Study Group Best Practices

On the STATMed Podcast: Study Group Best Practices

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Strategies and techniques to optimize your time in a study group

In this episode, host Ryan Orwig is back 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. Part three of this miniseries digs into study group best practices.

“If you’re doing any kind of application practice, whether you’re in a study group or by yourself, again, simulating exam conditions is key. You want to put a time limit on solving the problem because you’re not going to have all day on an exam. You want to make sure that you’re attempting to solve that problem without any types of learning materials available. So that means notes, textbooks, similar types of problems. A lot of my students, when they sit down and do practice problems or practice sets, and they’ll have their notes and their resources right next to them. And you know, it might be okay when you’re a novice learner, and you’re still trying to figure out how to solve some of these problems. You can learn an awful lot more from your failures and mistakes, right, than those successes. I think that’s a huge part of problem solve.” – Dr. Jim Culhane

Interested in learning more about retrieval practice? Check out Transform Your Studying With Retrieval Practice.

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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 is the third episode in which Ryan sits down with Dr. James Culhane, from Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Pharmacy. They discuss the strategies and techniques medical students can use to get the most out of their study group sessions.

Jim Culhane: You know, if you’re someone listening to this and you’re in a study group already, you know, are you engaging in active recall or retrieval practice? There’s a number of different names for it. Are you testing one another on the material? And this is, we know from the research, this is the number one evidence-based planning strategy, that you can use. It’s incredibly powerful.

Jim: So we’ve got, I think we’ve got one more area that we should talk about with regards to study groups. And I think that, you know, for me, this is actually the most important. I mean, all those other things are really important, but I think that this is the real key is that, okay, you picked a good study group, you’ve set down the ground rules, you’re doing agendas, you’re doing all the things we’re talking about, but, what is really important is what are you doing when you meet as a study group? What kind of learning strategies and techniques are you going to use in order to effectively learn the material that you’ve all agreed on? If you’re not using these strategies in your study group, okay, then you’re not making good progress with your learning. Typically, you’re probably wasting your time. So I think that the—

Ryan: Lay it on us.

Jim: Yeah, right. I mean, and so, you know, if you’re someone listening to this and you’re in a study group already, you know, are you engaging in active recall or retrieval practice? There’s a number of different names for it. Are you testing one another on the material? And this is, we know from the research, this is the number one evidence-based learning strategy that you can use. It’s incredibly powerful. And so you can use it independently, and you can use it in a study group. You know, when I work with students that are in a study group and academic coaching, I tell them, look, if your study group’s not working, don’t worry, because I’m going to teach you everything that you need to know to operate just like independent of your study group. And do all the good things that a study group could provide you with, you can do that independently. You don’t need a study group to do it. Okay. And retrieval practice is absolutely essential. And it can be a lot of fun too. That’s the other thing too. So when you’re engaged, there’s a lot of different things that you can do to make retrieval practice interesting and fun. You know, a very simple way and maybe a way that your study groups already doing is, you know, every member of the group needs to come to a meeting with a series of questions and answers dealing with a specific component of the material that you’re all trying to learn. So let’s say you’ve got an exam coming up, and you’ve got five chapters in the book that the exams on. Well, and you’ve got five members of the study group. It could be as simple as saying, okay, person A, you get chapter 10, person B you get chapter 11 and so on and so forth. Your job is to come up with a series of questions, test-like questions, that you can pose to the group. You should have answers with them. And you can test the group. And then when you run out of questions, we move on to chapter 11 or 12.

Ryan: All right. So what somebody might say is, or, you know, in their heart of hearts they might say, is yeah, but what if I don’t know the answer? What if I don’t know the answer? Then I’m gonna feel like I, ’cause it’s all about, you know, who, the keeping up with the Joneses. It’s like this idea of like, I don’t wanna quiz myself until I can say the answer right. What did we say, I mean, that’s a fallacy. That’s, you’re cutting yourself off at the knees, right? What would you, if somebody says to you like, I don’t wanna answer the question until I’ve seen the answer a few times.

