Editor’s Note: The following post is the second in a two-part series by Dr. Petersen on how to improve your study habits. You can also read the first part, 5 Ways to Ace Medical School Exams by Maximizing Study Time.
Have you ever thought you understood something—until you had to explain it to someone else?
You’re taking Endo, and someone asks you to enumerate the various mechanisms associated with type 2 diabetes. You get as far as remembering the insulin receptor and then draw a blank. . . . What were the actual mechanisms? You remember there was something about the beta islet cell. . . . Was there an ATP-gated channel . . . or . . . ? Grrrrr. You thought you knew this!
On the flip side, if you feel you never had a firm grasp on those various mechanisms in the first place, you know how reassuring it can be when someone can clearly explain them to you. That’s where your classmates come in.
Studying with other people helps you personalize and interact with material. This is much more difficult to do independently.
Studying in a group gives you the opportunity to figure out what you don’t know—and what you do know. This allows you to TARGET your remaining study time on topics you are not so familiar with, thereby making your studying more efficient and saving you time in the long run.
For some, especially medical students and other grad-school students, studying in groups may be a foreign concept. Some fear the group dynamic might be too competitive or that the style of group study will clash with individual study preferences.
From my experience, there is an optimal way to organize and interact with a study group. And that’s the focus of this post.
Creating an Effective Study Group
1. Don’t make the group too big; a group of three or four students is the ideal size.
2. Designate a moderator to keep you on schedule. The moderator role can rotate from one meeting to the next.
3. Decide the topics you are going to discuss BEFORE meeting. All members should commit to preparing that material PRIOR to meeting. Don’t take on too much material for one session.
4. Schedule a SPECIFIC time period for your study group (e.g., 1.5 hours) before meeting; it is the moderator’s responsibility to keep to that time. This will prevent the session from dragging on—and you feeling your valuable study time has been wasted.
5. Each student should thoroughly PREPARE and identify key points and areas of confusion within the material to be covered in the group.
6. Discuss and quiz each other on the material. Treat this like an oral exam. Come into the group well prepared but be ready to identify areas that you do not understand.
7. Teach others material you understand, and learn from others who understand material better than you do. When you teach someone else material, you have to know it in much more depth, and you will find it solidifies your knowledge. You may even surprise yourself with how much you know.
8. Try to make studying enjoyable in whatever way you can. Since you will spend a lot of time studying, you need to keep things interesting. Consider crowning a session “guru” every time you meet. This is the person who has been able to ace key material and explain it well to others during the session. You might even exchange gag gifts.
So, how do you as an individual get the most out of the group? Each student should go in with three goals:
1. Emerge from the group with a list of what you DON’T KNOW YET (material you need to spend more time learning). This is GOLDEN information. Once you know where your weak areas lie, you can spend more time studying these topics. After the study group meets, you should develop an action plan and schedule enough time to study these topics.
2. Determine what you already know well. Often these will be the topics you will help teach others. It’s important to identify objectively what you know well so you can spend your time wisely on topics that you don’t know. Of course, you will review all the material before the exam, so don’t worry that you won’t be prepared.
3. Personalize and interact with the material. This is much more difficult to do independently, and is best done by interacting with others. What do I mean by “personalizing” the material? You are much more likely to assimilate information (make it part of your memory) when you make it your own. If you simply read the pages in a textbook over and over, you are not so likely to learn as if you take your own notes (personalizing), review your notes (personalizing), quiz yourself on the information (interacting), have others quiz you on the material (interacting), and teach or learn from others (personalizing and interacting).
Adding study groups to your studying arsenal can deliver outsized results—not only in better test scores but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the ability to retain information and apply it in the real world.