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Education

Solo Studying vs. Group Studying

“Surround yourself with good people that compliment the areas where you are weak”

Jacko Willink (1971 – )

The professor just announced the exam is coming up. We’re a little stressed, but not too stressed. Luckily, we’ve read Chris’ blog posts and understand the fundamental principles of studying Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. We also read my posts of Strategies for Better Studying 1, 2, 3, & 4, so we know a thing or two about how to studying for this exam effectively.

On top of that, we read his posts on time management and scheduling Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 so we know exactly when and where we can start applying the study strategies. We even read his post on Conquering Test and Performance Anxiety, so we have some strategies to handle that too.

It’s safe to say that we know a little bit about kicking academic ass, but then our classmate turns to us and asks a question.

“Hey, do you want to join our study group?”

Suddenly, we’re present to the fact that we don’t know if we actually want a study group or not. We aren’t sure if the study group will help or harm the progress we already made.

Maybe there will be people in the group that know way more than us and this study group will be the difference between a pass and fail.

Or maybe they’ll constantly go off-topic and spend too much time on the concepts we already understand.

Study groups and solo studying each have their own benefits and drawbacks. What determines if a study group will be beneficial is based on a few variables. The best way to decide for ourselves is to be knowledgeable of the benefits and drawbacks of group vs. solo studying and weigh them according to our particular situation.

Benefits of Solo Studying

The first (and possibly most obvious) benefit of solo studying is fewer distractions. When we are left on our own, we have the minimum amount of distractions available to us. Fewer distractions mean a higher probability of accomplishing deep and substantial work. If we can minimize our distractions, we have a greater chance of reaching flow and making significant progress.

Fewer distractions also mean higher access to focus, which is a fundamental ingredient to deep work.

When we study on our own, we have complete control over the study environment and study schedule. This means we can study whenever and wherever we want. Want a midnight study session in the parking lot of McDonald’s? You got it.

Although I don’t recommend studying at midnight in a Micky D’s parking lot, it is nice to be able to choose when and where we study. This way we can minimize excuses. No waiting on other people. No scheduling conflicts. It’s just us and our material.

Studying solo gives us maximum flexibility. We can take breaks whenever we want and spend as much time as we need on whatever concepts we need to. When I was in O-chem, I spent an ungodly amount of time going over reaction mechanisms. I would come home at around 7 pm and review the mechanisms over and over until midnight or 1 in the morning. This was possible because I was studying alone. I didn’t need to wait for anyone or make sure that everyone was cool with the time. I was simply able to use the time I found and didn’t need to qualify it. Most of my classmates wanted to study when I had work, so I had to go about it on my own.

Another fantastic benefit of studying solo is not spending extra time on concepts that we already understand. For me personally, there are some topics that I get faster than others and some topics that take me longer to understand. When we study solo we don’t have to hold anyone back from their studying and no one has to hold us back from ours. We can spend our time focusing on the concepts we don’t really know, which is crucial for effective and efficient studying.

Drawbacks of Solo Studying

When we’re working on our own it’s easy to talk ourselves out of studying, especially when no one else is counting on us to study. It can be extremely motivating when we have people around us who are focused on the same goal as us. If sticking to commitments is challenging, I recommend checking out my posts The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1) and Maintaining Purpose.

Another drawback of solo studying is increased potential inaccuracy with facts. It’s hard to make sure that we’re studying something correctly if no one is around to double check out work. Yes, we can refer to the textbook, lecture notes, or other resources, but it’s still possible to support evidence that supports our incorrect beliefs. When we are studying solo we have to be mindful of cognitive bias, particularly confirmation bias.

When it’s Best to Study Solo

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance)

There are a few indicators that let us know when it’s probably in our best interest to study on our own.

If the group is too talkative or off pace, then it’s probably time to switch gears and study solo. Now, this isn’t to say that study groups need to be quiet. After all, coming together and studying requires conversation but that conversation should be in service to the greater purpose of understanding and learning the information that we’re responsible for knowing.

Pay attention to where the group is headed. If you sense disaster, run immediately.

