How to Get the Most out of GMAT Study Groups – Part 2
Last time, we talked about how to set up study groups, as well as the first of two great reasons to have a study group in the first place: Your study group will help you to keep you motivated and on track.
Today, we’re going to talk about the second great reason: Your study group will help you learn more than you would learn on your own.
Have an agenda / plan
Any productive meeting has a plan—you will accomplish more when you know what you want to accomplish. You can either have one person manage the group (and always establish the plan for each meeting) or you can rotate. Here are some things that your plan should include:
- Tasks for all members to accomplish in preparation for the meeting
- The length of the meeting (1 hour? 2?)
- Specific blocks of time during assigned to specific activities
For example, an agenda for a 2-hour meeting might look like this:
This agenda would require the group members to prepare certain things in advance. For “Review homework,” you would each need to have completed the same homework assignment in advance. Perhaps this is a specific set of Official Guide problems or certain chapters and problems from your Strategy Guides (the MPrep study books).
For “Teach a problem,” you would each come prepared to teach one problem to the others in the group—more on this below.
It’s a great idea to leave the last 15 to 30 minutes free for open questions—What has been driving you crazy? Are you struggling with something that your group might help you to remedy?
Alternatively, if nobody has anything to discuss, you could use the time for quiet study—but with your study buddies available in case a question does come up while you work. This extra time also provides a buffer, in case one of your earlier activities takes more time than planned.
One last thing: Did somebody forget to put together an agenda? Were you all too busy this week to get to the homework or prepare problems to teach? Don’t cancel your meeting! Get together anyway. Study quietly for 30 minutes (or 60 minutes), then check in with each other. Did anyone get stuck on something? Can you help? Then study quietly for another length of time and repeat.
And, yes, even do this online! I know it sounds silly to all be in a Hangout while quietly studying…but do it! You even have more flexibility online. For example, let’s say you have a question about something now, but everyone else is working and you don’t want to interrupt. Type your question in the chat. When someone else gets to the end of the problem or whatever they’re doing, they can then see your question and address it (if they think they know the answer).
Okay, let’s talk a little more about each of the elements in the table above.
If you all do the same homework ahead of time, then you can compare notes when you get together. (And my colleague Noah Teitelbaum suggests taking it one step further: If you know a certain problem is driving you crazy, let your group know before you get together so they can spend some extra time thinking about that one. You can also do this with other problems—ones that weren’t part of the group homework.)
Which problems did you find the most annoying? Does someone else have a better way of approaching that problem? Or a good way to narrow down the answers to make an educated guess?
Did you just get totally stumped with something? One of your study partners might be able to explain something to you in a way that gets you unstuck. And you might be able to return the favor on another problem.
Did you make a mistake on something but now you think you understand what to do next time? My colleague Daniel Fogel suggests that you prove it to your friends. Articulate three things:
- Here’s the exact mistake that I made.
- Here’s why I made the mistake.
- Here’s how I will avoid making that same type of mistake in future.
If you can clearly articulate all of these, then you will be putting into place the new habits you need to minimize that type of mistake in future. You might even help a friend who has been making the same kind of mistake but hasn’t realized it yet or hasn’t figured out how to fix it. And if you can’t clearly articulate these steps, then your friends are going to tell you that your explanation is unconvincing—and they’ll push you harder to make sure you get this fixed for future.
One caveat: You will also do different homework than the group, because you each want to customize to your own strengths and weaknesses. But do some of the same homework so that you can then learn from each other and help to lift each other up.
Teach a problem
My colleagues Chris Gentry and Noah Teitelbaum both strongly advocate putting yourself in the teacher role. If you think you know how to do something well, then (once again!) prove it by teaching it to your friends.
Chris calls this exercise “You’re the Teacher!” and here’s what he says to do. Before you get together, each person chooses one problem to prepare. Choose something that you think will be at least somewhat challenging for the group—but not so challenging that you’ll struggle to teach it.
You can give people the problem to try in advance of your meeting or you can give it to them to try during the meeting. If it’s during the meeting, give them whatever the average amount of time is to do that kind of problem on the real test.
Now, here’s what you’re NOT going to do: You’re not just going to tell them how to do the problem. Rather, you’re going to lead a discussion with the goal of getting them to figure out how to do the problem and tell you what that is. That’s what a good teacher does—teaches his / her students how to think for themselves.
Start asking questions. What did you think was straightforward about this problem? Which parts were challenging? Does the group all agree on the straightforward stuff? If not, hash that out first. Then, start brainstorming what to do about the challenging parts. When the group gets stuck, given them clues—but don’t give them too much at once. The best clues will be enough to get the group unstuck and allow them to move themselves further through the problem until they either finish it or get stuck at a different part and need another clue.
What are the big takeaways? Next time you see something like this, what do you want to be able to recognize? And what are you going to do when you recognize it? Try to frame the answer in the form “When I see X, I’ll think / do Y.” When you’re the teacher (and when you’re not!), help the group to articulate these takeaways.
Open questions / quiet study / buffer
The buffer part is self-explanatory, but I’d like to talk a bit more about open questions and quiet study.
You will be studying more in a week than you plan specifically to address with your study group—so you will all likely have additional questions or areas that need help. Tell the group what you’re struggling with most and see who else might be good at that area and able to help you. You might even set up a one-hour exchange on some other day—you spend 30 minutes helping the other person with some topic, question type, or strategy and then they spend 30 minutes helping you with whatever you need.
You might even start a discussion board where you can all post questions throughout the week while you’re studying separately. People can answer questions when they have time, and you can also pull up the discussion board when you get together to help you figure out what you might want to discuss during the Open Questions portion of your study session.
The quiet study portion might sound the least helpful in a group setting, but I think it’s actually super useful. First of all, it just helps to keep you on track. I’ve had students meet twice a week, but one of those meetings is pure quiet study. It keeps you honest. If your group is meeting for quiet study on Wednesday, you aren’t going to blow off your Wednesday study time because you had a long day at work (or whatever…we’ve all been there!)—because your group will want to know where you are.
When you are studying on your own, there are tons of times that you get stuck. In general, it’s true that it’s good to push through and try to figure things out on your own—but, if you get really stuck, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to toss out a question and get an immediate answer / insight from the group. Then you don’t have to set aside that lesson and come back to it later when you do finally get help to unstick yourself; you can keep pushing through right now.
Do you have other ideas for how to spend productive study group time? Post in the comments to let us know!
I’d like to give a final acknowledgement to my awesome colleagues who generously contributed their ideas to this post. In alphabetical order: Daniel Fogel, Chris Gentry, Jamie Nelson, Noah Teitelbaum. Thanks, all—I love working with you!
Takeaways for Study Groups
(1) Set up a group of 3 to 5 people, online or in-person. Try to have a mix of skills / strengths and weaknesses so that you can help each other and learn from each other.
(2) Commit! Plan a schedule and stick to it—no absences without a legitimate excuse. Set study goals from week to week. Share the goals with your group members and make sure that you’re updating them on your progress.
(3) Plan meeting agendas in advance and engage in a variety of activities to help you stay motivated and learn from each other.