Jim: Yeah, that’s really interesting. No, you know, I think that, I think when you, you know, this is, you know, the approach that I’m talking about here is a very powerful, active learning strategy. I call it the exam question writing strategy, right. And the act of actually thinking about the material and formulating a question is a powerful learning experience, in itself.

Ryan: You’re breaking it, you’re seeking it out. You’re breaking the information apart, your weighing and deciding. And then, but also like, if you ask me the question and I don’t know the answer, I’ve attempted recall and it failed. But then I’m gonna get the answer immediately afterwards. And that’s going to accelerate my learning.

Jim: Learning.

Ryan: And that is—

Jim: Absolutely.

Ryan: And that is what I think the average student, from my daughter who’s a freshman in high school, to some of these med students that I’m working with to the PharmB students you’re working with, to the physicians I’m working with, who have to recite it for their internal medicine boards, they don’t necessarily know, that there is actual benefit to attempting, failing, and then getting the answer from it.

Jim: Huge.

Ryan: That is going to build. It’s ’cause you’re not just building the information, like the bubble of memory, you’re building that retrieval pathway at the same time.

Jim: Exactly.

Ryan: It stems that recall. And failure, is a great way to accelerate your learning, but we have to put our ego aside.

Jim: Yeah. And the science shows that over and over again, right?

Ryan: Yes.

Jim: I always tell students, it’s like, okay, so, you know, when I work with them in academic coaching, we practice active recall. And they’re sitting there and like, oh, Dr. Culhane, I can’t answer this question. I’m like, well, give yourself a minute or two and think about it. And after a minute or two has passed and they’re just stuck, I’m like, all right, let’s do a self-check, let’s look at the answer.

Ryan: Self-test, self-check, self-test, self-check, that’s the circuit.
Jim: Exactly. And when they look at the answer and they’re, and they hit their forehead and they go, oh, I knew that, all right. I always say right there that’s encoding that’s going on. I don’t know that for sure.

Ryan: Are you sure?

Jim: But that aha moment.

Ryan: It’s good enough. It’s good, or, they opened up the, or maybe they’re not like, I knew that, oh, I should have known that. Maybe that’s what—

Jim: Yeah, right.

Jim: That emotionality is so important for that learning and coding, right?

Ryan: Well, I mean, I remember in college, I used the word imply when I should have used infer.

Jim: Yeah.

Ryan: And any of the common mistake or whatever.

Jim: Common mistake. Yeah.

Ryan: And my writing professor called me out on that in front of the class. And it was humiliating. But I’ll never make that mistake again in my life. So the idea is, can we induce those moments? How many of those moments can we induce in ourselves? And it’s a much higher number than we think. And so it tends to recall and failure than self-check are going to induce more of that, yes, may be it, you know, inject some emotion to it. Maybe it, you know, creates aha moments. Like, maybe it was like, oh, I should have actually known that. I knew it, I just didn’t reach for it. Maybe the door was closed. It opens the door. Maybe it solidifies the memory. Maybe it makes a better retrieval pathway. But these acts of failure attempts at recall, with self-check, that’s the promised land. That’s the road to the promised land.

Jim: Yes.

Ryan: That will get us there faster. Whereas I know so many of my students are afraid.

Jim: Yes, yes, mine too.

Ryan: Well, it’s all blind payoff.

Jim: Yeah.

Ryan: So it’s like, I attempt, say, I try to recall 10 facts and I remember two. I don’t, like, who was to say, like, my recall is 20%, you know, that’s about the recall for like, reading, right? So, but if I temporary recall and self-check, I have now stabilized that set of factoids, and increased it. But I don’t get a ticker tape printout, telling you, you just improved your recall by 30 or 40%.

Jim: Would be nice.

Ryan: It’d be nice. But, all you can, but if you self-test again, you will get higher recall. You’ll get, you’ll get more, you know, you’ll get more and stabilize it and propel it forward more. So, yeah, like, it’s just this—

Jim: This is huge. If you’re listening to this podcast or the, you know, the, this is the number one thing to remember right here with active recall, you know.

