How to Run a Successful Study Group

Study groups are a popular way to learn in college. Get-It-Done Guy has a few simple practices to help your study group be much more effective.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #239

It’s back to school time and Get-It-Done Guy podcast listener Amanda posted a question on my Facebook page and via email:

“How do I run a successful study group?”

A study group meets around a shared goal. It’s like a team in business, only the purpose is a bit different, and you don’t have a psychotic boss demanding impossible things in an unrealistic time frame…just a psychotic professor, demanding you understand impossible things in an unrealistic time frame.

Here are 9 tips to manage a successful study group:

Tip #1: Start With the Goal

Start with your goal. Make sure everyone in the group agrees on why you’re there. For example, a good goal would be to learn the material. Some people may be showing up just to fulfill a requirement, or to have an impressive class on their transcript, or because their parents always wanted them to be a doctor, or a lawyer.

If you all have similar goals to your group-mates, great! You’ll be able to help each other reach them. If you all have wildly different goals, you’re probably doomed and should abandon school to start an anarchist collective. If most of you agree on goals, but one person is out-of-step with the rest, you may want to trade members with another group. If that’s not possible, there are simple brainwashing techniques that will bring your lost little lamb back to the flock.

Tip #2: Choose Your Members For the Long Term

It’s extremely crass to choose your friends on the basis of who you think will someday have the most money, power, and connections. But they’re not your friends yet, so it’s fine to choose your study group that way. This is called “planning for retirement.”

They never tell you that the people in your study group will probably still be your friends 20 years from now. But it’s true. Choose your friends wisely and they can help you succeed in a lot more than Introduction to N-Space Manifolds in Almost-Complete Hamiltonian Geometries 101.

Tip #3: Balance Your Strengths

Different people are good at different things. My pal Bernice has a photographic memory when it comes to classifications. Show her an essential oil, crystal, or Tarot card, and she’ll not only remember it forever, but also be able to describe the entire history that led to its discovery and development. When we’re studying anatomy, or bookkeeping, or genealogy—any subject that requires memorizing and organizing large amounts of information—she becomes our expert, because she’s got it mastered before the rest of us have opened page one.

Bernice’s boyfriend Melvin is great with abstract concepts. When it comes to math-intensive subjects, understanding the driving forces of political movements, or deriving the underlying mathematics of freakishly cute Hello Kitty, he’s our man.

Find opportunities to tutor others sometimes, and be tutored other times.

Tip #4: Help Each Other

I’m hoping the goal of your study group is to learn. Start each learning module by determining who is likely to “get it” most quickly. Then make them the “go to” person for this module to help the rest of you get up to speed more quickly. You want to find opportunities for each of you to tutor the others sometimes, and be tutored other times.

Tip #5: Have Weekly Experts Prepare in Advance

Be ready for each week’s study session. Know the topics in advance, and identify who you think your expert will be. If no one has a natural affinity for the topic, choose someone at random, or take turns. Have this week’s expert start studying before the group meets, so they can help everyone else by the time you all get together.

Tip #6: Make Everyone a Question Expert

Some problem sets have questions that build on earlier problems. For those, you all need to start working straight through from the beginning. But if you have a problem set where problem 5 doesn’t require you to solve problems 1–4 first, have each person start working on a different problem. Very soon, each problem will have someone in the group that’s done it and can help the others if they get stuck.

Tip #7: Learn For Yourself

Don’t just have each person do one problem and then everyone copies the answer. You won’t learn the material, and you might get expelled for cheating. Do learn the material for yourself, using each other as teachers. When you help someone learn, the very act of explaining something helps you learn it better. Make sure you’ve actually learned and understood the material by the time the group is done for the night.

Tip #8: Take Care of Yourself

Being a college student, you probably think pizza is a vitamin, soda is good for you, and partying until 3 am is a form of aerobic exercise. Not true. You’ll learn better if you eat right and get enough sleep. If you snack as you study, bring healthy snacks. Too many carbs make your blood sugar crash and your waistline expand. Bring protein to even out your blood sugar. At the very least—and I hate myself for saying this—if you’re going to have corn chips, have a Slim Jim too, to keep your blood chemistry stable.

Check out Nutrition Diva’s easy tricks for eating healthy in college, and Get-Fit Guy’s tips on how to lose weight by sleeping more (yes, that’s right).

Tip #9: Have Process Discussions

After a few weeks, schedule a separate study group meeting to review how it’s going. Keep the tone positive; discuss what’s working. Avoid blame and getting personal. Ask “What’s working?” and “How can we do more of that?”

As my mother used to tell me, if it’s fun to do alone, it’s even more fun to do it with a group. I’m sure she was talking about studying. Make sure your group members have compatible goals and strengths. Use everyone’s expertise, but learn for yourself—don’t copy! Eat well and check in to keep things on track.

Want more on how to succeed after college? Check out our brand new book Quick and Dirty Tips for Life After College where I and 11 other experts give you the tools for real world success. It’s just $3.99 – the perfect gift for current college students and recent graduates.

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com

I help groups become more effective by aligning their roles and responsibilities with the goals of the group. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.