Many students benefit from joining a study group with two or three others. In our experience they tend to be more common toward the end of the degree, because students come to realise how effective they are as a method of study and exam preparation.
Usually students form a study group to:
- Discuss readings and material presented in seminars
- Work on questions set in a reading guide
- Work through hypothetical problems, giving and receiving feedback on answers
- Prepare for exams
Benefits of a Study Group
There is clear evidence that learning is improved through social interaction. As an alternative to studying alone, participation in a study group encourages dynamic and active learning processes. By putting your knowledge into words you are more likely to retain that knowledge and develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Study groups are a particularly effective way of developing problem solving skills because they are the best way to receive feedback and discover alternative perspectives. This can improve the quality of your written arguments, and is particularly useful when preparing for exams or oral presentations.
A study group that works well also improves motivation for those involved, and ensures that members stick to clear study deadlines.
Forming a Study Group
There’s no template, but an ideal number for a study group is three or four. Any more and it becomes very difficult to manage. Any less and you don’t get the benefit of multiple perspectives. With three in a group, you will always find an alternative way of thinking of a problem, or information and ideas you hadn’t discovered yet. It is best to try to form the group earlier in the semester, however, many students will want to begin a study group closer to the exam period.
Managing a Study Group
Study groups work best when there is proper consensus about the running of the group. However, someone may need to take the role of organiser, arranging meeting times and places, keeping everyone on task, and ensuring that the group is productive rather than just social. Some things to consider:
- Start by getting consensus on goals for the group as a whole
- At the end of each meeting set goals for the next
- Separate social time from work time
- Keep to a regular meeting schedule
- Agree to a level of preparation that everyone can manage
- Make a commitment to help others if they don’t understand something that you do. There is as much value in ‘teaching’ others as there is in being taught.
- Make a commitment to keep up with each other. If a member of the group falls behind, it may be better to postpone a meeting rather than having them attend without being able to contribute.
- If there is any conflict in the group negotiate by working toward common interests
- Take care with any feedback given
Good, constructive feedback is difficult to give; but it is essential for a smooth and productive (and confidence building) study group. Remember the sandwich approach:
- Start by focussing on the positives – what was well put, well argued, a good idea or a useful point
- Then you can point out faults or flaws, but tactfully, and without assuming that you have all the answers
- End with something positive
Effective feedback is specific rather than general. Likewise, offering an alternative is far more constructive than simply disagreeing.
Problems to Watch Out For
- Don’t let the group become too large – around 4 people is probably ideal
- Group study isn’t a substitute for independent learning
- Using a study group to share the workload by dividing up sections of a course or to develop a collective set of outline notes for a subject never works well. There is no substitute for the process of developing your own case briefs or outline notes. This is where the deeper learning begins. The study group should help to consolidate that learning.
- Be fair and let everyone contribute. Any group dominated by the interests of one or two members will not be effective in the long run.
You may be lucky and find yourself in a great study group that really improves your learning and motivation. If the group isn’t as productive as you’d like, be proactive. Take this document to a meeting and seek consensus on how best to work together.
- For more academic advice, visit the Legal Academic Skills Centre website
- In particular, read the Guide to Academic Success for a comprehensive guide to studying law