Study groups, when they are well structured, can be very valuable in the learning process. Working with other students can provide support, discipline, and feedback. Study groups are most effective for discussing material before class, discussing concepts after class, outlining, and reviewing practice exams. However, study groups can also be very destructive and counterproductive if they are not well organized, if members compete with one another, or if the members are not well matched.
Some of the pros of study groups are:
- Discussions with classmates can help you understand materials easier than you could have alone.
- Talking about the material can help you understand it. Either you will know the material so well that you can explain it, or you will see where you need further study.
- Interaction with other students in a supportive environment. 1
Some of the cons of a study group are:
- Not everyone's motives are pure. Some students may react to law school competition by trying to sabotage you. Other students cannot or will not deliver what they promise. Other students will collapse under the pressure of law school or pretend that the pressure does not affect them.
- Some students will do everything but focus on studies in study group. 1
Almost everyone tries a study group at some point in law school, but not everyone sticks with it.
You might not want to join a study group if:
- You learn and study better alone. Your time is limited, so do a cost benefit analysis as to the best use of your time. You give up the ability to direct your attention exclusively to the problems that most concern you in exchange for helping others with items they find confusing.
If you decide not to join a study group, still double-check your understanding of the material. Try explaining the material to someone else, out loud to yourself, or in written answers to questions.
Given all that:
Try it! Law school is different than undergraduate school, and you have to adjust to a new way of approaching the material. What worked for you as an undergraduate may not work in law school. Have an open mind. Something you don't normally do may work for you now.
Also, you don't know everything, even if you are smart and confident of your abilities. Law schools are full of smart and confident students, and you might be able to learn from some of them.
So, you've decided that you want to join a study group. Consider this...
A study group can be too large or too small. Some commentators say the ideal size is three, but you might want just one other person to study with.
Whatever the size, each member must have room and time to develop his thinking process and to ensure that he understands the materials. When the group is too large, individual members don't have the opportunity to talk as much.
Members of a study group will work very closely throughout the year, and they will work under stressful conditions. Members must like each other enough to work closely together. You don't have to be best buddies, but you must respect each other. You also must balance each other. Many students are stronger in one skill than others, or they understand one course better than others. Ideally, each member should have different strengths.
Know what you're going to do when you meet. One of the reasons that study groups fail is that the meetings flounder and drift. People leave the meeting feeling like they've wasted precious time.
- Approach your meetings with discipline.
Decide how each member will conduct himself during the study sessions. Should each member participate and contribute roughly equally? Or perhaps each member can take turns facilitating and setting the agenda for that session. One member can serve as parliamentarian, keeping the group on task, or the parliamentarian can alternate. What happens when a member doesn't show up or is chronically late? Decide in advance how conflicts will be resolved.
- Your study group will have a social function of sorts, but decide how much.
Excessive socializing can ruin a study group, but often study sessions can turn quasi-social. Socializing and relaxation are vital if you are to remain sane in law school. But too great a mix between relaxation and study may leave you neither learning the material as efficiently as you might on your own nor
relaxing to any great degree. You might want to set aside the first ten minutes of your meeting for socializing, venting and relaxing.
Have a predetermined meeting time and stick to it. Early on, you might want to meet no more than once a week, but at least weekly so that everyone continues to set aside that time. The time crunch as the semester goes on might leave your members thinking that they can't afford an hour for study group, but if everyone picks a time, sticks with it, and gets value out of the early sessions, they are more likely to stick with it as the time crunch intrudes.
In the early meetings, you can use the study group to informally fill in the gaps and make you aware of your errors in understanding the material. The first few weeks or months of law school will be hard to understand. One member might review what was covered in a particular class that week, see if she can explain the concepts, and refer each other to sources (hornbooks, outlines, talks with professors) for further understanding. You might want to assign one member of the group to talk with the professor to clarify the material and report back to the group.
- Individual Responsibility.
You still have to learn and understand the material individually. A study group should never be a substitute for individual learning and understanding. The key to learning legal reasoning and legal concepts is the process of thinking, not the actual answer. Do not assign just one person to outline a specific course. Each member should work on his or her own outline, then use the group as a check, or members of the group can outline material together. Or the group can divide up the syllabi and assign a portion to each member to outline or to lead the group's discussion of that part of the syllabi.
The members of the study group should periodically evaluate whether they are being effective. Despite your best efforts, if the group is not working out, determine what changes are necessary and implement them. At times, the change will be to dissolve the group. If this occurs, make every effort to avoid ill will. But, it's
ok to be "wrong". It's ok to make "mistakes". Every experience is a learning one, and change is often good.
One of the best uses of a study group is to prepare for exams. Many professors make old exams available in the library or in
the Distribution and Copy Center. Use these exams to test yourself. Members of the group can each take a practice exam, exchange answers and critique others. This not only provides a check of the subject matter, and it also allows you to see writing styles that are effective or not.
One effective use of study groups is outlined by Carolyn Nygren in her excellent Starting Off Right in Law School series.
One way to approach practice exams is to assign the same exam question to everyone in your group. Everyone should prepare a list of the legal theories they spot in the question. Under each legal theory, they should write a rule for the theory and the words from the fact pattern they used to decide which legal theories were applicable. When the group meets, share your responses. What one person doesn't find, nine times out of ten, another person will. When you have agreed on a list of issues, send everyone home to write out an answer. Then meet again and share your answers. Compare the organization of your answers and discuss the problems you had in writing the exam.
As you near exam time, take exams under timed conditions. If you are working on a one hour question, give everyone a half hour to prepare their notes for the answer. Then meet and compare notes. Then, take a half hour to write the answer. You should be able to spot the issues in a long fact pattern, know which words are in the fact pattern for what purpose, and have a workable format for an answer.
Adapted by Sheila Vance from materials prepared by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor, Academic Support Program, DePaul University College of Law; Paula Lustbader, Academic Resource Center, Seattle University School of Law, presented at the Law School Admissions Council Academic Support Conference, 1993; 1-Steven J. Frank, Learning the Law (1992); 2-Carolyn Nygren, the Starting Off Right in Law School series (1997); 3-Helen and Marshall Shapo, Law School Without Fear