College study groups offer a social way of learning

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As friends, four rowing team members exchange laughter over lunch at the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

As a study group, they exchange ideas, thoughts and factual information.

Even though they have different majors, they have had similar classes and found this informally formed study group helps them succeed.

"I like being in this study group because studying alone drives me crazy, said sophomore Chris Garver, 19."When I'm studying in this group, there are other people around to help keep me focused."

Participating in a study group can be beneficial. Students can gain new perspectives on information, learn how to work together and make friends in or outside their fields.

Today's technology makes meeting in study groups much more viable, making it possible to meet up not only on campus but anywhere with an Internet connection.

In addition, some universities are providing programs -- such as the learning communities at Duquesne University -- to help students meet other students in their majors and potentially form study groups.

Study groups are obviously social but not necessarily the same as a social life.

Deanna Pulice, 22, a senior studying criminal justice at Seton Hill University, takes a no-nonsense approach to studying.

"No more than three people," Ms. Pulice said. "After that, it becomes too distracting. Also, no looking at Facebook or any other website that will get us off topic."

Still, Ms. Pulice uses technology.

"Every full-time student is given a MacBook and an iPad, so all of this technology makes things a lot easier," Ms. Pulice said.

"There are so many tools like quiz sites, Dropbox, and Moodle that make communicating and study much more efficient. If someone can't meet for the study group, Skype is the best thing to us -- they can participate, ask questions and physically be there."

Study groups are particularly popular in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Even students who usually succeed in their studies on their own find study groups helpful in STEM subjects.

"Generally, [STEM courses] are hard. It's hard to understand the problems and concepts, [and] hard to visualize what is physically occurring in the problem," said Harrison Rose, 23, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2013 and is a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology.

"The opportunity to bounce ideas around in a group definitely made our team stronger than the sum of the parts," he said.

Shawn Hinnebusch, 19, a sophomore at Community College of Allegheny County who plans to transfer to Pitt's mechanical engineering program, relies on study groups on a regular basis.

Mr. Hinnebusch, who believes making friends is a great benefit, said his group usually meets an hour before each class just to touch base, two hours before if there is a test.

Before meeting with his group, Mr. Hinnebusch tries learning the material on his own so he knows where he needs help.

"Other viewpoints could help -- if someone says something to you that makes sense, it just clicks," Mr. Hinnebusch said.

Mr. Hinnebusch's study group uses traditional forms of studying.

"We sometimes make our own practice tests, but the ungraded homework assignments are great for studying," Mr. Hinnebusch said.

It can be challenging, even daunting, for students to approach others to form study groups.

Some universities have programs to help break the ice, such as the learning communities at Duquesne.

Students live on the same floor and take about four classes together during their first semester of college.

"It's very common for them to set up a study group," said Evan Stoddard, associate dean of McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University.

Some communities organize regular study sessions, including reserving study rooms in the library and organizing a time and day to meet.

Groups are also able to communicate through their own Facebook pages.

Kevin Yacker, a junior majoring in integrated marketing communications, joined the learning community as a freshman and soon realized how the students could help each other succeed.

"Having a structure to go into going into college is invaluable," Mr. Yacker said. "You're around people with the same aspirations and motives, and together you want to help each other excel."

Mr. Stoddard sees future benefits as well.

"Life is about collaboration and shared learning. If we are really going to prepare students for life after college, we need to help them learn to help and teach each other.

"Besides, students do better when they help one another. And it's also more fun than going it alone."

Nikki Pena: or 412-263-1280.

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