Another sign that it’s best to study on our own is if the sessions are rescheduled. In order to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves, we need to maintain commitments to ourselves, no matter how small. If the group decides that 4-5 pm after class on Friday isn’t good enough, we can still study at that time. If the group bails, no worries we can still kick ass all on our own.

Although there are many indicators, the last sign I’m going to discuss is if the group has a different level of understanding that we do. It is a colossal waste of time to study in groups if the group is far ahead or far behind our own understanding. Trust me, I’ve tried it both ways. It’s best to study with people of similar or equal competency, too much time is wasted otherwise.

Benefits of Group Studying

While studying on our own is effective, studying in groups can provide many advantages. With groups comes an opportunity to discuss concepts with others which tests our comprehension as well as creates more intricate neural connections. The more connections we have to a particular piece of information, the easier it is for us to recall it.

The group setting can also be a place to get our questions answered. If someone in the group knows more about a concept, then they can explain it to us exactly how we need it. Our group members may have a fresh understanding of the subject, so they know precisely what we need to know to go from ignorant to expert. This is a fantastic place to break down complicated topics.

Additionally, being around other students can be motivating. I know I’m less likely to slack off if I’m in the library with a group of other academics trying to prepare for this test. Especially if the test is graded on a curve and I have to perform better than my classmates.

It’s been known that social interaction makes people feel safer and calm their nerves. Group studying can work the same way. Studying alone can be an anxiety-inducing activity, especially if we’re seriously behind, but studying with a group could help calm the nerves too. The sense of “all of us are suffering together” makes things a little less painful and nerve-racking. Working with a group to solve a bunch of problems is a lot less daunting than working along to solve a bunch of problems.

When we study in groups, we get to teach each other. The opportunity to teach others is one of the most powerful study methods at our disposal. Teaching to our group mates puts us in the role of “expert” and it is from that place where we confront the gaps in our knowledge.

This happens to me with tutoring all the time. There are two possible outcomes when I try to teach something – I either teach it flawlessly or I don’t and realize that I don’t understand something. The best part is that if I mess up teaching the concept, the less I mess it up in the future. Honestly, it’s embarrassing, stressful, and painful to teach something that we don’t understand and that negative emotion gives a strong enough jolt to make me remember all the things I didn’t know the next time I have to teach. It’s kind of like putting our hand on a hot stove, the pain helps us remember.

Drawbacks of Group Studying

Studying in groups can be extremely powerful, but that’s not at a price.

With groups comes a higher chance to get distracted. All it takes is 1 person to derail the whole group. The group is only as strong as it’s the weakest link. This isn’t to say that all groups are distracting, some groups could offer a perfect study environment but that has to be intentioally selected for.

Groups are also less flexible when it comes to studying schedules. We risk spending too much or too little time on concepts which is an inefficient use of our time. Additionally, we can only study when EVERYONE’S schedule allows for it, which drastically limits convenience. A certain time may be optimal for everyone’s schedules, but that time may not be optimal for studying. I recommend scheduling study sessions during the hours you feel the most alert, for me that’s around 11 am – 2 pm. Knowing thyself is key here, as with most things.

One last point, including more people tends to make systems run slower, be mindful of that when picking groups.

When it’s Best to Study in Groups

“In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes & The Collective Unconscious)

Here are a few things to look out for when determining if we should study in a group:

If our classmates are high performers and highly motivated, a study group could be the difference between success and failure. I’ve had study groups with struggling students, average students, and high achieving students and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt that studying with the high performing students gave me better results than the other two groups. Be cautious of groups if other people tend to distract you more than motivate you. Know thyself is the most useful piece of advice here. If other people motivate you more than distract you, then go for it. Sometimes our classmates can help keep us focused when we get distracted.

Additionally, it has been proven that it is easier to recall information through discussions because the conversations allow us to make multiple connections to the information. The multiple connections we create make the recall easier. Study groups are great for having a discussion about a concept or idea.

I recommend group studying when we are comfortable with a subject. If there isn’t much deep work to be done, groups are a fantastic way of studying more efficiently, However, if there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done I suggest studying solo or with one other person.

