a study group for success and dig into the different roles students can take on in these groups. If you like the show, we hope you’ll subscribe and you can find more test-taking and setting strategies specifically developed for med students and physicians over at our blog on Thanks for listening.

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