To join or not to join – that is the question. Study groups seem as ubiquitous for the law school experience as the Socratic method, outlining, and briefing. But are they helpful?
As with so many other hard questions in life, the answer is: it depends.
There are certainly dangers in study groups: it is important not to confuse what you have learned and can do as a group with what you have learned and can do individually. Study groups also don’t guarantee you a good grade, and can sometimes increase your stress or anxiety.
With all of those potential pitfalls, are study groups even worth it? How can they possibly be helpful? The answer comes in knowing yourself, knowing your group, and setting expectations. Here are five ways that study groups can be beneficial, if you form them with specific purposes in mind.
1. Share Commercial Materials, and Reviews of Materials, during Studying and Outlining
Let’s face it, supplements are expensive! It can be prohibitive for many law students to buy more than one supplement or commercial outline. But with a study group, you can share materials as well as opinions on what is helpful for your particular class and what isn’t as you are preparing your own outlines.
2. Keep Each Other Accountable
Studies have indicated that people are more likely to complete a task or stay on track if they are being held accountable by someone. This uses social expectations to help keep up motivation. Study groups can be a great place to hold one another accountable — for keeping up with studying, for staying on target for outlining, and for completing practice questions or exams. But this only works if people actually do hold one another accountable, so be clear this is something you need from the start.
3. Dedicated Silent Study Time
Sitting down and just studying (reading, briefing, outlining, or completing practice questions) can be surprisingly difficult sometimes. It can also be surprisingly difficult to cut off distractions like social media, streaming video, and your roommates. Sometimes setting up a quiet time where everyone commits to working diligently and distraction-free can be enormously productive. This is a particular kind of group accountability. You can even include other graduate students (or non-graduate students that just want some quiet time to work on something) in the effort.
This can be especially motivating if you couple it with a “reward,” meeting in the evening and after two hours of dedicated productivity, everyone can go get ice-cream (or have a glass of wine, or walk over and get dinner together). You want to balance the time spent on the reward with the time studying, but coupling work and something fun can keep you dedicated and focused during your quiet self-study.
4. Talk Through Complex Topics
There are many topics that are complicated and opaque when first introduced. Sometimes talking through them with peers can help you all understand how the pieces fit together much better. Study groups can offer a safe space to do this, as well as a place to practice articulating and explaining ideas. And anything that the group isn’t able to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction can always be brought up with a TA or professor at office hours. Teaching others is one of the most effective ways to learn something, and where your study group has agreed to dividing up some complex topics, clarifying them with the professor and then “teaching” them to your fellow group members can be very effective at helping you learn. The challenge here is knowing your groups’ limits in working things out themselves, and dividing work (teaching, asking, learning, reading, etc.) evenly so that all benefit.
5. Get More Out of Practice Exams
The danger of using study groups with practice exams is crowdsourcing the work and getting the false impression that you know everything that every member of the group knows. However, there are some good ways to use study groups to get more out of practice exams.
First, if your professor has posted a large number of practice exams, you can divide them up amongst the group and tabulate statistics on them like how often certain issues come up. Knowing that the last question of the exam is always a policy question, that the second question always deals with the equal protection, or that about 75% of the time your professor asks a question about organizational standing, can be hugely beneficial in targeting your studying. By dividing the exams, no single student has to read through all of the exams and model answers and lose out on the surprise of taking a test as a practice test.
Second, if your professor hasn’t posted model answers for a practice exam (which is frustratingly common), it can be useful to all take the practice exam independently and get together and compare answers to try to arrive at a rubric to study from. This can be one way to make model exams without model answers work for you (and your peers)!
Study groups can be a great asset to some students in some classes. The above are just a few ideas of ways that study groups can be productive spaces, if you set the right expectations.
For more helpful advice, check out these articles:
- Five Myths About the Law School Study Group
- Be Careful with Study Groups
- Sometimes We All Need a Little Accountability
- How to Use Technology in Your Law School Study Group
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