Do you envy your classmates who study in a group? After all, it’s not easy to get illustrious classmates to rub brains with and get the benefit of knowledge of others.
If you do… then, well, you don’t need to. Because you, as a lone soul furrowing through your books and notes, are likely studying more efficiently than your classmates studying in a group.
In this post, I’ll enumerate reasons for and against group-study, and talk why self-study is better. Although there are several arguments in favor of and against each, two very fundamentals of efficient study – how you learn something and how you focus – go in favor of self-study, which kind of outweigh other factors.
That, however, doesn’t mean group-study shouldn’t get a place in your schedule. It should. As you’ll figure out in the latter part of the post, it trumps self-study under one condition.
Let’s start with the advantages and disadvantages of each of them:
Advantages and disadvantages of self-study
Several studies have shown that the best way to grasp material is to actively engage with it. Let me explain what it means.
After you’ve learnt a new concept, you need to strengthen it by actively recalling or explaining to yourself without referring to your book or notes. (This is not cramming and regurgitating.) Next step is to answer questions and solve problems on that topic, first easy ones and then difficult.
In the process, you’ll sometimes struggle. Some sub-concepts will elude you. Some problems will look unsolvable. Everyone faces this situation. But the way to learn is to make few attempts, preferably with some gaps in between, before you give up on them.
Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code refers to a 1995 study by Jim Stigler, professor at UCLA, and others on the schools in Japan, Germany, and U.S. To quote Jim Stigler from the book:
The Japanese want their kids to struggle. Sometimes the [Japanese] teacher will purposely give the wrong answer so the kids can grapple with the theory.
Struggle engineered to aid learning!
This process, however, pans out differently for different students because not everyone learns the same way and at the same pace. Therefore, if you’re trying to master a new concept in a group, your method and pace may just be completely out of sync with others, and, as a result, you may compromise your learning.
On the matter of pace, for example, you’ll feel the pressure to hasten or slow your pace (depending on where you stand compared to others) when studying in a group. Either way it’s bad for you.
Students who group-study a lot pick up an unhealthy habit: they give up on challenging concepts and problems way too easily, and leave them for the group to solve. This goes against one of the fundamentals of learning. Now, I’m not saying you stubbornly keep attempting an unsolvable problem, but you should take few fair shots at it. That struggle, that fumble is key to solid learning. That’s where you stretch your mental muscles and make them stronger.
Advantage 2: You face fewer distractions
To all the aficionados of group-study, let’s be honest on this: self-study entails far fewer distractions than group-study.
Howsoever hard you try, group-study wastes time through small talks. You may not realize, but even one interruption in the middle of a session can set you back by several minutes. According to HBR (although the link is getting crossed for some inexplicable reasons, it’s a normal link):
Students who are interrupted while studying take longer to learn the material and feel more stressed. Gloria Mark, of the University of California, Irvine, has shown that workers typically attend to a task for about three minutes before switching to something else (usually an electronic communication) and that it takes about 20 minutes to return to the previous task.
Yes, interruption may mean twenty minutes to get to the same level of focus.
Does that surprise you? (That’s one of the reasons why six hours a day of focused study can trump ten hours of distracted study.)
And such interruptions are frequent in group-study.
An example: “Hey, I don’t get this step in this problem. Can you help me this?” Distraction in this case isn’t limited to just the two them. Everyone studying there gets distracted, and such distractions, even for few seconds, are slow poison: you don’t even realize and you’re losing lots of time.
Besides, the mere presence of others in the same room changes your regular surrounding, which can subtly distract you despite complete silence in the room.
Disadvantage 1: You may get stuck on a difficult topic
During the course of your study, you’ll, at some point or the other, get stuck on challenging problems and concepts. And if you don’t have a ready help at hand, they may remain unresolved for some time and frustrate you.
Advantages and disadvantages of group-study
Have you faced those moments of frustration when you did everything within your capacity to make sense of an esoteric concept in physics or solve that super-challenging math problem or find a way to get started on the 4,000-word essay?
Those are the moments when you wish you could magically jump across to a friend or a teacher, get the problem resolved, ignite your motivation, and escape the agony. This can get more important and desperate closer to important events such as exams and assignments, and let’s face it that not everyone is comfortable asking questions in the classroom or bugging the teacher with after-the-class questions.
Won’t it also save you time?
Yes, it would.
This is the biggest advantage of group study: access to a wider pool of knowledge.
Advantage 2: You can gauge where you stand with respect to others
Group-study provides you the opportunity to test where you stand with respect to others. Through discussions with your group members, you can figure out where you stand in a particular topic, which can act as a source of feedback and, if required, nudge for improvement.
In a group, you can also learn the best study practices that have worked for others, get motivated from the progress of others, and, sometimes, restore your confidence by seeing that you’re not at the bottom of the heap.
Advantage 3: You get an opportunity to explain what you’ve learnt
In group-study, you get an opportunity to explain concepts to others, which helps deepen your understanding of those concepts.
Disadvantages 1 & 2: You learn sub-optimally and face distractions
The two big ones, of course, are passive learning and distractions, which we covered in the advantages of self-study. Others:
Disadvantage 3: You may have to slow down your pace because of group dynamics
Groups often work slowly because of consultative approach to decision making. Moreover, if the abilities of the members mismatch too much, then the pace will further slow down.
Does group-study help in any way, then?
Why do people form study groups, then? They aren’t fools.
Of course, most aren’t.
When, and how, do I do group-study?
Because self-study is much more effective for learning, it should form the dominant mode of your study. As mentioned earlier, make effort in understanding the concepts, solve problems, and memorize things. If they’re difficult, don’t just give up after one attempt. Make few, ideally with some gap in time. Fumble. Recall. Stretch. Fail. That’s how you’ll develop your learning muscles.
The concepts that elude you after having given your best shot in self-study should be the subject matter for group-study. Here are few tips for making your group-study effective:
Have an agenda for the study session, and it should ideally be biased toward resolving difficult concepts and problems. It shouldn’t be about studying together.
This is what top performers in any field do. They practice a move even if it’s uncomfortable, identify weak areas, and then improve them. (This is also called deliberate practice.) In nutshell, you’re doing something similar (you’re improving by resolving problem areas in your understanding).
Meet only when you need to meet. That is, when you’ve problems to resolve. Frequency may depend on what’s on the horizon. If a submission deadline is looming or an exam isn’t far, then you may meet more often compared to ‘normal’ times.
Pick members with complementary strengths. One could be strong in math, the other, in science, and so on. Because you’re meeting only to resolve problems which you couldn’t on your own, you need people with diverse strengths.
Set ground rules to ensure that everyone has come prepared and that there are no small talks during the session, and be ruthless in implementing them.
Self-study is better than group-study for learning any topic because it entails active learning and better focus, two of the most important ingredients of good learning. However, group-study has its place. Make use of group-study on need basis to supplement self-study: in understanding difficult concepts, solving unsolvable problems, finding motivation, and knowing where you stand with respect to others.