Studying is often a solitary activity, and it’s easy to see why some students view it only as such. Studying alone allows for personalized learning, maximum focus, and of course, peace and quiet. But what if we told you that there’s another way, and that it’s actually scientifically proven to be more effective?

Group studying is a great alternative to studying alone, and many studies have revealed that it can actually be more effective than solo studying (so long as you’re actually studying and not chatting!). A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2006 revealed that groups of three, four, or five perform better on complex problem solving than the best performer of an equivalent number of individuals, and this study is just one of many that point to the same conclusion. Group study is often a more efficient and effective method of learning, at least in concentrated amounts.

It’s most likely that even students who study in a group regularly rely overall on a combination of group and solo studying. Solo studying allows you to study whenever and wherever you are, while group studying generally takes more planning and coordination. That said, there are many ways that you can facilitate a group studying session.

To learn how to organize your own study session, read on.

Find Classmates to Participate in Your Study Session

You might be inclined to choose your best friends to make your study group as fun as possible, but this isn’t your best strategy. Instead, try to recruit people who have similar work ethics and academic ambitions as you to join your study session.

Think about which classmates are engaged during class, ask thought-provoking questions, or take notes consistently. Also consider who will work well together and who brings varying strengths. 

You will want about three or four people for your study session, and definitely not more than five. Keeping it small makes it more focused and easier to coordinate.

Get your group together quickly after class or make a group email or text thread to coordinate with one another. You’ll need to agree on a time commitment together. Two hours is usually a good goal, but 30 minutes more or less is effective too. Also agree on a date and time when everyone is available.

Finally, choose a group leader. This might be you, since you were the person to initially start the organizing, but it doesn’t have to be. The leader will be responsible for keeping the group on schedule and on subject during the study session, and for coordinating communication leading up to it.

Find a Place to Hold Your Study Session

Usually, it is easiest to study at someone’s house. If this is the case, make sure that there is a room big enough for everyone and all the study materials. You’ll all need space to sit at a table and room to take notes, read textbooks, or work on problem sets. You might also need Internet access or require the use of a computer. These are all considerations to think about when choosing your study session location.

If you can’t hold your study session at someone’s house, you’ll need to look at community spaces. Sometimes your school will allow you to use an empty classroom after hours. You might also be able to reserve a room at a local library.

Your last option might be a local coffee shop or restaurant. This isn’t ideal since there are likely to be many distractions, but if you can schedule to go during off hours or arrange use of a secluded space, you will be able to make it work if you have to.

Prepare for the Session

Before the study session, communicate with the group to agree on some study goals. You can brainstorm these in person or via text or email. Encourage your fellow study session participants to pose questions in advance, and list any topics or questions they want to review.

Also be sure that the group sets clear expectations in advance. Usually, everyone needs to finish assigned readings, review notes, and prepare any group assignments before the study session takes place. This will help ensure that everyone is at a similar level in terms of exposure to the material before the study session takes place.

As you think about the content of your study session, try to focus on concepts rather than applications. This means that instead of spending extended time on any single homework problem, you instead focus on the underlying principles that make that problem challenging. You will need to break problems down by concept to really get at them in a meaningful way.

Finally, gather the necessary materials ahead of time. These usually consist of sample problems taken from the text or sourced online, video tutorials, or relevant excerpts from the text. All of these should be used to spark discussion and strategy sharing during your actual study session.

Study Session Structure    

You should go into your study session with some idea of how it will be organized. Study sessions are most effective when they’re around two hours long. If they’re much longer, some participants are bound to start losing focus and interest, and if they’re much shorter, you’re less likely to have time for an in depth analysis of important concepts.

Open the study session with a quick review of background concepts or previous problem sets. You can either present this view on your own, or ask ahead of time for other participants to contribute. Taking turns presenting information is an important characteristic of any study session. The review will probably last about 15 minutes.

After the review, you or another group member will present the concept that you’ll be focusing on for the bulk of the study session. Again, invite alternative explanations or help from other group members. Discuss the relevance of what you’re studying and any examples that you’ve encountered so far.

Once everyone is familiar with the concept, have some practice problems for group members to tackle. This part can be structured in different ways. You might have everyone work on the same problem individually, or have everyone work on a different problem within the same content area.