Ryan: And this is, and like you said, the research on this is so stone cold. This is like—

Jim: We got a hundred years of research. Over a hundred years of research on self testing.

Ryan: Testing has affected all this stuff, right?

Jim: And you know it works.

Ryan: Yes.

Jim: You know, one other thing I wanted to say directly to your listeners and to those people that are in a study group, if you’re gonna use this kind of question and answer type of activity, let’s say, Ryan, you and I are in a study group together. And I’m posing a question to the group. Let me say, my question is, you know, what are the major components of blood pressure? I mean, arterial pressure. There’s always one person or two people in the group that are gonna jump right on that, and shout out the answer really quick before maybe, you and I can process the question and think about the answer. So if you’re the person posing the question, make sure that everybody has a set amount of time to answer the question. Maybe it’s 30 seconds. Maybe it’s a minute, but don’t let people shout out the answer.

Ryan: You just adjust to what, however the depth of the question, right?

Jim: Exactly, right. And so, you know, give us 15 seconds to think, and then, okay, everybody, what’s the answer to this question? And we’re like, oh, yeah, well, mean arterial pressure, you know, the components of that are cardiac output and total peripheral resistance. And maybe you didn’t get it, but now you’ve heard the correct answer. You know, everybody’s self checking one another, we’re checking our notes and our reference materials to make sure that the answers are correct. And then we move on.

Ryan: But why not—

Jim: So even if you don’t get it correct—

Ryan: Everybody has a scrap of paper or a dry erase board, or on their iPad. And they, jeopardy style, everybody’s writing out the answer.
Jim: Yes, I love it. Yes, everybody write it.
Ryan: I’m abbreviating like long words that I know. But if it’s a complex word or a term or an enzyme, or a drug, I’m making myself write it out, spell it out. If I don’t, if I can’t write it and say it, I don’t know it. So why not have everybody do that? And you can watch and see, who’s done writing, who’s not. Hey, you done? No, I got nothing. All right, good, moving on. Then we share, right? Say it out loud. But, that is, this is like where the rubber meets the road. That’s what you’re talking about. This is like true practical application. Where, because otherwise what’s happening is, you know, you’ve got your generals, and your interactors dominating. And then people are becoming cannon fodder simply because they process 15 seconds slower, than the generals and the interactors. And then all of a sudden, what could be valuable for them is becoming detrimental.

Jim: Yep. I use this all the time in the classroom when I pose a question to the class. You know, I say, now, before I ask you this question, we’re going to give everybody 30 seconds to formulate an answer and then I’ll pick somebody. So that the person in the class, you know, doesn’t shout. If someone in the class doesn’t shout you know, and then that ruins it, that ruins that active recall moment for everybody. So.

Ryan: And you got to imagine it’d be even more, I think that would proliferate more in an informal study group than it will in a classroom as well. So that is a great, man, what a good bullet point. To really think about the action ability of this stuff. And that’s why I think you and I are both so good at is taking these theories and then operationalizing them.

Jim: Yes.

Ryan: And putting them into where, you know, where the rubber meets the road type stuff, contextualized actionability here. And that’s what we’re talking about, so. So very good. Any other thoughts on study groups?

Jim: Yeah. So I’ve got, you know, I wanna go through, I’ve got two other ideas about active recall that I think are really important. And they actually come from your, the STATMed course. So this is a big shout out to you and Dave. You know, so if you have a group of students that, you know, are fortunate enough to have taken your STATMed study group. And they’re doing their framework, they can use their frameworks to self, you know, to not only self test, but to test one another.

Ryan: Yes. Because the framework is like, sort of going in and extracting that skeletal structure. No answers, no details, just structure. And then, we think through, ’cause then you’re never studying that structure, but you’re always bouncing off of it. And so on the one hand, it’s entrenching the structure, and of course, connecting it to all the details. Fantastic.

Jim: Absolutely.

Ryan: And then you self-test, I’m sorry, you self-check straight from the source. So you’re not like wasting all this time writing out the—

Jim: Absolutely.

