By Brenna Chen
Group project. To some, these two words are connotated with dread, fear, reluctance. To others, group projects bring an opportunity to collaborate and work together, something much more exciting than learning or working independently.
Some people thrive when studying in a social environment, while others need to entirely block everything out in their environment and focus their undivided attention on a certain task. Why do we seem to be wired differently? Is studying alone or with others actually more efficient?
A study by R. Keith Sawyer, associate professor of education at Washington University in St. Louis, which was published in the June 2005 issue of Linguistics and Education, an international research journal, looked into study groups in particular, and why they seem to work effectively. In this study, Sawyer videotaped and analyzed the conversation of a study group for an undergraduate psychology class at the university.
One key pattern of conversation he noted was the students’ eye gaze.
“That pattern of looking down, thinking about what the professor said and then looking up and putting it into their own words, we felt that was a big explanation for why group studying was helping them learn the material at a deeper level,” Sawyer said. “Gradually, as all [the] students began to collectively grasp the material, they started looking up more.”
By looking up from their notes and explaining concepts, students demonstrated a deeper understanding as they could paraphrase concepts rather than recite them verbatim from reading off their notes. Senior Ying Horng Ko further supports this statement with her own personal experience.
“It definitely helps me when explaining concepts to other people,” Ko said. “If I can explain an idea to someone else, I probably understand it.”
Sawyer reported that towards the end of the observational study, most students were having free-flow discussion on the topics rather than studying their notes, supporting his claim that eye gaze was a good sign of understanding of the topics. Sawyer then suggested a possible explanation as to why.
“Study groups are so effective because they provide a way for students to make the lecture notes their own,” Sawyer said.
However, Brainscape, a team of scientists and software engineers committed to optimizing the way people study, offers a different perspective, claiming that solitary learning has benefits social learning cannot offer.
For instance, using research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, Brainscape suggests solitary learning allows the student to personalize their learning and focus on the concepts that are personally more demanding to the student. Rather than follow a run-through of most concepts, studying alone allows the student to specifically focus on the gaps in their understanding.
Additionally, each student has unique ways of interpreting and processing information, as differing study methods tailor to different learning methods. Howard Gardner, a professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests there are eight different types of intelligences, each with different optimal ways of comprehending concepts. Therefore, through solitary learning, a student can tailor his study session with methods to suit him specifically.
Another benefit of solitary learning that many students, such as senior Deborah Ho, seem to emphasize is less distractions.
“When I study with friends, it’s more easy to get off-topic and talk about random things,” Ho said. “I prefer listening to static noise and [working by myself] so I can focus better.”
Decades of research also seem to support this by suggesting individuals outperform groups in efficiency. In the observational study “The Coding War Games,” researchers compared the work of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. The results revealed that although people from the same company performed at roughly the same level, there were severe gaps in performance between different companies.
After surveying these programmers, the researchers deducted that it was privacy and personal freedom from interruption that made a difference, and that greater privacy led to greater productivity. Out of the top performers, sixty-two percent said “their workspace was sufficiently private,” while only nineteen percent of the worst performers said the same.
Lastly, Brainscape notes that individual study allows us to learn at our own pace and remain engaged with all the material rather than lose interest and tune out of the conversation. Independent study forces us to take control of our our learning into our own hands, rather than relying on others to direct the flow and pace of learning.
However, as MVHS Statistics and Pre-Calculus teacher Joe Kim states, it’s incredibly subjective depending on the person.
“Different students have different ways of learning,” Kim said. “If they’re more introverted, they prefer lectures…but extroverted people work better through group work, [so] I tend to have a combination of different methods.”
Overall, while one can compare the pros and cons of each and present research suggesting which methods different people favor, the choice is highly dependent on you — how do you study? Which methods are more effective for you?
Only one thing is certain — truly effective studying generally requires a balance of both, but it’s entirely up to you to find your own balance.