About halfway through the study session, allow 10-15 minutes for a break. It is a good idea to bring some kind of snack or drinks to share. Use this time to bond as a group and unwind a little before getting back to work. You should return to your studying feeling refreshed and ready to begin again.

Once everyone has finished their individual work, share your solutions with the group one at a time. Learning how other people approach the same type of problem can broaden your understanding of the concept and sometimes you’ll even learn an approach that’s easier for you to wrap your head around.

Finally, at the end of the session, spend a few minutes reviewing what you’ve done. Outline different ways to solve the problems in front of you and discuss any plans for future study sessions or ongoing work.

Study Session Activities

Sometimes, you will need to plan more activities to fill the time or deepen everyone’s understanding of a concept. Here are a few ideas for activities to include during your study session.

1. In Depth Solutions

While you might spend most of your time with the group reviewing different approaches to solving one type of problem, there are some initial and ongoing steps to solving any problem that you might take for granted. As your work gets more and more complex, stop to consider the following questions before you begin to work on any problem:

      • Verify that you know what all the terms in the question mean. If there are unfamiliar vocabulary terms, look them up or ask someone else in your group for help. You should always know precisely what every word in a problem means when you’re studying. This may not always be the case during tests, but for now you should take advantage of every resource you have.
      • Verify that you actually understand what the question is asking for. Sometimes, especially in word problems, it might be unclear exactly what your answer should consist of when you’re finished. If this is the case, make this a discussion point. Talk about how to figure out what exactly you’re solving for.
      • Write out in words what you did to solve the problem. This can help you to think about your solution in a different way and can really cement it in your mind. By sharing this written explanation, you can help others to better understand how you solved the problem, and by hearing explanations from your peers, you can better understand how they did the same.
      • Write down which concepts are being tested in the question. This will ultimately help you to categorize questions and further focus your studying. Later, when you do a final chapter or semester review, you’ll be grateful to have a list of questions categorized by concept. This will be a huge help in shaping your review work, and it will organize your thinking as you approach questions that test the same concept.

2.  Assign Topics Ahead of Time

If you will be focusing on more than one topic or concept during your study session, there’s no reason why one person should be in charge of all of the preparations. Instead, assign a different topic or concept to each member of your group.

Ask group members to prepare a brief presentation to introduce the concept and any relevant materials, and then ask him or her to lead the discussion or activities associated with it. This is a good way to keep any single member of the group from taking on too much of the work.

3. Ask Members to Contribute Questions

Another good strategy is to ask participants to arrive at the study group with 3-5 questions they’d like answered or clarified. Be sure to specify that you don’t mean homework or problem set questions, but rather broader conceptual ones.

Take turns posing questions to the group and guiding discussions about them. Everyone can learn something from hearing the questions and listening to others’ ideas about them.

4. Create a Game Together

If everyone is fairly comfortable with the basic concepts you’re studying and you are meeting primarily to review, a game can be a fun way to accomplish this together.

During your study session, you can break into partners or work on your own to create flashcards or a game board. Then play the game together to reinforce knowledge and have a little fun.

5. Engage Different Learning Styles

Some students learn best through listening or watching. These are easy learning styles to accommodate in the classroom and in study sessions. But other students learn best through speaking, writing, or even movement.

By developing study techniques for all different types of learners, you can ensure that everyone will be engaged during the study session. Also, most students who typically learn best through listening or watching will still find other techniques valuable as well.

Challenge your group to write a song or chant to help memorize difficult content. Pair the words with movements to really kick it up a notch. While these techniques might seem silly or contrived at first, they are bound to leave a lasting impression, which is exactly the goal.

Final Study Session Reminders

Keep in mind, it’s easy to get distracted in groups. Studying together may be less effective than studying alone if you don’t actually get work done, so it’s important to stay focused.

While any study session is better than none, to maximize your effectiveness you should aim to meet on a regular basis to increase performance. You will also find that your group will work together more and more effectively as time goes on.

At the end of each session, make a list of action points. These might include things you want to review more, resources to review, or questions that you should each plan to work on individually between sessions. In any case, leave the study session with a clear idea of what you need to work on next to continue your progress.

If you think you need more help or direction for your studying or test prep goals, consider CollegeVine’s Tutoring Services, which pair you with tutors who have aced the very tests and subjects for which you’re studying.

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist