Many students find it helpful to study with a partner to help them better externalize their thoughts, keep their study sessions stimulating, and maintain accountability. While studying with a partner or a group may not completely replace independent study, it can be an effective part of a comprehensive study plan. However, if not done well, studying with friends can be more distracting than helpful. Group or partner study should be done well. This handout shares tips for how to create effective, productive, positive study partnerships.

Why form a study group?

Accountability. You’ll be more prepared and stay focused if you know your group is counting on you.

Active studying. When studying in groups, you’re more likely to use the active study strategies that research shows are more effective for learning.

Support. Have a question? Need help? Your group will be there when you need it.

Community. You and your group are all working toward a common goal, and for most students, this is more enjoyable than studying alone.

Who should you study with?

Study groups are most effective when kept small (2-5 members) to allow enough time for everyone to ask and answer questions. Choose peers who are committed and will come to each session prepared and ready to work.

It is often useful to designate someone to facilitate the group. This person will be in charge of scheduling, tracking group progress, and helping the group stay focused. This could be one set person or you could designate a “leader of the week.”

When should you meet?

Your study group should aim to meet about once weekly. While meeting right before an exam is a good idea, meeting regularly throughout the semester will yield the greatest results.

Once the “who” is decided, find a mutually agreeable time when everyone can attend and then agree upon the length of the session (60-90 minutes). Consider times when everyone is likely to be focused. If you’re going to socialize, consider adding that to the schedule.

Where should you meet?

Look for a space that allows discussion but isn’t too noisy. Ideally, this space will have whiteboards and outlets for your laptops. Look for seating that isn’t too comfy so you’ll stay focused and ready to use the whiteboard.

The library offers great suggestions, including the Kenan Science Library and Davis Library Research Hub.

Don’t overlook the option of meeting online! Consider using Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Group.Me, or any group chat software you currently use to keep in touch with friends and family to host a study group or an accountability group.

Tips for effective studying in groups

Set ground rules to help your group session run smoothly. Suggestions: everyone takes turn asking and answering questions, no phones or social media except during breaks, show up prepared, no judgment of anyone’s skill level, no competition.

Appoint a facilitator. It’s hard to get things done together if someone’s not running point. You can have a permanent facilitator, or you can appoint a “leader of the week” to be the timekeeper and help the group remain on task.

Make sure everyone is prepared. The best study group sessions happen when everyone is prepared. Work with your group members to decide what you want to cover in your next session. Consider using email or Google Docs to keep track and delegate, and remember to choose content that is relevant and up-to-date. Pick specific homework problems to review with one another and decide who is presenting each problem. Be careful not to focus on too many application problems, but instead make a point of discussing more conceptual questions.

Have a regular structure. Decide with your group how you want the session to proceed, and most importantly, set SMART goals for your session (see this video). Adding structure will ensure that you stay on task and cover all the material.

Set a study agenda. Let each participant suggest topics to review, practice or clarify.

Allow time to vent. Take a few minutes, if needed, at the start of the session to vent frustrations, stress, etc. But put a cap on this; complaining about your classes won’t help you learn the material better!

Start with review. Start the session with a review of what you learned in the past week. You can delegate the big ideas to group members to individually present. Group members can compare notes from class and fill in any gaps that arise.

Bring in questions. Posing questions to the group opens the door for a great discussion. Ideally let the person asking the question to talk through their understanding of the topic as much as they can before asking someone else to explain it.

Create questions. Brainstorm questions you might see on an exam. Try to answer them as a group or assign them as homework for the next session. Create higher order thinking questions that require you to apply skills, analyze a situation, and synthesize concepts. For essay exams, anticipate possible questions and together, create an outline for an essay.

Take turns teaching or presenting homework problems. Teaching a concept to your peers is a great way to ensure that you understand the material. Have group members demonstrate a skill or concept using a whiteboard (or piece of paper). Work together to draw a concept map, or write key points of topic; after you’re done, explain each key concept. Ask a member to explain a concept, allowing others to ask questions as you go.

Use active study strategies. As a group, create a concept map, teach each other, make an outline of the lectures, or create a study guide for the upcoming exam.

Review. At the end of your session, take a few minutes to review all the information that was presented. Quiz each other on basic recall facts, such as vocabulary, dates, and formulas. Test yourself on bigger picture concepts using recall to be sure you have a good mastery of the material. Think about how your session went and what you as a group want to change next time to improve.

End with a plan for the next session.

Connect with other resources

While group study can be an excellent tool, it shouldn’t be the only way you study. There are many other effective study strategies and resources that you can use alongside it. Check out a few of these to incorporate into your study time as well:

Make an appointment with an academic coach. Our academic coaches can help you discuss group study strategies, work with you on implementing other effective strategies, or talk through any other academic issue.

Attend one of the Learning Center coach’s workshops on studying effectively.

Try some effective study strategies from our other handouts:

Works consulted

Shaw, D. M. (2011). Promoting professional student learning through study groups: A case study. College Teaching, 59, 85-92.

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