What to Look for in Study Partner (or group)

There are a few things I like to keep in mind when looking for people to study with —

  1. Make sure that they are looking for the same type of study partner. They have to be able to match our needs as we can match theirs. Some questions to ask can be: How often will we be studying? What kind of studying will be do – more learning or more reviewing? Will it be online or in-person? Are they someone we can easily communicate with? Are they someone who is mindful and respectful of our time as well as their own?
  2. Make sure that they have a similar study plan and test date. This is easy if someone is in the same class as us, but not so easy for standardized tests where people have different dates and times. If they have a different test date than us, then they will inevitably have a different study plan and our time together may not be as constructive as it would be if we had to same test dates. A test coming up in 2 days requires a different strategy than a test coming up in 2 months.
  3. Make sure they have complementary or similar struggles. This is the best way to utilize group studying. Refer to the first quote I put at the beginning of this post. We get an opportunity to learn from our classmates when we surround ourselves with people who understand the concepts that we don’t. In my experience, if a student understands a concept proficiently, they can explain it to a fellow student better than a professor. Additionally, if they have similar struggles, then we can spend most of our time tackling the things we don’t know together.
  4. Make sure they have similar study habits. Maybe they like silence and we like some chill lo-fi in the background. Maybe they like larger groups and we like smaller ones. Maybe they prefer to study in the afternoon and we prefer to study at night. Paying attention to our own habits allows us to understand what we need to create our own optimal study environment.
  5. Make sure they are someone that you can share resources with. They should be knowledgeable in efficient and effective study techniques, (and if they aren’t then share my content with them so they can be) so they can teach us new methods or whatever else they learn. I showed my girlfriend Anki when she was studying for her MCAT and she showed me Anki plug-ins, which brings active recall to a whole new level.
  6. Make sure they can motivate you and keep on on track. It’s easier to hold ourselves accountable when we have partners. They can lift us up when we’re feeling down and keep us on the straight and narrow.
  7. Make sure that they are comfortable to be around. This helps us with actually asking for help when we’re stuck. When I’m tutoring my students, I try to make the environment as comfortable as possible because I know that we’re spending most of our time together working on something that makes them feel inadequate or is at least proof of their incompetence. These things are impossible to work on if we aren’t comfortable.

Bottom Line

I’ve had study groups save me, like my first exam for O-chem 2. I wouldn’t have studied anything that my group was studying, but thank God I did because all of that stuff was on the test. But I’ve also had study groups sink me, like in P-chem. I studied for my 2nd P-chem exam with a group of peers that I share multiple classes with. We studied for hours and hours but when it came to testing day, we all got D’s.

Group studying and solo studying — one isn’t inherently better than the other. Their benefits only shine through once we know what we want.

Determining the superior method depends on what we want to accomplish.

If there is a lot of work to catch up on I recommend studying solo or with 1 other person. If we’re more comfortable with the material and just have to focus on review, then groups are a fantastic option.

I’m a little bias because most of the powerful study techniques I talk about don’t require groups, but circumstances change and it’s better to be educated about the options so we can pivot rather than just picking one side and brute-forcing it.

Know what works best for you in terms of study techniques and do that. If you prefer flashcarding alone, do it. If you prefer discussion groups, do it.

The bottom line — get those neurons firing.

Categories
Education Productivity

Phasing

“Excellence is the next five minutes, improvement is the next five minutes, happiness is the next five minutes.”

Tim Ferriss (1977 – )

In light of the new semester, I want to go over a method that can help in the majority of classes. I consider this to be a more advanced technique and if you’re new to learning about study methods, I recommend checking out my Strategies for Better Studying posts: 1, 2, 3, & 4.

This technique is called phasing and it’s designed to maximize results with minimal effort. Something to keep in mind about phasing is that it does require stellar academic skills upfront. The better the student one is, the less they have to work, so long as they know the right techniques.

During my last few years in college, I started to try this phasing technique. It took me a while to get down, but once I got it I was rarely ever stressed about my classes or exams and I was getting higher grades than ever before! Once I got my phasing system down, exam season and finals week were the most stress-free times of the semester.

Honestly, finals week should be the easiest week of the semester.

