In this week’s dive into learning science, we explore the pros and cons of studying in groups and what factors you should consider when deciding whether to join one.

It’s a familiar feeling. A major exam is coming up, and it’s time to map out a study plan.

Do I study on my own, or should I try and join a study group? Can I handle studying all the material on my own? What if joining a group ends up being a waste of time?

The Enticing Popularity of Teamwork

In workplaces across the world, everyone has been inundated with the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Open-office layouts, regularly scheduled social events, and team-oriented productivity tools have taken over offices.

Collaboration is at its peak popularity. Part of this is due to people’s skills becoming more and more hyper-specialized, while part of it is due to a genuine need for multiple perspectives and areas of specialty being required to solve complex issues.

Millennials in particular have brought a wave of collaboration expectation to the workplace.

According to a study by Forbes, 88% of millennials prefer a collaborative work-culture rather than a competitive one.

In addition to Forbes, a study by Randstad and Future Workplace on the impacts of Generation Z and Millennials entering the workforce found that “the emergence of a collaboration generation is impacting the ways employers provide, and leverage, collaborative practices in the workplace.”

This means that effective collaboration with other people is a critical desire and expectation from a generation that makes up roughly one-third of the current workforce. Another important factor? Employers are catering to it. It also means that the incoming younger Generation Z is similarly interested in meaningful collaboration in the workplace.

So how does the role of teamwork translate when it comes to learning something totally new?

Understanding Where and How Learning Works

Knocking out a familiar work project can look a bit different from sitting down to learn something completely new, but what the two tasks do have in common is that learning and progress only happen in the right environments.

According to studies done on childhood learning development, there are four key foundations for learning: belonging, well-being, engagement, and expression.

Learning happens when one or all of the following are experienced:

  • Belonging: Connecting to others and contributing to your own world in some way.
  • Well-Being: A sense of self, health, and well-being is developed.
  • Engagement: Exploring the world with your body, mind, and senses, being an active and engaged learner.
  • Expression: Being able to communicate and express oneself in many different ways.

In essence, learning only happens in environments that support the above situations.

Whether you’re in a classroom or a board room, learning results from being in the right place at the right time and being surrounded by a supportive learning environment.

This is an important concept to recognize and remember when it comes to determining the format in which you plan to learn something new.

Applying Teamwork and Learning to Study Groups

Study groups can be beneficial in a lot of ways. They allow for open discussion and dissection of complex or challenging subjects. One of the best ways to ensure you’re actually learning something is re-explaining it to someone else; a concept called the Feynman Technique.

Studying with other people can also be a motivator to hold yourself accountable and show up to work when you said you would. Being around other people sparks energy to get involved and can be a major motivator in learning. It’s an opportunity to meet new people, make new connections, and develop a deeper understanding of content and context.

It is important, however, to acknowledge distractions when they arise. Study groups can turn into a source of frustration and stress when our learning needs are not being met.

If you find yourself watching baby goat videos and talking about the latest Netflix show (so.many.good.ones) with your study partners more than you are actually studying, it might be time to regroup and refocus.

Make sure to work together on minimizing distractions and be in tune with logistical hold-ups such as frequent re-scheduling or last-minute preparation and planning that can slow progress down.

Realistically gauge the implicit and practical value that working with a study group can bring to your learning styles and ability.

One way to get started is by assessing the four learning foundations:

  • Belonging: Do you feel that you could get along with the people in your group? If you’re uncertain, are you willing to at least give it a try? Could you see yourself contributing to the group in a meaningful way?
  • Well-Being: Is everyone in the group respectful to others? Will they cater to everyone’s learning styles and preferences? Assess the potential for clashes in critical areas of understanding, respect, listening, and kindness.
  • Engagement: Do you see yourself being an active participant in the group? Do you feel comfortable speaking up and asking questions? Are you willing to put the time and energy into being a meaningful contributor?
  • Expression: Do you feel you can be honest and upfront with your group in a respectful and understanding way? Do you feel you will be welcomed to the table as an active participant?

Asking yourself these questions before you join a group will be critical to establishing a foundation of intentions and goals.

Assess Your Individual Study Needs Practically

Just like you wouldn’t apply for a job that requires fifteen years of experience when you only have five, it’s essential to be realistic and honest with yourself when picking a group to study with. Having the self-awareness of your own comprehension of a certain topic or subject will help ensure you land exactly where you need to be.

If you find yourself being the most familiar or educated on a topic within a group, ask yourself if you will get what you need out of the collaboration. Are you comfortable with being in more of a leadership role, helping others to understand topics? Do you want more of a challenge and should consider seeking a group where you are on a more level playing field?

If you find yourself to be more of a little fish in a big pond, study groups are a great way to dive into a subject to figure out what you don’t understand. Sometimes trial by fire is the best way to realize exactly where you stand and what you need to do to progress.

It’s also important to establish how much time you can and should devote to the group. If you find yourself not being able to keep up with the group, assess where you need to double down to keep up or determine if this group is really the right one for you.

Study groups aren’t for everyone, and sometimes it’s all about timing. If this semester or year doesn’t seem like a good time to collaborate in a fast-paced environment, work at your own pace and do what you need to do to get to where you want to be.

Make the Call: Study Alone vs. Study with a Group

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to deciphering whether you should study in a group environment or go at it solo. It’s a decision that depends on circumstances, timing, and personal preference.

At some point, you will find yourself in a professional environment that requires working and collaborating with others. Getting an early start on understanding group collaboration and dynamics is a critical life skill that will help you throughout your career.

It’s also important not to make decisions based on fear, especially when it comes to getting out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet, even if it means learning that the group dynamic isn’t going to work for you.

Find that colleague who knows the best cafes or libraries in town, go to that classmate who has a study room in their building, and get some work done together. Success is sparked by collaboration in the right environments, and it’s up to you to create your own environment.