Classes are in full swing, and you’ve survived the first time a professor has put you on the spot in front of your peers. Now another professor has started talking about the midterm—it’s only weeks away—and you begin to feel a sense of panic.
A study group seems to be the optimal way to cement your grasp on the material while giving you the chance to make friends who happen to be in the same situation. So you’ve been texting or talking in the hallway after class to figure out the times you could meet and the subjects you need help in beefing up.
What happens next?
Here are five tips to hit the ground running once you’ve formed your study group.
Create a charter, plan, or schedule.
A study schedule can help members of a study group stay focused and on task. For example, you can detail in it which days you’ll allot for certain study topics or say how much time the group will spend on any one subject at one time.
“When our group started, we had an agenda for each two- or three-hour session we’d meet,” said Tanya Johnson, a reference librarian and adjunct profession at the University of Connecticut School of Law. “We established ground rules for discussion.”
Among them were agreements among members of the group to keep each other motivated and to be willing to teach one another if someone struggled on a specific topic.
They also agreed to create an agenda for each session. With the schedule, the key is to make it fit with everyone’s individual needs. Johnson said having a plan and a clear goal for regular class, midterms, and finals helped to keep the members’ “eye on the prize,” even if these ground rules arose organically through the process of studying.
“No one had a problem helping another person learn the material.” she said. “We taught each other, and that was what worked best for us.”
Katherine Vukadin, a legal research and writing professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed. She said a charter could help avoid potential frustrations as your group members begin to study together.
Establishing a study group, especially in your first year, could give you the confidence to ask questions and approach intimidating situations. “It has been my experience that successful students tend to travel together,” she said. “You tend to see students who do well studying together or stopping by office hours together.”
It also holds students accountable for staying on track with each class’s syllabus. “Think about what you want from a study group, and be each other’s accountability partners,” Vukadin said. “You should think of it like the gym—no one can show up for you. And if you’ve made those expectations clear, everyone tends to rise to meet those expectations—or finds another study group.”
Work through what you may not have understood in class.
In a group setting, effective communication is key to lasting power. Johnson points to establishing a group dialogue as a tool for effective legal education.
“The classes I teach now are discussion based,” said Johnson, who now teaches classes on research for social justice and diversity and inclusion. “You have a group of people who don’t know each other that well, and no one wants to seem like they don’t get it. You have to make sure everyone understands that it’s OK not to understand.”
Johnson said that while things did go well for her group as a 1L, if all the members of her study group had understood that at the time, things might have gone even better.
“My suggestion is to make sure you actually speak up on your own behalf when you don’t understand something,” she said. “If you don’t, you’ll never understand it.”
Vukadin offered a similar strategy. “You should certainly be willing to tell other members if you aren’t getting something. That’s the whole point of a study group, right?” she asked. “But the foundational work is done at home. If you’ve sat down with the material by yourself first, if you’ve done the work to understand it, it’ll be evident to you what gaps you need to fill when you meet with your group.”
Having a centralized place to put questions, such as a Google Doc accessible to all the members, is a great way to ensure that even the toughest questions eventually get answered, said Johnson.
Sharing study materials and providing a dedicated space for students to document the parts of the material they find difficult can assist everyone who participates in going over it, even those who felt comfortable with the subject before it was posed to the group for review.
Vukadin said she thinks students should be willing to teach one another what they feel comfortable in, as well. “To teach is to learn twice,” she said. “You don’t know how firm a grasp you have on something until you can describe it to another person.”
Make friends with your study group members.
While students may come in and out of a study group based on individual study habits, members of a study group are likely to meet often. Derek Fincham, a professor of legal research and writing at South Texas College of Law Houston, says as a 1L, his study group did events outside school.
“We had a tradition after our finals,” Fincham said. “We’d go out to lunch, to dinner, to a movie—whatever. But our rule was that we wouldn’t talk about the exam.”
The feeling of having conquered an exam formed a bond between the members—it gave each of them a shared sense of triumph after a semester full of stress and work. “It’s a nice thing when you’re done with it all to know you also made some friends in the process,” he said.
For Vukadin, getting to know her fellow students had a prolonged effect on her life after law school. She met her future husband in her 1L study group. “I wouldn’t say that’ll happen to everyone, but you never know who you’re going to cross paths with when you’re getting started,” she said.
Keep a consistent plan, but be flexible.
Both Johnson and Vukadin recall that their group always met in the same place to study and believe the consistency in their environment was a major reason their groups were able to get things done.
“Studying in the same place can help you,” Johnson said. “Having a set time and place can help get you in the mindset of ‘I need to focus right now’ and will help you associate that place with studying only.”
Vukadin noted that, in addition to always studying in the same place, her group would also take breaks together, using the down time to decompress before attacking the material once more. “I wasn’t much on all-nighters,” she recalled. “So having a dedicated place to study allowed me to work when I needed to work. I treated it like a job and went home to relax at the end of the day.”
Despite the consistency in setting, Vukadin believes switching things up in the sessions can also benefit students. “Coming up to exams, we’d take old tests the professors had released, and being in a group would allow us to replicate those time restrictions,” she noted. “You make your own outline and then exchange outlines with one another after you’ve done the work yourself. That allows you to see the best path forward for your situation.”
Kindness in stressful situations goes a long way. Pay attention to your fellow study group members and how much they give to study sessions, and understand individual members’ needs.
“Be kind, be generous, and be gracious,” said Johnson. “Law school is tough enough, and in the long term, no one cares about your civil procedure grade. This time will set the tone for the rest of your legal career. So it pays to be consistently nice and understanding toward others.”