I remember one night my friends wanted to go out and celebrate someone’s birthday the night before I had my electricity and magnetism physics final.

Do you know what I did?

I partied my face off with them and still dominated that test. I got an A in the class and I wasn’t nervous about it one bit. This is all thanks to phasing. (Trust me, physics E&M was not a class that came easy to me at all)

Before we really dive in, I want to get two things out of the way early on. First, there is no substitute for hard work. For every class, there is a minimal amount of work necessary to receive a certain grade and there’s no way around it. If we want an A in a class, then we’ll have to do A level work. We can’t get As with D effort, but we don’t have to totally kill ourselves over the As either. Phasing helps with keeping the work limited to only what we absolutely HAVE to do.

Leave the busy work for those who pretend to make progress.

Second is sacrificing the present for the future is worthwhile. In order for phasing to be effective, we have to be able to keep our future selves in mind. Taping into the part of us that is capable of sacrifice is crucial for phasing to work its magic.

What is phasing?

Phasing involves breaking up the semester into 3 fundamental phases: Frontload, Review, and Relax. I love phasing because (if executed properly) it maximizes performance and requires far less effort than just “trying to get through the semester.”

I also love phasing because it follows the “natural curve of motivation” throughout the term. In the beginning, most students are highly motivated and well-rested but as the semester goes on students tend to get lazier and lazier. I know that’s true for me. I felt that way every semester without fail.

Frontloading

Frontloading is taking the entire load of the semester and moving it to the front, typically the first 1/3. For example, let’s say we wanted to frontload a class that was 3 months long, then we would plan to go over all of the class material in the first month. Now, this isn’t easy and it’s why I brought up the two points I did earlier. Frontloading is difficult, but at least this way we put the toughest part of the semester on the time when we are the most resilient. Remember, we can’t get As with D level work, but the sacrifice is worthwhile. Frontloading is a serious undertaking, but when the end of the semester comes and we’re not feeling as motivated we’ll be so happy you did it.

Honestly, frontloading was something that took me a few semesters to get down properly. It was easy to fall into the fallacy that it’s much easier to just learn and perfect the concepts throughout the semester rather than bust it frontloading. Until one semester, I finally stayed on top of the frontloading and I was getting the grades without any of the stress.

It’s critical to keep in mind that the goal of frontloading is not to take the whole class in a third of the time but to be familiar with all the topics covered. This is the difference between frontloading working properly and being more trouble than it’s worth.

When we’re frontloading, we do not need to be proficient in each topic, we just need to be familiar. The first 1/3 of the semester is for building the neural pathways necessary to kick ass. The rest of the time is dedicated to strengthening them. I talk about building neural pathways in my posts The Brain and The Mind (Part 1) & Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation and strengthening them in my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition.

Earlier I said that this technique takes less effort than just taking the semester as it comes. So why am I suggesting to put in extreme levels of effort into the first 1/3 of the term if it’s already difficult to just keep up? Because in the long run, it will require less effort.

We are simply paying out dues upfront. There’s no substitute for hard work.

Frontloading Techniques

Frontloading is hard and can seem impossible if it’s not approached systematically. Do not just wing it and try to learn everything 3 times faster. That’s a guaranteed way to crash and burn out. Instead, take the time to plan it out. Take time. Don’t worry if it takes a few days to plan it out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure.

When I took my second semester of o-chem, I couldn’t afford the textbook so I had to pay careful attention to what concepts I was responsible for learning and how long I had to learn them. I’ll go into how I handled this class into more detail later, but for my frontloading phase, I took the time to write down which mechanisms I needed to learn each day. When I was making the schedule I had no idea what an aldol condensation or a Diels–Alder reaction was, but I knew that next Thursday I’m going to figure them out. I also tried my best to not put too much pressure on myself to learn these reactions perfectly, I just simply wrote down the questions I had when I couldn’t figure things out (which was pretty often). When making these schedules, keep in mind the days and times which you will have access to someone who could easily explain the information to you. I try to get all the front loading in before the last review session with a tutor or teacher so any knowledge holes can be filled.

