The optimal size for a study group is three or four people. Larger groups tend to run into several problems: Meeting schedules become logistically cumbersome, cliques may form within the group, and personality conflicts may increase.
Some law students are reticent to join a group because of unfortunate experiences in prior group settings. These students may prefer choosing just one study partner. However, with careful planning, groups can often avoid problems. Here are some thoughts on how to prevent typical obstacles and handle group study successfully.
Agree on some initial matters as a group to avoid later misunderstandings. First, discuss the purposes for the group. Some groups review material regularly, share outlines, take turns “teaching” one another material, and complete practice questions; these groups tend to form early in the semester. Other groups focus solely on practice questions and exam-taking strategies; these groups tend to form roughly halfway through the semester. Second, discuss the etiquette for the group. Topics might include: guidelines for respectful group behavior, members’ responsibilities to the group, possible restrictions on sharing group-generated study materials with nonmembers, and meeting agendas and schedules.
Decide whether studying with your best friends is a good idea. The inclination is to ask your buddies to form a study group. However, consider whether your friends are compatible with your study goals. Are they as serious as you are about doing well academically? Will you be tempted to spend more time socializing than studying? Are their feelings more likely to be hurt if there is a disagreement on material? Are you likely to become a “therapy group” rather than a study group?
Consider whether people’s scheduling needs are compatible. Many law students have no commitments other than law school. They are totally flexible with their time and can meet at short notice. However, very different lifestyles exist for law students who are married, have child-care responsibilities, or attend law school part-time while working full-time. Their additional responsibilities often translate into less scheduling flexibility. They may not be able to participate in marathon study sessions, evening sessions back on campus, or weekend sessions outside of their own homes. Students in these circumstances may choose one study partner to simplify logistics. Alternatively, they may form a group with law students similarly situated, so scheduling study sessions around family commitments is a common goal.
Stay diplomatic if there are divergent opinions in the group on course material. A successful study group increases everyone’s learning. The group discussions should lead to deeper understanding of the course because different perspectives will contribute to a 360-degree view rather than the narrower view of one person on the material. However, not everyone will always agree on the course content or the answers to fact patterns. Make an appointment with the professor to seek clarification on the material if the group is still at an impasse after thorough discussion. Representatives for each divergent view should attend the appointment together and report back to the group.
Use a variety of structures for the group experience to accommodate different learning styles. Most law students have multiple learning strategies that work for them. Thus, everyone can usually gain to some extent from others’ methods of learning. By being tolerant with one another’s strategies rather than getting frustrated, the group can gain that important 360-degree view of the material rather than missing aspects as individuals.
For example, the “talking learner” can lead a section of the discussion while the “listening learner” can summarize the material and add insights afterward. The “kinesthetic learner” who loses focus can be accommodated with breaks within long sessions or assignments such as reading the flashcards aloud while the “visual learner” can capture material in flowcharts or other graphics for the group. The “reflective learner” will benefit from a topic agenda before a meeting to allow for preparation while the “active learner” can be accommodated by free-flowing question-and-answer time at the end of a meeting. The “global-intuitive learner” can synthesize material into the bigger picture and focus on policy and inter-relationships of ideas for the group while the “sequential-sensing learner” can keep the material organized in the proper order and prevent the group from missing important details.
Remember that the goal of the group is to learn, not to have a heated debate or win an argument. Some law students have the misconception that lawyers must be argumentative or aggressive. However, good lawyers listen respectfully to different opinions, weigh the information, and persuade others through logic. Good lawyers also admit when they are wrong. Should a group session get heated, suggest that the group revisit the topic at a later time and move to other tasks. Later talk privately to the member who was being confrontational or disrespectful. Remind the person about the agreed group etiquette and request compliance. If necessary, ask the person to apologize to other group members. If there are repeated offences, the group may need to ask that person to leave the group.
Expect individual responsibility within the group. Success of a study group depends on individual members participating fully. Everyone needs to come prepared to discuss material on the agenda, compare outlines as planned, and give input on assigned practice questions. If someone appears to be “slacking off,” the group needs to find out what is wrong and help that person. It is understandable that illness or a family emergency may cause someone to get off track temporarily. However, the group does not need to become stalled for someone who is consistently unprepared.
Study group participation can be valuable for learning. However, members must be committed to the success of the group.