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When to Break Up with Your Study Group

It's not you; it's them. Here, 5 ways to know whether your study group's shortcomings might actually be holding you back, and what to do about it.

You thought you found the one, but you suspect that it’s not going to work out.

It’s not that your expectations were too high—you understood the parameters and your eyes were wide open going in. But you didn’t experience that mind-meld or feeling of reciprocal commitment, and it has you rethinking this relationship.

We’re talking, of course, about your study group, that weekly get-together with classmates to review coursework so that you can both better understand the lessons and earn a better grade. You sense that your peers aren’t on the same wavelength. And figuring out what to do is presenting a big challenge.

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“A successful study group has about 3 to 5 members and a consensus of how the group will operate,” says John Branch, clinical assistant professor of business administration, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. That includes “a consistent meeting day and time, members who come to the meeting prepared, and an environment in which everyone is comfortable enough to ask questions if they don’t understand something.”

On the other hand, he says, an unproductive study group will exhibit some telltale signs in terms of a member’s dedication to the group. Does this person show up regularly? Are they coming prepared? Are they making a significant contribution to the study team? If not, this could signal that the person is not serious about the “relationship.”

But what happens if the other group members don’t think it’s a big deal? When do you say, “Enough”? Here are 5 reasons to call it quits.

1. The group is too big and unfocused.

Size matters, and bigger is not better when it comes to study groups. “The larger the group, the more ‘social loafing’ can occur,” says Samantha Lopez, academic support coordinator at the Center for Advising and Academic Success at Whittier College in Whittier, California. By social loafing, she means the tendency of some members in the group to cut back on their efforts—i.e., goof off. Without a clearly defined purpose, which is difficult to achieve in large groups, some people may lose focus and motivation and let others pick up the slack.

Keeping your study group limited to about 3 to 5 students keeps everyone accountable. You joined the group to learn collaboratively, so if the group is too big, or it suddenly grows in size and members aren’t contributing, it’s time to focus your energy elsewhere. Or maybe even create a new group.

2. The group doesn’t set expectations.

Study groups need an agenda. A lack of structure not only sets the stage for social loafing but sets the group up to fail in its mission: learning and improving your course grade.

Branch suggests creating a charter. Though it sounds a bit formal, it’s simply an agreement for how the study group will function: when the group will meet, the roles of each person on the team, whether the roles rotate weekly, the division of work, the practices for making decisions, and the setting of any other procedures that seem relevant. “We encourage students to create charters for any kind of group work, and we force them to do a charter when it’s a group-based activity, such as a consulting project or summer internship,” says Branch. Whether it’s an informal study group or a team assigned by the teacher for a project-based grade, the same rules apply: Know going in what each student wants to get out of it and how you are going to work together, and then establish policies for operating.

It’s never too late to set some ground rules if you didn’t at the first meeting. However, if there’s resistance to making them “official,” find a group that will.

3. You have different objectives than other members.

A study group of members with different backgrounds can help you broaden your thinking. “Study groups should have some level of diversity, because that diversity will [encourage] different [study techniques]—different tools, different mnemonic devices, different memorization devices—to help learn the material,” Branch explains. It gives you the chance to experiment and see which style best suits you.

However, he says, there need to be some areas of common ground—for instance, which time of day is preferable for studying together, or what the group’s academic goals are. Don’t settle! If you’re aiming for an A, don’t waste your time with a group that’s happy with a C+.

4. Communication is a challenge

Online students can have unique issues when creating study groups. Getting on the same page with people you’ve never met in person can be difficult, says Branch. It’s a completely different form of group dynamics, in addition to being a different form of communication.

When working remotely, use technology to your advantage, suggests Lopez. You literally have the world at your fingertips. “Shared applications, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, allow group members to easily share online,” she says. “Resources like Google Slides allow you to work simultaneously.” Lopez also recommends using websites that allow students to create online flashcards and other tools that can test retention of content.

But if you’re logging on only to find that your study group members are unresponsive, it’s time to log off.

5. You give more than you get.

“If someone thinks they can get an A+ on an exam without being part of a study group—and there are plenty of people who do—they’re not going to join one,” says Branch. And you don’t want them there.

A study group is like a reciprocity ring. You’re hoping to get something out of it, but in return you have to give something to it. Branch explains, “Very selfishly, I would say a person joins a study group to get a better grade. But, less selfishly, a person joins a study group to help other people get better grades.” The group dynamic should benefit everyone involved. As in any relationship, there has to be give-and-take. If the learning isn’t mutual—you’re contributing far more than you’re receiving—it’s OK to part ways and find a better match.

Whatever you decide, don’t give up trying to find “the one.” It’s out there! “Students who regularly attend a study group end up with better grades,” says Shanna Wheeler, assistant director of the Academic Resource Center at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. “Group work demands active communication, team effort, and concentration,” she adds. The payoff is not only a higher GPA but also developing skills—like teamwork—that will serve you well after you graduate. It is definitely worth the search.

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