Also, keep this in mind when you start creating your frontloading schedule — trying to learn something proficiently every month is much more difficult than learning a bunch of things and spending 3 months trying to improve. Learning and proficiency take time.

When frontloading be sure to create a running list of questions. This is going to be invaluable later. Write all the questions you get while you’re frontloading. Write down everything that is confusing to you. This will capture your own unique understanding of the concept. If you can find the answers, write them down too.

Frontloading is by far the most cumbersome phase.

Review

Once we’ve reached the review phase, it’s all downhill. Reviewing can be challenging, but it is much less taxing than creating new neural pathways. Especially when study techniques are modified with the principles in mind to fit each unique situation. I highly recommend checking out my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition, that goes over the fundamental principles of learning more and studying less. The goal of this phase is to strengthen the neural connections created from the frontloading phase. This is when we become concerned with proficiency and excellence.

So how do we know when it is time to review?

There are two different situations when I could stop the frontloading phase and move onto the review. The first is when I finish going over all of the scheduled concepts. Maybe going over the concepts was challenging, but I was able to develop a basic understanding of the idea.

The second is when I get stuck on understanding a new concept and I will need support from a tutor or a professor. Maybe the concepts were too complicated for me to grasp on my own and I’ll need outside support.

What do we actually review when the time comes?

Remember that list of questions I said to make earlier? This is when creating those questions from the frontloading phase comes in handy. That list of questions contains all of the potholes of our specific understanding and it is a great place to start reviewing.

Studying the homework assignments and practice questions assigned by the teacher are also other great ways to strengthen these newly formed neural pathways. If you don’t have access to those, or if your class doesn’t operate that way, there are tons of practice questions online from other educational resources. All you need to know is the name of the topic or concept that you’re trying to practice and the rest is cake.

Final Thoughts on the Review Phase

Similar to frontloading, I recommend the review phase be scheduled out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure. Take the time to create this plan, it will keep chaos at bay.

On that note, it’s worthwhile to know when the 2nd to last day that you will have access to outside help is and plan accordingly. I brought up this idea in the frontloading phase, but it’s critical to get it right in the review phase. We should make sure that our schedule (this includes spill days) can handle reviewing all of the material before the 2nd to last day of the lecture or 2nd to last office hours. Yes, this means we have to be extremely responsible with your time. I don’t recommend saving the unanswerable questions for the last office hours, everyone else is trying to get their questions in too and there’s a chance of not being able to ask a question at all. Everyone always tries to cram before an exam. Crowds ruin everything and we don’t want to be screwed out of information simply because there were too many people. Do the opposite of what the crowd does and find much less resistance.

I also recommend checking out my posts on schedules and Time Management: 5 Tips of Better Scheduling, 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling, and Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling.

Remember that reviewing takes less energy than learning something completely new. As the academic term moves forward the semester will get easier and easier and easier. Stick with the system and you’ll see the payoff slowly emerge. Eventually, recalling this information will be a cakewalk and all we’ll have to do is just show up.

When all the questions and concepts start to bore us (because they’re too easy, not because they’re uninteresting), that is how we know we can enter the last phase.

Relax

This is my favorite part of phasing and (to be honest) the whole reason why this method is worth it. While everyone is else is cramming and stressing, we can focus on relaxation and living our best lives. Maybe we might want to have a few active recall sessions just to keep our minds sharp, but most of our time will be spent decompressing. This is exactly how I was able to party it up with my friends on finals week and still kick ass on my exams. If we’ve executed the last two phases as designed, then active recall would work it’s magic and any gaps in knowledge would have been filled at office hours or in class.

By this point, we know everything we need to know for the class, and maintaining knowledge is so much easier than learning. Enjoy it. Getting to this point is not easy at all and the rewards ought to be reaped. Now, the focus can be shifted to other things like proper sleep and diet.

I love to play huge amounts of video games, make music, and watch tv before exams.

What do you like to do?

When is it applicable?

