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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 Lifestyle

Our Unconscious Filters

“If you judge a man, do you judge him when he is wrapped in a disguise?”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

The mind has a few habits that we should pay attention to when we are trying to maximize our learning. Everyone is susceptible to these thought patterns and it would be advantageous to find where these patterns occur within our own lives. Without understanding these habits we could subconsciously close ourselves off to information that could be important to our education. I like to refer to these habits of the mind as Cognitive Biases. Officially, they can be thought of as systematic errors in thinking as a result of subjective perception. Cognitive Biases act as filters between us and the outside world. We view the world through whichever lense our minds naturally applies to a situation. If we don’t see the world objectively, then we see the world through our biases and that can prevent us from learning information that we don’t know we need. Understanding our cognitive biases, or unconscious filters, is our best shot at keeping them at bay so we can be best prepared for the worst that Fortuna has to throw at us. (I’ve been reading a lot of stoic philosophers recently)

Understanding these biases helps with critical thinking development. We all have biases and it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to remove them completely, but we can develop more reliable ways of learning through our bias. This could be achieved through seeking out people who will challenge and critique our ideas. Not learning about our own biases will keep us in a bubble. Our minds will filter out important information because we believe it to be useless. Through understanding our biases of the world and ourselves, our education falls into our control rather than having our minds unconsciously run the show.

Cognitive Bias (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

Types of Cognitive Bias

Below are a few examples of cognitive biases that, if understood well, could help us maximize our learning and make our minds an ally rather than an enemy:

Disconfirmation Principle

This principle describe the phenomena where people tend to accept new information that support their already held beliefs, and are more likely to refuse new information that challenge their beliefs.

I try to pay attention to any current beliefs that I have now and what new information I quickly reject because it doesn’t align with my beliefs. Just because something supports what we already believe doesn’t mean it’s true or that it will help us. It’s important for us to do a detached analysis of all the information we are presented with. Its healthy to keep a small degree of skepticism, but it’s useful to consider that we may just be dismissing something simply because we don’t agree.

Confirmation Bias

This describes the tendency to interpret new information as evidence to support your already existing beliefs.

This is different than disconfirmation principle. Confirmation bias is saying that we will look at information and try to make it support our already held beliefs. This is dangerous because it can lead to overconfidence and overconfidence can tank our test scores and lead us to make terrible decisions. The overconfidence comes from seeing constant validations everywhere we go. Thinking that everything supports our ideas can delude us into thinking that we always come to correct conclusions. It is important to be aware of this “mind habit” and remain objective, as we can be, when obtaining new knowledge.

Belief Preservation

The tendency to keep believing an initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or disproves the initial belief.

This reminds me of a mentally ill patient I once had who honestly thought the sky was green. When we took her outside, she saw that the sky was grey (it was raining that day) and refused to believe that the sky wasn’t green. Now it’s easy to think that since she’s not completely alert and oriented, she’s not going to follow the same conventions as everyone else but even if we are open minded, we have a natural tendency to keep holding on to our beliefs even if everything around us tells us were wrong. The best way to prevent belief preservation from hindering our growth is to recognize it’s there when it comes up and try to look at new information regardless of your personal feelings.

Conviction Bias

This bias is best summed up with the statement “I believe it strongly, so it must be true.”

We are so strongly captured by some of our beliefs that we mistake them to be truth. In order to remain open, we must constantly question the beliefs we tend to hold as truths. (I do think a little too often sometimes and wonder if I’m crazy but there is an optimal balance to be achieved) We cannot become too attached to our beliefs. Who we are and what we believe do not have to be the same thing. Learning something to be false that we believe so strongly has a punishing feel and has consequences deeper than we can see. It’s totally possible to be so rooted in our ways that we sacrifice who we could be for who we are.

Appearance Bias

This has less to do with incoming information and more to do with people that we encounter. This bias describes the assumption that we know and understand the people that we deal with and that we see them for who we are.

It is important to understand that we do not see people for who there are, but we see them as they appear to us. It’s a great piece of knowledge to bring with you throughout life but can also bring us success in the academic world. Do not think that you know a teacher, or a professor, or a student based on what you can see. Everyone is just as, or even more, complicated as you. Keep an open mind and notice when you start to think that you have someone figured out. They may know something you don’t and that knowledge may bring you incredible insights into the world. In order to maintain a grip on my appearance bias, I try to listen to people as if they always have something they can teach me.

Group Bias

This is regarding the lie we tell ourselves when we are in groups; we have our own ideas and don’t listen to the opinions of a group. Within a group, our thoughts are rarely our own, but are of the group and its very likely that the group will come to a conclusion that is incorrect. We are social creature and NEED to conform. This is the basis for groupthink and group polarization and can lead to dangerous outcomes. This is not to say that group work isn’t great. We can get far more done as a group than as an individual, but that trade isn’t for free. We sacrifice a bit of autonomy and individualized thinking.

Group bias is something we should look out for when we are group studying or working on group projects. Make sure that the group does not lead you astray by learning incorrect information. Its very easy to think that you understand a concept because you understand how the group looks at it, but it’s very possible that everyone in the group is incorrect. Group bias and confirmation bias can be a deadly combination, I learned this lesson the hard way when I took Physical Chemistry at Cal State Long Beach. I studied with a group and we all thought we understood what was going on, but we all ended up failing the test.

