Study Buddy: 6 Steps to Starting a Study Group

Students interacting in a study group.

Studying is hard. But you don’t have to do it alone.

Starting a study group is an excellent way to enhance your learning experience, and not just at test-prep time. One of the top reasons to consider making study a team sport is accountability—for some of us, having others counting on us to be present is the best way to make sure we show up, both physically and mentally.

But there’s more. When you study together, you’ll get access to each other’s interpretations of the material and secret study hacks.

And don’t underestimate team spirit! One of the first things we recommend you do after compiling your study group is picking a name. Get creative and keep it on theme. This way you’ll get a little emotional reward every time you see an email from your “Brain Busters” thread in your inbox.

Ready to assemble? Follow these steps for a successful study squad:

1. Pick Your People

Recruiting the right gang is both the first and most important step in building an effective study group. And do think of it as a team, with players chosen for complementary strengths. It’s okay if your study group includes friends, but that shouldn’t be the only requirement. Choose people who are committed and collaborative.

Keep your group small—three to five members is a good ballpark target—you want everyone to have ample time to contribute and participate. Try to keep your group as consistent as possible, but it’s safe to assume not everyone will be able to make every meetup. If schedules are difficult to coordinate, you can consider opening up a larger group, so if people need to rotate in and out, you’ll have enough attendance to get the most out of each session.

2. Establish the Rules and Roles

Do this at your first meeting. It’s important to level expectations and make sure everyone agrees to the group etiquette upfront. Make sure all members have equal input and agency in the group. (This is not a dictatorship!) Speaking of which, start by determining roles for the group. Here’s our recommended makeup:

  • Group Coordinator: This is the person who manages scheduling and communication with the group, creates a snack sign-up sheet (more on that below), etc.
  • Session Leader: Your leader emcees the actual sessions: kicking things off, keeping track of session timing, calling breaks, etc. This should be someone who doesn’t mind intervening if the group loses focus.
  • Materials Wrangler: Someone needs to make sure you have all the materials you need for study. Lots of this should be BYO, but this member can print out and distribute any practice sheets, etc.
  • Understudy(ies): You can have more than one of these. For any of the roles above, this member is on call to sub in, in the event another team member needs to tap out.

These roles can change, as needed. If someone is well suited to a particular role and doesn’t mind taking it on permanently, by all means, let them take initiative. But allow for some flexibility if people would like to rotate in and out of different responsibilities.

Speaking of responsibility, consider the unfortunate possibility of a group member not working out. This could be purely logistical, like a schedule that is impossible to coordinate or, in rare circumstances, the issue of someone not being a productive member of the group. In either case, decisions about changing your group’s membership should always be by committee and handled with diplomacy.

3. Set a Schedule (and a Timer)

Have a regular session cadence and ask everyone to commit. This can be whatever makes sense for the group: weekly, monthly, or timed around testing events. Once your group is up and running, it will become clear if you need to adjust the schedule.

Some members may want to meet more often, and there’s nothing wrong with leaving the option open for “breakout sessions” where a member can call an ad-hoc, elective meetup for extra preparation or to spend more time on a certain topic.

You also need to decide how long each session will last and how you’ll break it up. We recommend no fewer than two hours, and a maximum of four. (Exceptions can be made for marathon sessions leading up to exams.) Assume 15 minutes up top for everyone to arrive, settle in, and catch up. After that, you can break it up into sprints and breaks. So, an example session could be:

  • Settle in/Set up (15 minutes)
  • Sprint 1 (45 minutes)
  • Break (10 minutes)
  • Sprint 2 (45 minutes)
  • Snack Break (15 minutes)
  • Sprint 3 (30 minutes)
  • Recap/Assignments (10 minutes)
  • Cleanup (10 minutes)

Feel free to adjust the length of your sprints and breaks as needed, but plan your sprints ahead. Do you want to spend the whole session reviewing anatomy? Great. Would you rather swap up topics? Also fine. You can even spend one sprint on quiet reading time.

Consider throwing in some activities, like a “lightning round” at the end, or taking a quick practice quiz and then grading each other’s answers. For some topics, that might involve critical thinking over facts (ethics, for example) that may call for group discussion.

4. Location, Location, Location

First: Choose a location that’s comfortable but functional, with enough seating for everyone and enough work surface for materials. A group member’s home or dorm room will do, or if your school has classrooms available at night or spaces at the library that allow for discussion, you can take advantage of those facilities. Try to find something that’s convenient for everyone. Hopefully you’re all in the same part of town, but if not, pick something central, if possible.

Second: Consider rotating through multiple locations. We go into this in more detail in another one of our posts, “3 Learning Myths Busted,” but the reason for rotating study locations is that there’s evidence you’ll have better recall on test day (and in general) if you’ve reviewed the material in multiple settings. It might make practical sense to take turns hosting, anyway.

5. Maintain Good Study Group Etiquette

Good team morale starts with good manners. Keep good attendance, arrive on time but not early, offer to help with setup, and always help with cleanup. Make sure you’re not dominating the conversation—give the more introverted in your group a turn.

Etiquette is important in other ways, too. Observe “campground rules” and clean up after yourself. Respect that everyone learns differently and at a different pace. Leave any negativity at the door, and if you’re sick, sit the session out (or Zoom in).

And bring snacks! Sustenance is important. Consider setting up a rotating “snack duty” sign-up sheet. Ask if anyone has food allergies or dietary restrictions, and shop accordingly. To avoid “food coma,” choose foods that will keep everyone alert. Think brain foods like nuts and fruits, and if the group so desires, some coffee. Having something to munch or sip on can help break up the slog of a particularly challenging subject.

6. Have a Reward System

And, last but not least, celebrate together. Keep the socializing during sessions to a minimum (we’re looking at you, session leader), but plan something fun for after exams. Go out to dinner, go bowling, catch a movie—pick something recreational and/or leisurely where you can appreciate your hard work and each other in a study-free setting.

Once you get your study group up and running, come share your group name with us on Facebook and Instagram!

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.