Study Groups Led by Students Improves Knowledge Retention

Studying is a part of every student’s school experience, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. In fact, studies show that students benefit greatly from participating in study groups with their peers. There’s all sorts of research documenting how students can learn from each other, but that learning doesn’t happen automatically, and some worry that it’s not likely to occur in a study group where there’s no supervision and distractions abound. Recent findings should encourage us to give student-led study groups a second look. 

Let’s take a look at one study. The study groups in this research involved two or more students working together outside class in groups that they formed and facilitated. A group of 463 undergraduates enrolled at 38 different institutions and majoring in five different fields answered questions about their study group experiences—if they studied with others, why they chose to do so, what they did in those groups, and how helpful they found the experience. 78% of students reported that they participated in at least one group study session per semester, with the median being four sessions. When asked about their reasoning for participating in study groups, students said they opted to study with others because the professor encouraged it and because their peers invited them. The students handled all of the meeting logistics themselves, and members decided collectively what they would do during the session.

Here’s what’s impressive: the top three study strategies students reported using in these groups were asking each other questions, discussing course materials, and quizzing each other. These are evidence-based strategies. Asking questions and discussing the content are elaborative activities that deepen learning, and testing knowledge with questions enhances memory by providing retrieval practice. Each of these has substantial empirical support with regard to benefits for long-term knowledge retention. Additionally, the data from this study showed that a student’s GPA correlated positively with how frequently evidence-based study strategies were used—particularly, reflective elaboration of the content (mnemonics), generation (making outlines, flashcards, study guides, etc.), and spacing (shorter but more frequent sessions). 

Students said they chose to study with others in hopes it would improve their understanding of the material, and most of them reported that it did. More than 60% said their level of learning in study groups was somewhat more or a lot more than they learned when studying individually. Almost 70% said that being in a study group increased their motivation to study. Findings like these give us reasons to encourage students to study together, and we can use these results to offer advice with the potential to improve what happens in those groups. Here is a general set of guidelines for student-led study groups: 

  1. Keep the group small. All that’s needed is one partner, or three to five persons maximum. The bigger the group, the more difficult it is to keep everyone on the same page.

  2. Study with friends but add others. Often friends share the same major, gender, and race, so they tend to think alike. Those with other perspectives see things from a different angle, offer alternative explanations, and suggest new examples, which in turn deepens understanding.

  3. Meet more often and for shorter periods of time. Marathon study sessions are less effective than shorter sessions held regularly. Encourage those in the group to schedule some sessions between exams and then several to prepare for the exam.

  4. Prepare an agenda and expect group members to come prepared. Decide beforehand what will be studied the next session and what group members need to do to come prepared. Don’t allow freeloaders and be firm with group members who arrive unprepared.

  5. Use good study strategies. Explain things to each other. Ask each other questions, tackle problems together, and work to understand the content.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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