Phasing is a fantastic method for getting fantastic results with less effort than usual, but it’s not suitable for all class types. The types of classes we’ll encounter in our academic carrers are as follows:

Lectures – these are usually large scale classes held in giant rooms. The average class size for a lecture is anywhere from 100-500 students. Usually, the professor talks the entire time, while students take notes. These are most common in first-year college courses. Typically, students who attend a lecture also have to attend a discussion class.

Sometimes I had professors use the lecture before an exam as a review session, which can play a key role in the review or frontloading phase.

Discussion – discussions are smaller classes and are usually led by a graduate student studying the same subject as the course. This is where students receive additional instruction as well as extra practice problems. Typically, this is where most students get their questions answered.

If the schedule permits, I use discussions as an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps during the review phase. Discussion classes are invaluable if used right. I literally would not have passed Calc III if it wasn’t for the grad student who led my discussion that year.

Use office hours in place of a discussion for the same purpose. Some students feel awkward going into office hours, but that time is literally set aside so students can have in-person access to their professors.

Laboratories – oh labs. Usually, they come with science classes and last a few hours. In these classes, students will perform some kind of experiment, record data, and interpret the results. Phasing doesn’t really apply to lab classes, but usually, the person who leads the lab is another graduate student so you can use that time to ask them questions if needed.

I remember in my O-Chem II class, my discussion grad student was terrible and couldn’t answer my questions. But the grad student who helped me in my lab section was awesome! Dave if you ever see this, thank you! I managed to get all my questions answered during the lab section while I waited for my solutions to heat up. Phasing doesn’t typically apply to lab classes, but there is another opportunity to have access to someone who knows the material proficiently.

Studio – similar to labs, studios are a hand-on place for students to learn by doing. I wouldn’t recommend phasing for a studio class, but just like labs, these classes are a great opportunity to have access to someone who knows their stuff.

Independent study – these classes are designed to be separate from a regular course. These are great classes to use phasing on because the class is just you! You can schedule the material however you please and phasing is an excellent frame to base that schedule on.

Content-Based – these are classes that require us to understand facts and concepts then prove our knowledge. All STEM classes are this way. Phasing works best for content-based classes. Honestly, it was created in order to specifically get through content-based classes relatively stress-free.

Synthesis – these are classes that require us to take input from many sources and synthesize them to extract a greater understanding or to prove a point. Most language and humanities courses are this way. Phasing can work for synthesis classes, but some details would have to be changed. Synthesis work encodes information differently than active recall and the modifications to phasing should reflect that. Maybe instead of a review phase, switch the phase to rewriting or a drafting phase.

Phasing works best with lectures, discussions, seminars, content-based, and independent study type classes. It can be applied to the other classes as well, but the logistics would work a little differently.

Accommodations/Modifications

If you’ve read my other posts about studying, then you’ll know that I’m all about learning the principles of a system then modifying it to better fit the situation at hand. In other words, phasing is a great method to approach the academic term, but tweaking it to fit exactly what we need is even better!

Some classes may be too difficult to split into 3 equal parts. In order to accommodate this, I recommend keeping the phases in the same order, but repeat them as many times as needed. The full semester model is powerful, but sometimes we need to pivot.

For example, in my o-chem class, I had to split the term into 9 phases instead of 3. I had a set of “frontload, review, & relax” for each of the 3 exams. For each exam, I got a list of the concepts I was responsible for learning and scheduled which day I was learning each topic. I made sure I covered all the topics at least once before the 2nd to last office hours to ensure I get my questions answered. This meant I was studying for the exam as if it was the night before, a week or two in advance.


Phasing works because we only spend about 1/3 of the time heavy on the gas pedal as opposed to always being on every other week or so. At least with phasing, we know that 2/3 of our time will be spent efficiently or relaxing. It’s possible to get it all, it just takes a little foresight, discipline, and effort.

Phasing is not a catch-all method, but an ideal to shoot for. It is simply a framework to operate inside. I say this because the frontloading phase can take most people down and it’s easy to feel like there isn’t enough time to get through it all or that it’s impossible. If the schedule doesn’t totally fit, just make a few tweaks and account for spill days!

This is one of the more advanced techniques I talk about simply because it requires so much at the starting line, but the rewards are sweet.

Challenge yourself. Give it a try. Win. Take it all.