Ryan: All the details, right.

Jim: The other approach is the time self lecture that I know that you and Dave teach your students. And I think that’s brilliant because, that approach to active recall is actually, relies heavily on another evidence-based learning strategy called dual coding. Where you are elaborating or talking out loud, and at the same time drawing and writing things down to explain things. So the way that you can operationalize that in your study group is let’s say, we’re studying just one chapter out of a textbook or one, you know, from a series of lecture notes on the same topic. And so at the beginning of the group, we have one person that writes down major topic areas that we want to study, and you write them on a small sheet of paper, you put them into a hat, okay. And then everybody randomly picks a piece of paper out of a hat or whatever. And that is the topic that they have got to do a, the.

Ryan: The time self lecture.

Jim: Time self lecture on.

Ryan: Love it.

Jim: So, you know, and so, you know, everybody gets to go up and do the time self lecture. And as you’re doing that, the rest of the members of the study group are self-checking you. You know, as you go through and you’re teaching and you’re talking or like, okay, yeah, you got that right. But you miss that concept or you didn’t explain that in enough depth and breadth. And so, that self-check is really, really or group check is really, really important for that.

Ryan: Well, it is by its nature, its transactional, everybody’s transacting, interacting with it. And let me just say about the time self lecture. Yes, you’re talking. So that’s that modality, if you can’t say you don’t know it. If you, and then you’re writing it out. So you’ve got artifacts to check against and it’s just another complication of recall, it’s another act of sort of modality diversification. But, the third piece is, you’re doing it while the timer is ticking down.

Jim: Yes.

Ryan: The joke I always make. Sort of a dad joke stuff, thing with and I’m like, yeah, because when would you ever be forced to recall stuff under time pressure? You know, Because, always, always. And I say, when are you practicing recall under time pressure? If you’re not doing practice questions, right. When? The answer is never, probably, right?

Jim: Well, the only, actually, actually the answer to that is when you’re taking the test. You know, and that’s the other benefit of what you’re talking about is that what we should be doing in our study groups as much as possible is simulating exam.

Ryan: Well, I mean, think about sports. It would be crazy not to do that in sports. Ryan: I mean, but if you’re going to the Super Bowl and you play on grass all year and you’re going to the Super Bowl when it’s turf, you know, that team is only, no, no, no, that team is only training on turf for those final two weeks.

Jim: Oh, right, right, absolutely. Yeah, definitely.

Ryan: They’re only, ’cause they’re like we know what the arena is. If it’s a dome, you’re playing at. I mean, that’s at a sports level it’s so obvious.

Jim: So obvious.

Ryan: If I’m training, shooting, like, if I’m a winger for soccer, if I’m like playing on the left wing and I’m right footed. And like, and I want to get into the half space and shoot, like, I hope I’m training that iteratively, but also under pressure. So that I’m training for speed of getting that shot off, not just shooting it without pressure. So again, this is so obvious when we talk about sports. Everything’s a sports and with physical stuff, like it’s so well known. But, well, how do we apply that to the learning environment? So I love the idea of adding time pressure. Like that clock ticking down while recalling and applying and talking and writing, add those various, everybody should be doing that every day. It should absolutely be a part of study groups. And guess what? You can do it on your own. You can do it on your own.

Jim: Absolutely.

Ryan: And you should be.

Jim: Yes.

