by Joshua Chang, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center
Students often face different study environments and styles when preparing for exams. The debate regarding the benefits of group studying compared to studying alone remains an ongoing discussion. Which ensures students achieve optimum learning (and exam scores)? From personal experience, studying in groups has several advantages, including retention of information, opportunities to clarify ambiguous topics, and teaching others while simultaneously solidifying one’s knowledge. Collaborating in groups can be constructive when students are assigned a rigorous assignment that requires critical thinking and planning to execute it efficiently.
Unfortunately, working in groups has several pitfalls, such as the difficulty in arranging times for the group to gather. This is especially true when group members are heavily involved with organizations, work, and family obligations. The number of participants in the group also is a factor. As the number of students in a group increases, distractions (such as mobile devices) and engaging in side conversations can hinder progress. Research sheds some light on when individual vs. group study might work best.
In 2015 qualitative study performed at five Universities in Pakistan, the investigators conducted group interviews using a semi-structured questionnaire. They found that approximately 30% of the students leaned towards individual study. This group of students emphasized that individual study allows them to remain in focus, achieving maximum concentration, which strengthens their confidence to solve difficult assignments and be less dependent on others. Additionally, these students believed that group study was too time-consuming and would only do group study when directed by the instructor. The second group, which consisted of 10% of the student population, preferred group study. They believed that it allowed them to share their knowledge, express their thought process, and assist each other when completing difficult assignments. The most important factor for favoring group study was the increase in motivation to study and the assistance that weaker students gained when working in groups.1
Interestingly, the largest population of students (60%) took advantage of both styles of study. They asserted that both are equally important for enhancing their learning. They state that every member of the group possesses a different perception and view on the material and group study facilitates the sharing of different ideas. On the other hand, individual study allows for fewer distractions and the freedom to plan one’s study session. Students in this study emphasized that a group size of no more than 5 students was key to effective group work. An excessive number of members limits the opportunity for students to speak, participate, and contribute frequently. It is important to take into consideration that this study was conducted at five different Universities with varying curricula – but they were not structured to promote either individual study or group study.1
In a 2014 case study that focused a Collaborative Learning Environment among 122 university students enrolled in an Engineering and Molecular Biology program explored group work versus individual work. The study recorded each student’s performance for 3 different course assignments over one semester. The study utilized a software called Moodle that allowed for file sharing and synchronous group work. Using this technology, the instructors were able to monitor each student’s actions in real-time. Each individual student’s work was color-coded to differentiate participation and involvement as they completed assignments.2
The study highlighted various models of collaboration that played a vital role in each group’s progress. Some groups engaged in real-time collaboration, having their members work simultaneously alongside one another from start to end, while other groups utilized a self-paced model, having their members work individually at their leisure. The frequency of contribution was a key factor. Some students only contributed once, while other students would review their colleague’s work, improving and editing the composition. Another factor was the effort and quality of work. Groups that were dominated by one student had performance scores ranging from 55% to 100%. The wide gap in scores for these groups is likely attributable to the quality of work from that single member. Groups with 4 to 6 members that divided the work but had low-level contributions generally had a narrower span of scores - from 70% to 90%. However, the study did not report data regarding large groups with higher-contributing work to have an appropriate comparison.2
One important aspect that the study focused on was assessing each student’s individual performance and using that score to predict an expected group performance score. They found that the group performance score, on average, was much higher than the predicted group score and higher than the mean individual performance scores. The study was not able to study groups larger than 5 students and the three assignments used for analysis were not explicitly open for review. The type of subject, level of difficulty, familiarity, and time commitment needed for the assignments are unknown. Overall, the study asserts that the defining factor for higher performance is not merely the size of a group but the level of contribution.2
There are advantages and disadvantages to both group and individual study. Although we may think that study habits are binary, research shows that both strategies can be beneficial, and academic performance may be related to one’s preferences. In my opinion, specific assignments that mimic real-life tasks where a practitioner acts independently should be done individually. Measuring a student’s growth is also more feasible when analyzing individual work. A student may prefer studying and working alone but being in a group offers several benefits and can also be useful for mimicking those real-world tasks done by groups of people.
- Kandhro, S. (2015). Impact of Group-Study and Self-Study on Learning Abilities of Students at the University Level. Case Studies Journal 2015; 4(2).
- Cen L, Ruta D, Powell L, and Ng J. Learning alone or in a group — an empirical case study of the collaborative learning patterns and their impact on student grades. 2014 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (ICL).