Study groups - a help or hinderance for anatomy learning?
“The power of one, if fearless and focused, is formidable, but the power of many working together is better.” - Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
If you take a step back and absorb your surroundings and nature, you can instantly see the manifestation of the above quote. A beehive, an anthill, tigers hunting, and factory assembly lines are based on the powerful and efficient idea of teamwork. Humans know instinctively they can accomplish more by working together. However, how accurate is this view when it comes to studying as a team?
It is extremely easy to be hypnotized by the qualities of study groups: shared workload, detailed and passionate discussions, clarifying confusions, etc. It certainly sounds like a learning heaven, especially for a dry and laborious subject like anatomy. However, why are most of high academic achievers seen studying alone, either in a library or their own room? Why are up to 77% of students, according to some studies, never using study groups or have tried to, but then quit? There is more to this than meets the eye! Studying in groups definitely has advantages and disadvantages, but whether they help or hinder your learning is a complex equation with many variables. This article will try to shed some light on the matter and provide you with several viewpoints to help you draw your own conclusions about study groups.
Study groups can be a hinderance
The first step in determining if something is helpful or not is to try and eliminate subjectiveness. You might like the meal you cooked, but unless someone else tastes it, you won’t be certain how delicious it is. The best food critic in this case is science. According to experts, there are several major downsides associated with study groups:
- Collaborative inhibition - This phenomenon negatively impacts recall. It basically means that group members taken as one single and whole entity, remember less information compared to the knowledge recalled by each individual member, which is then combined. In other words, your entire study group might discuss together and remember ten branches of the maxillary artery, but if you each try to recall them on your own and then combine your results, you will remember all seventeen branches. This is because each group member has their own idiosyncratic way of memorising information. If this information is given to a respective member in a different way at retrieval, such as part of someone else’s recall due to group discussions, it lowers the recall performance and subsequently the group performance. By eliminating this interference and working alone, each member recalls more.
Collaborative encoding deficit - This phenomenon negatively impacts encoding. This means that individuals who encode information collaboratively in group, as a whole, recall less compared to members who encode individually. Essentially, you remember more branches of the maxillary artery if you learn them yourself rather than with a group. Once again, the explanation for this is that individually generated items are more idiosyncratically meaningful to you, and you alone, compared to those of other group members.
Lack of guidance - Think back to the last time you studied in a group. It probably felt like a parliamentary debate, with every member talking simultaneously trying to get their point across and papers flying everywhere. Many students have no idea how to effectively study in groups. Gathering around a bunch of anatomy notes and discussing the brain is definitely helpful, but insufficient. To reap the maximum benefits out of a group meeting, there has to be an experienced person leading the interaction, asking the right questions, encouraging a laser focused discussion, providing feedback, and stepping in if confusions or inaccuracies start emerging. Without experienced group leaders, especially at the beginning, students usually run around like headless chicken!
Human nature and logistics - More than likely, the members of your study groups will be human beings and they certainly come in many flavours. Some will not do their assigned tasks within the group and let others carry the whole weight. Others will be at different levels of intelligence and seriousness compared to you. Some will simply have less time available for group studying. These aspects can easily be solved by forming groups with like-minded students, but how easy is it to find a group that moulds together perfectly? Very often, it’s impossible and the result is an haphazardly formed study environment where no one really benefits.
Distraction - This is perhaps the biggest hinderance of study groups. There is a very high chance your study group to turn into a social situation where the last thing everyone does is actually learning. Anatomy already takes a long time to master and you barely have enough time in college to cover everything so wasting time is the last thing you need!
Study groups can be helpful
It can certainly be quite disheartening to see that study groups are attacked from every single angle: encoding stage, retrieval, guidance, and the group members themselves. Fortunately, there is still a glimmer of hope if you are an avid user of this study ‘method’.
Sometimes, learning is a lot more than purely studying and remembering. At the end of the day, science can prove that a certain strategy or environment is incredibly powerful and beneficial, but if you hate it, you simply won’t use it. Learning should have a degree of subjectiveness because you should enjoy learning the material. Surveys have shown that study groups are perceived by students in a very positive light and here is why:
Clarifying problems - Very often, students have way more questions that they can ask their lecturers or assistants. After all, you should study actively and ask yourself as many questions as possible. Since study groups are usually formed between friends, you can ask each other as many questions as you want. You can clarify confusions, correct misunderstandings, and have intricate discussions about a certain topic. Are you uncertain about the trajectory of the facial nerve? Just ask your group!
Teach and test - Many students know about the importance of active recall and that explaining the material and taking tests are two methods which use this principle (you can find more here!). You can certainly do it in your room and teach the wall about the anatomy of the kidney, but where is the fun in that? A study group gives you an audience ready to listen to you! In addition, you can create practice exams and ask each other questions to really pinpoint your misunderstandings!
Shared workload - Instead of reading and learning about the anatomy of the heart alone, why don’t you share the burden with the whole group and divide the workload? You can share notes and explain the concepts to each other.
Social setting - The word ‘social’ should definitely not be mixed with learning anatomy, but some students cannot isolate themselves in a quiet place and learn by themselves.
Help or hinderance?
Is it then beneficial or a waste of time to study in groups? The answer is, it depends. More than likely it is not what you have hoped to hear, but it is impossible to give a clear-cut answer. You need to balance the advantages and disadvantages and decide for yourself, mostly due to lack of sufficient evidence. Are you a student that hates learning alone and would rather discuss the material with others? Do you simply enjoy studying in groups? Keep doing it then. After all, you need to enjoy learning the material. However, just keep in mind that even though something is appealing, does not necessarily mean it’s good or useful. Chocolate and sweets are delicious, but they are certainly not good for your health. It also depends on your class; what worked for one might not work for another.
What about those problem-based learning curricula that some medical schools and anatomy departments have? They were actually met with mixed success. Compared to traditional methods, they offer no additional benefits but they also don’t impair learning. They are like household decorations. They are not really necessary, but they also doesn’t make the situation worse. Overall, they are just an alternative way of teaching anatomy.
Perhaps the best strategy, for the moment, would be to change your mentality, and instead of thinking of study groups, think of review groups. If you look at the advantages, they mostly include aspects like ‘tests’, ‘clarifications’, and ‘teaching’, which have the common theme of active recall and require a degree of learned knowledge. Group members can study the material themselves and then meet together to revise, test, and teach each other.
A good starting point would would be Kenhub’s learning strategy section. Filled with various learning methods such as memory palaces and articles crushing myths like learning styles, it can really help you manage all that anatomy knowledge and avoid some common learning mistakes which you are probably making. Do you also want to take a shortcut in preparing tests for your fellow group members? Just use Kenhub’s quizzes! They are especially designed to really see what your anatomy knowledge is made of.
Overall, it is really up to you if study groups are a help or hinderance. Concrete scientific evidence favours the negative side, but more studies need to be carried out. However, there are more aspects to learning than encoding and recall and they can really make or break a learning method, so don’t overlook them!