February 25, 2013

Study group dynamics

Studying with others is only effective if participants prepare properly ahead of time.

Recently, my daily excursions to the Reg have morphed from solo to partner, and sometimes small group, treks. Initially, I was grateful for the change, which added some sparks of joy to the usual drudgery of the A-level. But when the quarter suddenly burst into a never-ending stream of midterms and papers, I was forced to reconsider those hours lost in the small, seemingly innocuous breaks for jokes and chatter, and had no choice but to move myself and my friends upstairs, where silence would be forced upon us.

With my next math midterm looming over me from its perch on Wednesday, I’ve been drawing on these experiences to consider how best to study, and if it can be done more efficiently in certain types of groups.

A page on the Suffolk Law School Web site entitled “Why Study Groups are Not for Studying” explains that a study group in which students discuss topics together is only effective if the students have spent some time familiarizing themselves with the material beforehand. Without prior preparation, study groups become akin to a Hum class where no one has done the reading. In such a situation, students either choose not to participate, attempt to fake their way through, or try to read the passage right then and there in the discussion. Different, often improvised readings and analytical approaches cause the situation to devolve chaotically. Comments are shallow, disjointed, and relatively few in number, and the ever-present temptation to socialize, rather than participate in the stilted conversation, becomes very strong.

Contrast this with a discussion-based math class, in which all students come in having prepared proofs for each problem that will be discussed in class. Intuitively, such discussion appears likely to be much more beneficial for students. Keith Sawyer of Washington University in St. Louis discovered that, in study groups, students often began by looking down at their notes as they tried to learn new material but, as they grasped concepts, began to look up and converse more easily. These findings indicate that the collaborative nature of groups is only useful once students have already attained some firm understanding of the concepts at issue—later, in presenting these concepts to each other, students are able to make the transition between knowing the concepts and folding them into their own thought processes. Furthermore, the social anxieties of participation are minimized when students feel prepared for discussion.

These findings have significant ramifications not only for how we use study groups, but also for group projects and classes. In collaborative situations, it seems that it is more effective for group members to come together after they’ve done significant individual work—probably coordinated in an initial meeting—and are comfortable with their understanding of the project topic. Many discussion-based Hum classes are ineffective simply because a significant number of students have not done the reading, or have only done it on a shallow level or from varying angles. This can be partially remedied by changing the way in which we assign Hum reading: Instead of assigning large chunks of material without checking for completion and understanding each class, students should be assigned smaller and more manageable readings. These should be given in tandem with writing assignments that lead them to start analyzing and understanding the texts on a deeper level before coming to class. As a result, students would feel more prepared for class, and they would likely learn and internalize more as well.

The person I study with most often is in my chemistry class, but we do not share any other classes. We usually do our problem sets separately and then check answers later, or do most of our preparation for a test privately, occasionally asking each other questions. Our dynamic is characterized by physical proximity, but mental separation. I know that I study most efficiently alone, but when I do, I can’t help but wish that my friends were there with me, even in the second-floor silence. My study group seems to actually be more of a support group—it provides a component of quiet emotional support that feels at least as important to my studies as any intellectual contribution it could make. I wouldn’t be surprised if the student need for solidarity was actually the main force behind the formation of study groups.

Eleanor Hyun is a first-year in the College majoring in English.