The Connection Shift Part II: How to Utilize Study Groups

I wasn’t a big fan of study groups in college. Early on, when I had trouble finding my bearings, I sat in a few groups to work on physics homework during the summer bridge program for admitted freshmen. I found myself writing answers that others solved because I had no clue about the material. I struggled to understand the questions let alone where to go in my notes and textbooks to find answers. I felt like I was learning a foreign language. My fixed mindset kicked in. My goal at that point was simply to finish the problem sets, and not necessarily to learn the material. As a result, despite getting reasonable grades on my homework, I got killed on my exams because I never understood the material for myself.

Later, when I found my bearings and began to apply the deep dive learning method that I’ll describe in future posts, I thought study groups were a waste of time. My friends would get together for hours to finish a problem set or prepare for exams, but so many superfluous topics came up during the discussion (from the latest party, to whose dating whom) that they’d spend twice the time it took for me to finish my work on my own. So, I rarely participated in study groups while I was in college, though I would later learn how to use them more effectively in graduate school. More about that later.

Years later, I read the transcript of a speech given by University of Texas professor, Uri Treisman, about a study he conducted while a graduate student in the 1970s. As a TA for a calculus course, he discovered that no more than two African American students over the past decade had earned a B- or better in first-term calculus. He subsequently conducted a study to determine why many ethnic minorities were failing the course and ultimately dropping out of mathematics (and in some cases the university). Based on the findings of the study, Dr. Treisman went on to create the Mathematics Workshop Program where he would assemble groups of students to solve problems and develop deeper understanding of the concepts taught in class. These workshops have been replicated nationwide.

Elements of an Effective Study Group

Taking lessons from Dr. Treisman’s work, and other best practices, I learned that for study groups to be effective, the first step is to pay attention to what happens before and after the study group. In other words, study groups should be one part of a three-step learning process toward mastering the subject. The three steps go like this:

Individual work –> Group work (study group)–> Individual work

Think of it like a sandwich. Working individually before and after the study group meets is the bread, and the study group is the meat (or peanut butter and jelly, for those of you who are vegans).

To be effective, everyone in the group must be prepared to do work on his or her own. The working group should not be where you get most of your work done. You’ll never learn the material that way.

 What to Do Before Your Study Group Meets

Giving yourself focus, reviewing the material on your own, beginning to work the problems are all the first essential steps toward preparing for the study group discussion and most importantly, deepening your recall and synthesizing the material.

Prior to coming together, you should be able to answer the following questions for each problem or topic to be discussed:

  • What will be your approach to solving this problem or writing about the topic?
  • How do you know the approach was correct?
  • What portion of the lecture or the readings did you use as your source(s)?

How to Manage the Study Group Meeting

Having spent time to individually review the material, you’re now prepared to contribute to the discussion, get questions answered, crystallize your learning and correct your misunderstandings.

While you’re in the study group, to be most effective, here are a few tips:

  • Set a standing day and time to meet, at least two days prior to the assignment due date. The meetings should have a defined end time so the group will be forced to be efficient.
  • Invite no more than 4-5 members to the group, otherwise some group members won’t be able to actively participate and controlling the group discussions could get unwieldy.
  • Be honest and open. When you haven’t done the pre-work, let the group know. Don’t fake it to make it.
  • Hold everyone accountable to do the work. When someone slips, make sure they understand that not preparing is an exception, rather than the rule.
  • Rotate the leadership. There should be a leader assigned to each meeting to keep everyone on schedule.

What to Do After Your Group Meets

Finally, it’s important that you finish the assignment on your own, not in the group. This ensures that you consolidate and understood everything, when you take theory and concepts and apply them to the problem or assignment at hand. If you don’t take this important step, you run the risk of repeating my situation—good homework grades but poor exam scores because I had not synthesized the material in my own mind.

This “individual—group—individual” approach also minimizes the chances that you could be accused of plagiarism. Finishing assignments together increases the likelihood that the solutions look identical, putting you all on the professor’s watch list or, more damagingly, leading to a sanction of some kind.

What happened to Dr. Treisman’s students? The results were stunning. In the first year of the Mathematics Workshops, over 50% of African American participants earned a grade of B- or better in first-year calculus, compared to just 21 percent of black students who didn’t participate. Most importantly, four times more African American students graduated with math-based majors than those African Americans who didn’t participate in the workshop. [i] Study groups work, but only if they’re part of the sandwich!

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