First-year law students always ask me if they should join a study group, and the answer that I always give them is “It depends.” What works best for one student may not work as well for another. For example, your preferred learning style may influence your decision to join a study group. Some students may find study groups particularly beneficial if the study group talks through legal issues or acts them out, while a study group that creates diagrams or outlines on a whiteboard may be more appealing to others. How members of a study group approach their group studies may also affect how productive it is.
Here are some tips for making a study group a successful part of your learning strategy in law school:
(1) Accountability: The best study groups create a system of accountability for participants. Have members of the group create a set of ground rules at the first meeting. For example, what happens if someone is not prepared for the meeting? How will the group handle disagreements? Each member of the group will know what is expected, and there will be a predetermined way to handle any disagreements.
(2) Make a Plan: Also related to accountability, it is important for the study group to have a plan. If the group does not set goals for what it wants to accomplish and has no plan for each meeting, group meetings are likely to be less productive—in fact, a group meeting without a plan is often a complete waste of time. There’s nothing more frustrating than showing up for a group study session and having it turn into a social occasion instead, especially if time is at a premium (as it so often is in law school!).
(3) Optimum Size: Not every study group will be the same size, but it is important not to let a group get too large. A study group is not a workshop or seminar, but an opportunity for every member to actively participate and contribute. Some study groups only have two members; others may have as many as four or five. Much more than that and it will be difficult for everyone to benefit from the group. You will start having private conversations taking place on the periphery of the group, detracting from the study group’s larger purpose.
(4) Diversity of Membership: Law students often are drawn to people like themselves, but it is good to have diversity in a study group. What do I mean by diversity? Consider studying with people who are different than you—when people come at their studies from different perspectives and experiences, it benefits everyone involved. Invite people of different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, or sexes to join the group. If you are from a rural area, study with someone from a city. Invite a law student with a disability to join your group. It can be good to have group members of different ages, with different work experiences. Even recruiting students with different learning preferences can be good—sometimes it helps to change up the way that you study periodically. If you study with a diverse group of students, their perspectives may help you to have a better understanding of legal issues than you would have had on your own.
(5) No Shortcuts!: Finally, a cautionary word about study groups. Students sometimes view study groups as a shortcut. They may try to divide up the work among members of the group in an attempt to reduce their individual study loads. For example, a group might decide that its members will take turns creating case briefs for class reading assignments or will each create part of an outline for one of their courses. This approach is a recipe for disaster. If you take this approach, you will not understand the course material at the level that you need to know it for success in class discussion, the final exam, or the bar exam. Resist any temptation to turn your study group into a shortcut, as you will regret it in the end.