In this week’s success story, reader Kari writes in from a large university in Minnesota, saying, “I really underestimated the power of group study until the end of the semester. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong in studying during the bulk of the semester, until I found out how much getting a group of friends together and talking through problems could help. I actually went from a C– to a B+ within the last week of the course (during the last exam and the final)!”
I asked Kari to share some more details of how she managed to turn her grade around at a such a late stage.
MOC: What factors do you think were key to your success?
K: Time with friends and white boards! I wasted a lot of time in crowded tutor rooms and didn’t find much help there. I bought myself some white board markers and found some friends that struggled in different ways than me, and we studied on white boards every week to talk through problems. I wish I would have figured this out earlier in the semester! I went from getting D’s and C’s on my exams to getting 97% on one after working through problems with friends for a few hours in the library a couple times before the exam! Talking through problems and problem solving together helped what I was learning stick unlike looking up solutions in a book or online did.
The teaching part of studying with others helps me remember details of topics, and questions we would ask each other would broaden our understanding of anything we discussed. Also, if I didn’t understand something after reading it in the textbook, a friend’s explanation would almost always make concepts click for me.
MOC: A lot of people I talk to (and I was like this too) are naturally shy. How did you find the people that formed your study group?
K: Our professor hosted a weekly workshop, where we had an opportunity to meet classmates and work through problems. That was where I met the people I worked with. When a classmate and I would find we were complimenting each other, generally understanding and excelling in different subjects from each other, I would usually ask if they wanted to meet in the library any time after workshop or class. I tried to find study buddies that understood subjects I didn’t, and that I understood some subjects better than, to be most productive.
I think I am very outgoing, so it wasn’t too hard for me to ask people to study. I would usually compliment them in their abilities to break the ice in opening my invitation to study.
MOC: One of the common problems with large study groups is that they can sometimes lose focus. Did you have to do anything in particular to stay focused on work, instead of getting distracted?
K. We tried to keep the study groups small. Most times I was only working with one other person, with just a few times having additional people join. We found that the more people studied together at one time, the easier it was for side conversations to start up.
MOC: Any other resources you found useful?
K: Watching videos offering other points of view on how to work through mechanisms helped a lot. I also found videos on substitution and elimination reactions helpful to explain WHY reactions happen the way they do, which helped me solve new problem types when I was exposed to them during exams.
MOC: Weird question, but do you remember that moment when you flipped over your final exam and started working on it? How did you feel at that moment?
K. I have really dreadful test taking anxiety, so I went into every exam with anxiety. I think the biggest difference in my final exam from my early prior exams was that my anxiety in the pressure to perform well didn’t panic me to the point where I was blinded to any memory of my studies. After studying with friends, I could remember clearly back to a conversation I had with a friend and what we discussed about the rules and details of solving each kind of problem.
MOC: What motivated you to put in the work all semester? What’s the end goal for you?
K. Eventually, like many of my peers, I want to be a physician. In the mean time though, studying how chemicals act around us and in our bodies (and what we put in us) is really exciting and kind of a motivation for me in itself (sounds cliche, but I really love it). There were several concepts that excited me about the opportunity to study organic chemistry this semester, like when I understood the basic chemistry behind some chemotherapy drugs for example, and then how that translated into the drugs’ effects.
MOC: Thank you very much for sharing your story with us!
As a footnote, a few years ago I collected as many instructors’ “how to succeed in organic chemistry” essays as I could. What they had to say on the topic of study groups overlaps nicely with Kari’s observations.
- “you’ll be astonished at the insight that you gain when you have to explain something to others” (ref)
- “Teaching each other is an ideal way to learn chemistry. However, do not allow these study sessions to turn into pizza parties and gossip sessions. Group study sessions should be all business”. (ref)
- “study in a group only if it is truly helpful… If your study partner is slowing you down or is going too fast for you, then get a new one quickly, this isn’t the time to worry about being a good friend!”
Personally I like this quote from Cal Newport:
Too many movies like Good Will Hunting got people thinking that to be smart at math means you should be able to stare at a problem for 5 – 10 seconds and then instantly solve it. Sorry. Doesn’t work that way. I walk past real geniuses every day — people, for example, who are my age and are also tenured professors — and guess what: it takes them a long time to solve hard problems; and they work with other people.
How have study groups worked for you? Share it in the comments!