Ryan: Yes, absolutely. I mean, and well, but what if I do a bad job? Who cares? You’re gonna learn from it. You’re gonna wait and do a bad job. On a test day? ‘Cause it’s gonna happen on a test and it does, and the beauty of this, is it doesn’t require practice questions. ‘Cause this is the problem I hear with like, especially first-year med students. Like, oh, I wanna use you world, you know, I wanna use a practice question, but you don’t have enough knowledge to do that yet. And that’s like, you’re fishing for minnows with this, a big, wide, net. Instead, use this kind of retrieval practice. Use the time self lecture. And that will, it’ll only make you better. It will only make you better and absolutely should be a part of every study group. So what else we have?
Jim: I have one other recommendation. One of the other things that, again, a lot of my pharmacy students do in study groups is to practice the application of concepts. So problem-solving. Whether it’s a, you know, pharmacokinetics problem. Or a formulations problem or a drug dosing problem, they’re practicing those sorts of things. Or maybe they’re working through patient case vignettes, right? To try to apply the concepts that they already know. There’s a really, you know, there are some best practices for how you can do that as a group. And individually. So first of all, if you’re doing any kind of application practice, whether you’re in a study group or by yourself, again, simulating exam conditions is key. You wanna put a time limit on solving the problem, ’cause you’re not gonna have all day on an exam. You want to make sure that you’re attempting to solve that problem without any types of learning materials available. So that means notes, textbooks, similar types of problems. ‘Cause a lot of my students, when they sit down and do practice problems or practice sets, they’ll have right next to them, their notes and their resources in similar practice problems that the instructor did in class. And you know, that’s no, it might be okay when you’re first, when you’re novice learner and you’re still trying to figure out how to solve some of these problems. But, as you move forward, if you can’t do them independently, okay.

Ryan: No. You’re just, and I said, it’s even worse. Because you are sick, you are training with those training wheels on.

Jim: Exactly.

Ryan: And then you know you’re going to a high stakes race with no training wheels.

Jim: And you can’t do it.

Ryan: And I mean, that you’re setting yourself up for all kinds of like false positives. And like, I got, like, irrational belief in yourself because you haven’t practiced it.

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. This is—

Ryan: And in a group it’s even worse. Because what will happen is, if you have a study partner or a group, and you’re all working on the same problem together, now it’s a group think, right? You’re all engaged and talking about how to solve this one particular problem. And I always tell my students in academic coaching, I asked them, are you gonna have your notes on the exam? Are you gonna be able to talk to other people on the exam? And the answer to that question is, no and no. And so the key piece here is independent problem solving. So in a study group, it’s okay for everybody to work on the same problem at once. But you need to get everybody a certain amount of time to attempt to solve the problem first. And when the timer goes off, then that’s the time to pull out your resources, your notes, your materials and start talking about it. Breaking the problem down into its individual parts. Trying to talking about, how you, you know, went through the process of solving that problem. You know, identify or…

Ryan: Or if somebody went wrong, at the second level of the question.

Jim: Yeah.

Ryan: See why they went wrong and why that was wrong versus why, oh, you should’ve gone this way because it’s oh. And that’s not only gonna fix the knowledge issue, but it might also lead to some better application test taking skills.

Jim: Absolutely. You can learn an awful lot more from your failures and mistakes, right, than those successes. I think that’s a huge part of problem solve. Absolutely.

Ryan: Yeah. And I think also what you’re underscoring within the group study, is that even within the group, there will be times when you need to give yourselves each the time to work independently.

Jim: Independently, right.

Ryan: And then bring the toggle to independent, to group, independent to group. And that there are probably real, like trigger points for that. Like this is a time to work independently. And we just talked about that as well. Like, if we’re all trying to self-test off something, give ourselves all the time to attempt the recall on it.
Jim: Yeah.

Ryan: And before someone answers it. And likewise here, work the problem and then unpack it. So that’s a real toggle point within study groups. And I think, everybody should think about.

Jim: Absolutely. I couldn’t have said it better myself. So that’s really the, that’s it, that’s what I’ve got for you today in terms of some best practices and suggestions for study groups.

Ryan: That’s great, it’s great. There’s a lot there I think that people can take from this. And again, I think anybody who’s interested in being in a study group, we’ve just given you guys a tremendous amount of fodder that you can play with. You can check out Dr. Cole Haynes article, it’s on the, it’ll be on the blog. We’ll link it in the show notes as well. And we thank you for listening. And we’ll be back with more in the coming weeks. Thanks for listening.

Announcer: Thanks for tuning into the STATMed Podcast. If you liked the show, we hope you’ll subscribe. You can find more test-taking and studying strategies. Specifically developed for med students and physicians, over at our blog at Thanks for listening.

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