Some people seem to consider tertiary education a personal challenge; one which they have to overcome on their own. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of slogging your way through a course on your own, sweating over problems and agonising over assignments and exams, you can share the load with a group of students who are in the same boat. Study groups can be a great way to deepen your understanding of course material. According to the University of Michigan, students in study groups not only learn more than other students, but they also retain the information better. Also, study groups can play a vital role in maintaining your enthusiasm and motivation. But they need to be used properly.
We look at four effective strategies for studying in a group.
Table of Contents
1) Choose members carefully
The ideal size is four to six members. Any bigger and you risk cliques forming, and some members may start to slack off. Any smaller and you won’t benefit from a diversity of opinions, study methods, and problem-solving skills. Members should be chosen carefully. Don’t just choose your closest friends, as that could be a recipe for disaster. Ideally, you want people who are motivated and participate in class (from asking and answering questions to taking notes), who are responsible and reliable, and who you think you can get on with. The University of Michigan also recommends that you include one person who understands the course better than you do and one who doesn’t understand it as well. That way you can benefit from someone else’s explanation, and you get to test your understanding by explaining the material to another.
2) Hold a preliminary meeting
This is not only to see if the group gels, but also to set up ground rules, and establish goals, and create a structure for each meeting. Now is the time to decide how many times a week the group will meet, where, what days and what times, and also to determine what is expected of each member. For example, to always be on time, to always be prepared, to participate actively, etc. Don’t forget to consider the consequences for not meeting expectations. For example, what happens if one member is habitually late or doesn’t do the prep work?
It’s helpful to establish guidelines for each session, for example, everyone will be listened to with respect, there will be no unfair criticism or judgement, and different learning styles will be embraced, and meetings will be fairly rigidly structured – which will be adhered to.
3) The structure
As a rule, meetings should not be longer than two hours. How you divvy up the time is up to your group, but a good structure allows for revision and clarification of the previous meeting, focus on most recently covered material, group work and presentations, brainstorming possible test/exam questions, summarising, and setting prep work for the next meeting.
4) The nitty-gritty
It’s a good idea to elect a facilitator for each meeting. The facilitator will be responsible for reminding members about the upcoming meeting and their assignments, as well as for keeping the meeting on track, for keeping members focused, and for managing any altercations or differences of opinion. It should be a rotating position, so the same person doesn’t get saddled with all of the responsibility all of the time.
Ensure that everyone gets a chance to present their assignments to the group. In this way everyone gets a chance to ‘teach’ and everyone gets a chance to learn. Each presentation should be discussed calmly to ensure that everyone understands the material. Differences of opinion should be welcomed, but they shouldn’t be allowed to flare up into arguments. All criticism should be tactful and constructive.
Take time to look at some of the homework assignments (maybe vote for the ones deemed most problematic and address those), but also take time to brainstorm and answer questions within the group. Some of these questions can be left as prep work for the next meeting, and feedback will be provided in the opening revision section.
Use the last 10 minutes or so to set goals and assignments for the next meeting and to elect the new facilitator.
Remember that interaction doesn’t have to be reserved for meetings only. If someone has a question about their assignment, they should be welcome to email the group to get feedback. Or they can pose a question and put it up for discussion at the next meeting. Members can also post links to interesting articles or recommend a course-related book that they may have read. The group is there to support its members, so open communication at every opportunity should be encouraged.