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Getting rid of groupwork’s bad rap: How to make an effective study group

By Cristina Valeri, 4th-year English major

It seems to me that, perhaps because of high school experiences, group work has acquired a somewhat unsavoury reputation. I’m sure there are lots of Queen’s students who can relate to those feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment, of dismay and mortification when placed in a group with people you don’t know. Even more problems can arise if the group doesn’t work together as a cohesive unit or if one or two members end up doing all the work.

We’re in university now and have therefore developed infinite wisdom and maturity (right?). I know for me, group work is a lot less scary but it can still pose some problems.

I finally started to think better of group work when, in April of second year, we realized that our reduced December exam schedule came with a price—an exam in April covering everything we’d done since September. Having to remember stuff we did way back when, in those first few hazy weeks of September seemed cruel and unusual. So we did what most seriously-freaking-out people in similar situations do—banded together. We figured that maybe six of us versus one exam stood a better chance.

This was our salvation. Not only did it make studying a lot more fun but it definitely helped us all effectively learn that huge amount of material in a short time. It was a relief talking to people who felt just as overwhelmed as I did–and just as confused about the meaning of 90% of Ezra Pound’s poetry.

We all aced the exam too, in case you were wondering.

Learning strategists also say that at least 25% of studying should be done in a group, so here are some tips on how to choose a good study group and how to effectively study in them.

How to find good study group members

1. People with a wide breadth of knowledge—It’s probably good to consider including classmates in your study group who aren’t necessarily your closest friends. Keep an eye out for someone who seems to really understand the salient points about a topic that you yourself or your friends are shaky on. That way, each member of the group is making a different contribution.

2. People who sit at the front of the class—They may have good notes since they’re sitting closer to the prof; it’s harder to casually doze off or surf Facebook! That also means they’ve shown the dedication to get to class early and nab those good seats.

3. People with similar study habits/values as you—You’re more likely to work well with people who share your study goals. If everyone in the group makes it their goal to succeed on the exam, you can all help motivate and encourage each other.

4. People you can have fun with—Studying doesn’t always have to be boring! Group studies can liven up even the most boring subjects! (But maybe not too much fun … You and your BFF can form separate groups if the two of you have trouble focusing on school together.)

How to study in a group

1. Make molehills out of mountains—If you’re dealing with a lot of material, split it up among the group. Each person take a few weeks of the course and summarize it, become an expert in it. Then you can all compile your study notes into one big, condensed review that is much easier to study from than dozens of pages of notes.

2. Teach your subject to the group—You really understand material when you teach it to others. It also forces you to phrase it in your own words which means you’ll remember it a lot easier.

3. Quiz/Test each other—Make up practice questions or cue cards (try online options like Quizlet!) and test each other.

4. Compare notes—When listening to lecture, students pick up on very different things and some group members might have jotted something down that you missed. Or perhaps you missed a lecture or two. Either way, putting everyone’s notes together like a puzzle can give a clearer picture of the course.

5. Discuss— Even just talking about the course material can familiarize you with the language the professor has been using all semester and that will likely crop up on the exam. Discussion will help you understand connections between ideas on a deeper level, instead of just memorizing it. Other group members might also have helpful explanations, comparisons or acronyms that could help you too.

Studying in a group is a great way of making exam time a little more bearable but it’s important to remember that you also have to study on your own. The rest of your studying should be done outside the group, preparing for it so that you’re not lost when the group meets. Just remember: exam time does end eventually so don’t get too stressed out and try to make it fun if possible!

And maybe we can give group work a better rap!

Photo courtesy of Audio-luci-store under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.