Who should you study with?

There is something nostalgic about getting together with folks to study. The benefits of working through academic ideas with colleagues are many, but who should you study with?

Mathematicians at blackboard 450

In the past, I’ve encouraged students to work together with people who are are evenly matched intellectually. I have always figured: if you are in the same boat, it will prevent one person from “carrying the group” and force everyone to dig deep.

But today I read something that might have changed my mind. Dr. Drang penned a really interesting piece titled Learning that explores how teaching, programming, or writing about a topic is the best way to fully learn something.

In the comments, a gentleman named Clark offers the following food for thought:

This is a great truth that applies to students too. The classes I did best in were those where we found the student struggling most in the class and brought them into our study group. If we could teach the subject so that they could understand then we would fully understand it. The greatest self-deception is thinking you know something when you don’t really comprehend it. Yet that’s a natural mistake to make. It’s easy to feel like you intuitively understand something only to find when it’s in a different form you don’t. When teaching someone struggling with it you have to understand it so well that you understand all the nuances. It’s the same teaching things. (emphasis added)

This perspective is so fascinating because the strong student benefits from the weak student, and the weak student benefits from the strong student. I had always thought it was zero-sum.

The obvious downside to this philosophy is that (assuming you are the stronger student) you will probably create a tremendous amount of work and inconvenience for yourself that could be avoided if you wanted to just slip by in the course.

But you just might walk away with incredible insight into the material.

Photo credit: Wim Klerkx

You can read more about me, follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by RSS or email, and find many more posts in the archives.