Blame Bias

The idea that we pretend that we learn from our mistakes but actually hate to look at our imperfections closely, which limits our ability for introspection and reflection.

Learning from our mistakes is usually the best way to learn anything but keep in mind that we cannot learn from our mistakes all on our own. It’s best to look to someone who knows more about your endeavor so they can help you explore why you made those mistakes in the first place. We all have blind spots and we need others to help us see them. We are a social creature after all! Additionally, being aware of this bias allows you to have a slightly deeper insight into your errors than you naturally would have.

Superiority Bias

The idea that we believe that we are different, more rational, and more ethical than other people.

Most people probably wouldn’t say this out loud but deep down we believe it. This is why we get so upset when we see other people make dumb mistakes or think “everyone else” is so terrible. It is important to keep in mind that we are more similar to other people than different and pitfalls that most people can fall into are probably a danger to us as well. Everyone believes that they are smart, capable, independent, and good. Keep in mind that you are not as superior as you might think and you will go very far in life and in learning. Humility removes a lot of unnecessary friction and coming to terms with our own delusions of grandiosity helps with our progress.

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

When we attribute other people’s errors to internal factors, and our own errors to external factors.

An example of this would be when someone cuts you off while driving. It’s easy to think that they cut you off because they are a terrible person. But if you were the one who would have cut them off, it would have been because “you had to” or “you were in a rush” and it’s not because you are bad person. FAE is a type of Self-Serving Bias, which are a set of biases that protect our self esteem or where we see ourselves in an overly favorable manner. Knowing this can help you be more patient with others and you can catch yourself when you start to think that one of your mistakes may be due to outside circumstances.

Neglect of Probability

The tendency to disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.

During my time in school I’ve always wondered why I had to learn something and didn’t bother learning a lot of it because I figured that most of that information would never come up. Turns out, I used more of it than I expected, like all the advanced math I use daily because I’m a math tutor. When we’re presented with new information we make a choice to learn it based on if we think it will be useful to us in the future, but this bias demonstrates that we naturally disregard actual the probability that it can come up again. It’s difficult to predict if it will come up at all and if we knew the probability, chances are we’d ignore the raw data and believe what makes feel good. This is true not just with learning but with many of the decisions of our lives. We should try to think about how often we may need the information we may learn and not be satisfied with a surface level analysis or even with what other people will tell us. Academic topics taught earlier on are taught for a reason and topics later will very likely build upon the assumption that you proficiently learned all of the topics prior, and the answers to the problems of life require a sophisticated synthesis of all the information you’ve been exposed to and internalized.

Availability Heuristic

We determine how likely something is by how easily we can recall events of it happening in our brain.

An example of this would be a medical assistant who is working in a stroke center believes that strokes occur more often than they actually do because they can remember many instances when someone had a stroke. Another could be a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD can easily view a patient’s pathologies and conclude ADHD because they believe it is highly probable that the patient has ADHD, but the psychiatrist only believes that ADHD is highly probable because he can recall many events of people having ADHD. Just because we can recall an event easily, doesn’t mean it has a high probability of occuring often.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

This is a theory that suggests people tend to believe their cognitive ability is higher than it actually is.

My explanation above suggests the relationship between knowledge and perceived ability is linear but it’s more nuanced. As we learn more about a subject, our perceptions adjust from the initial ignorant and confident position following the graph below. I love graphs because they explain concepts better than I can with words.

Confidence vs. Knowledge of Field based on Dunning-Kruger

Priming Bias

Our tendency to be included by what someone else as said or made to create a preconceived idea.

This happens to me all the time with meal ideas. Someone will mention an In-N-Out double double in a conversation and a few hours later if someone else asks me what I want to eat, I’ll say I want a double double from In-N-Out and I will have completely believed this was my own idea. This is a big reason why I try to limit my social media use, I don’t like the idea that my thoughts could be decided by someone else’s poorly thought-through comment or that the standards for my life and myself could be created by other people’s standards. Our ideas aren’t always our own, and it’s useful to recognize that.

Hindsight Bias

Also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect which is our tendency to see events in the past as highly predictable.

Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to wonder why we didn’t act differently when we were younger. “Last year, I couldn’t have even fathom the depths of my ignorance” is the phrase I’m telling myself every year and I tend to be a harsh judge of younger Chris’ choices. The truth is, in the present moment it’s difficult to know which is the path most aligned with our Jungian Self. When we reflect back on our decisions, it’s important to keep that in mind that our past selves were trying to make the best choices they could at the time, unless you know they weren’t. Hindsight bias makes the past make sense and with the knowledge comes a harsh judgment on our past selves. Hindsight bias gets in the way of compassion for yourself and can distort your narrative. Watch it closely, we never really knew it all along.


A big part of managing cognitive biases is taking a little extra time to recognize the patterns and reevaluating what we really think about something. Cognitive biases are strong forces in the mind, but we can overcome them by taking a little time and slowing down.

There are a huge number of cognitive biases that can help you with your learning and life in general and I recommend taking time to learn more of them. These were just a few of the biases that I have found relevant to student success and my own life. Understanding these biases, or “mind habits,” will give us power over our natural tendencies to filter information. Be aware of them when they come up and approach all new knowledge with an open mindset and healthy skepticism.