Other authors on this site (okay… Aaron.) have/has been pretty outspoken about how ineffective they think most study groups are but I happen to disagree to some extent. For his thoughts on this you can read this article.
Study groups usually suck because they reduce the amount of time each student is involved in actually reviewing the material. Time that could have been spent actually focusing on the study material gets lost talking to friends, deciding what to study, reviewing material that doesn’t need reviewing for others in the group that already know it, and making plans for the next study session.
On top of that, when a study group is asked a question, only one person has to focus on answering it to move on. Some students spend their whole study session in a group just zoning out and assuming they’re actually studying.
My opinion: studying in a group has a ton of pitfalls but there are a few things you can do to improve the situation.
Smaller Is Better
Smaller study groups force more participation. If you’re in a two person study group then one person can be asking the questions and the other person can be answering. If anyone stops paying attention, everyone in the group will notice. With three people, there needs to be a system to ensure people stay focused. Otherwise there is room to get lost. If for some strange reason you studied in a study group of 20 people virtually all the students would start zoning out beyond a few select people.
In the average study group there are two useful positions to be in.
The first is the leader. The leader of a study group gets to act like a bit of a teacher. When a person gets to teach the material they’re studying they’re forced to examine it from a number of different angles. That ends up reinforcing the material dramatically more than just listening to it.
The second is the lagger. The least knowledgeable student in a study group is at a huge advantage for a couple reasons. When a student is falling behind, the other students all end up helping to catch that student up (assuming they continue to want that student in their study group.) On top of that, when the student is surrounded by people more knowledgeable, that student will inevitably learn more because there is more new knowledge to learn.
Everyone that isn’t one of those two people is at a disadvantage relative to those positions. When a study group is smaller, you’re much more likely to fit cleanly into those two spots.
(By the way, by lagger and leader, I mean a constantly evolving position. Often students dominate in one area while struggling in another. Those variations can change the positions.)
There is a funny thing about giving incentives to people. When you give a prize to someone for doing something correctly, it doesn’t always help them.
For example, if you give a candy bar or something to the person that answers the most questions right… you’re not increasing people’s chances of answering the questions right. But… you should still do it anyway.
People do better at mechanical tasks when you offer them incentives. So, if I paid you a penny for every time you clicked your mouse, you’d click dramatically more than if I just asked you to click. People do worse with creative tasks when you offer them incentives. So, if I paid you a penny if you wrote an awesome comment on this post, you’d end up writing worse than if you just chose to write one anyway.
That is usually attributed to the increased stress induced by offering a prize. The stress is good for pure physical tasks but impedes mental tasks.
Studying is a creative task. You’re forcing yourself to connect with information in unique ways and use it. In most cases, giving a prize for the most successful student in a study group would increase the mental stress of the study session and cause students to do worse. That’s a good thing though.
Studying with a group of friends is very different than taking a test. Tests are stressful. Like it or not, you have external incentives while taking them. You get the prize of a good grade or the punishment of a bad grade to stress you out.
Including incentives is one of the most useful parts of being involved in a study group. The group can enforce the incentives and cause stress from competition. Even with stupid prizes, stress can build up based on the desire to beat your fellow study partners. People will be more stressed but they will be more prepared to handle that stress come test time.
One of the the other useful parts of a study group is often the time focused on the quirks of the class that don’t involve the study material.
In virtually all classes, there are some super simple ways to do well. In some classes, large percentages of your grade are defined by very specific tasks. Syllabuses often define these opportunities out. For example, if 80% of your final grade is 3 or 4 major essays then you can slack on virtually everything else and still score in the 90’s. If 80% of your grade is your tests then you should probably spend your time studying.
Other discoveries aren’t so obvious. I’ve had teachers that respond extremely positive to certain subjects and extremely negative to others. (Basically, some teachers don’t do a good job of leaving their personal opinion out of their grading.) If you can discover something like this you might as well take advantage of it because you’re not going to be able to change it.
Study groups are awesome for learning specific class quirks, memory tricks, accessing other students’ notes, and other only semi-study related tasks. Take advantage of this.
The truth is, if you’re in a study group you’re working at a slower pace than if you chose to study alone. When you’re studying alone you get to work at your own specific pace and focus on your own specific needs. That makes the study time dramatically more efficient. That being said, there are advantages of a study group that can’t be found studying alone.
Study groups can encourage you to focus more on the study material if you just can’t get focused. Study groups can get you close with other students learning the same material in the same environment. Study groups have plenty of advantage beyond actually studying that may help you study better in a group than alone.
I recommend studying alone first and foremost. You should have a consistent study routine by yourself but adding a group study session on top of that alone study session may offer some benefits if you do it right. For more ideas to improve your studying read 101 School Hacks For Better Grades & A Better Life.
Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s the idea this blog is designed around. Be sure to check out the archives and follow along to learn all the details. For a crash course on the subject, be sure to check out the ebooks in the sidebar.
Kay W. is a 3.8 GPA student that spends most of her time on her hobbies and only studies when she gets bored. She originally found Smart Student Secrets 4 years ago and now she fights the good fight writing articles to help other students make the changes she made.