Laura Joyce 29th December 2015

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Why Lone Studying Does Not Work

Group Learning

Along time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I sat at my desk and slowly trawled my way through the mighty tomes of Clinically Oriented Anatomy, Netter and other delights. I spent much of my free time in the reg room working out if that bone was a fibula or a clavicle, why the extra-ocular muscles seemed to be round the wrong way, while wondering if the skull foramina would ever actually help me in clinical practice. I dedicated six months of my life to memorising anatomy with the belief that patients in the future would benefit from my knowledge of the exact course of their lateral femoral cutaneous nerve.

Many long hours, hundreds of pages of notes, thousands of MCQs later I failed my first exam since Grade One piano.

I didn’t understand! Despite the fact that I am no good at memorizing meaningless facts or brachial plexus diagrams, I was sure that I had spent enough time with my head in the books. I had regurgitated the entire curriculum into my study notes, I had made a revision list and checked it twice…or ten times, and I had “passed” all the old exam papers I could get my hands on. What had gone wrong? Now I had to repeat this process again for the next six months – how on earth could I change what I was doing to get a more positive result?

For the Fellowship Exam I did something very different. There were still many hours caressing Tintinalli, hundreds of pages of notes typed and thousands of MCQs completed.

But this time I joined a study group.

And I passed first time.

Data collected by Dr Paul Gee, DEMT, shows that approximately 95% of Christchurch candidates who study in a group will pass a college exam, while only 50% of those who study alone will pass.

Social Learning Theories

Vygotsky (1978) commented on Social Learning Theories, that “Learning Communities” – those who work together for a common goal – will be “stretched beyond what we can do on our own with the help of others”.

He talked about Zone Proximal Development (ZPD), where “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by individual problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under … guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”.


In other words, the level you can achieve is much higher when collaborating with others.

Why do we avoid study groups?

There are two main reasons:

  • A common (mis-)belief that an isolated environment is necessary for better concentration. This is true if you are memorising facts without processing the information, and guaranteed to ensure you forget everything within a few weeks.

  • When you study in a group you become vulnerable due to having to face the things that you are not so knowledgeable about. You have to admit that you don’t know everything.

Why are study groups better than self-study?

  • When studying in a group there is a much higher chance that most of the things you are uncertain about will become apparent – this can be embarrassing, but obviously it lets you face your weak points so that in the exam these things are much less likely to catch you off guard.

  • Sometimes you just can’t get your head around a concept – having colleagues to bounce your thoughts off, to help fill in the gaps can help to clear up any confusion. And the best way to ensure you really understand something is having to explain it to someone else.

  • Through their cooperative but also competitive nature, study groups promote critical thinking and creativity. You get to hear different opinions, and witness different techniques to answer questions, so ensuring a much deeper learning of material which would be missed if you were doing it alone.

  • Procrastination is Exam Revision’s middle name. When alone there are always more important tasks to do than study – the cup of tea every hour is rationalized as the importance to stay hydrated, the spring clean of your entire house is very important to ensure that you don’t burn out, that you keep moving to avoid a DVT. Taking breaks is important, but so is focussed periods of study that can only be achieved by not checking facebook every 10 minutes.

“No one is as smart as all of us”.

Sir Ray Avery 2010 New Zealander of Year

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.