Discovering why study groups are more effective

Studying in groups helps students learn more effectively. More than 20 years of academic research has consistently demonstrated that fact.

But what exactly is it about studying with other people that makes it so effective?

An expert in creativity and everyday conversation has identified two key patterns that help make studying in groups an effective way to learn.
An expert in creativity and everyday conversation has identified two key patterns that help make studying in groups an effective way to learn.

Through painstaking research, an expert in creativity and everyday conversation at Washington University in St. Louis has identified two patterns of group dynamics that show why group study is optimal.

The research is published in the June 2005 issue of Linguistics and Education, an international research journal.

“A large number of college students get together and form study groups, even when they aren’t required by their professor,” says R. Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor of education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. “We wanted to determine exactly why that was the case and why they seem to work so well.”

Decades of research by educational psychologists has shown that when students work together in collaborative teams in classrooms, they learn material better than when they sit alone at their desks. But no one had extended those studies to study groups outside the classroom.

In the first scholarly study of such study groups, Sawyer, along with a former undergraduate student, videotaped and analyzed a study group for an undergraduate psychology course at the university. The group consisted of four students who got together in advance of each exam to study their lecture notes.

Sawyer mapped out each nuance of their conversations including pauses, breaths, interruptions, glances and each “uhm” and “yeah.” The time-consuming process unveiled many details and features of conversation that normally would go unnoticed.

It’s in the gaze

Sawyer identified two patterns of conversation among the group that made it an effective learning tool.

“A lot of our findings were based on the fact that the four students each had a notebook with them during the group study session,” says Sawyer. “A lot of times they were looking at their notebooks while one of them was talking. They don’t look down all the time — they were constantly looking down and back up.”

By transcribing the students’ eye gaze, Sawyer actually noted when they looked down and up, which they seemed to do at the same time — when one looked up they all looked up.

“In the middle of an utterance while they were looking at their notebooks they would look up at the other three students while finishing their sentence,” says Sawyer. “We noticed when they did that it was a sign that they were learning the material at a deeper level. They would read it verbatim out of the notes and then look up and paraphrase it to the rest of the group. That eye gaze is a signal that they were starting to make the material their own.

Keith Sawyer
Keith Sawyer

“That pattern of looking down, thinking about what the professor said and then looking up and putting it into their own words, we felt that was a big explanation for why group studying was helping them learn the material at a deeper level.”

Could you sit in your room by yourself and look down and look up while you studied and get the same results? Maybe, says Sawyer, but he also noticed that there was a group-level pattern that connected all four students together.

Absorbing the material

“The particular lecture that we studied was in chunks and each chunk pertained to a psychology experiment,” Sawyer says. “The study group was organized around these experiments. The students would start talking about the psychology experiments that were in the lecture and they would talk through it for a while and get to a point where everyone agreed about what the experiment was about. Then they would move on to the next experiment.

“The group pattern we discovered was that when they first began discussing an experiment, all four students were looking down at their notebooks. Gradually, as all four students began to collectively grasp the material, they started looking up more.”

Sawyer argues that this looking up contributes to the individual pattern so that by the end of the study group session when each of the students is looking up, their conversation is much more free-flowing and conversational and they are beginning to more easily grasp the material.

“Study groups are so effective because they provide a way for students to make the lecture notes their own,” Sawyer says. “When students hear the voice of the professor and are taking notes, they are so busy writing that it’s hard for them to really absorb the material. What happens in the study group setting is that through these interaction dynamics that we identified, students could absorb the lecture notes and make them their own.”