Excelling in Engineering School: Collaborate – Being smart is not enough

Human beings are at their most effective when they work together in teams. In the area of business, groups of people organised into companies conduct more business, and generate billions more revenue than individuals working alone as sole traders. In engineering and technology, the lone wolf only exists in the imagination. Virtually all the technologies that we routinely use in our daily lives are produced by organised businesses. Even in politics, the independent politician is extremely rare, with almost all world leaders belonging to one political grouping or another.

Despite the very clear evidence that the human being is essentially a team-working creature, engineering students all over the world prefer to study alone.  Raymond B. Landis, former Dean of Engineering and Technology at California State University, Los Angeles, estimates that only 10% of all engineering students study at some point with at least one other student. Of all the students that he has asked, 90% categorically state that they spend all their time studying alone.

Why Do Students Prefer Studying Alone?

There are several reasons why students prefer to study alone, rather than collaboratively with other students. Some of the reasons that I have found include:

  1. The prevailing culture of the individualistic genius: We tend to associate success with specific individuals, despite the important contributions made by other people around them. For instance, in the technological sector we often associate the iPhone with Steve Jobs, Windows with Bill Gates, Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, and blissfully ignore the fact that all these individuals lead, or led, organisations employing teams made up of some of the most brilliant engineers of their time. This belief in individualistic genius is unfortunately reinforced by our scientific tradition of associating each scientific theorem with an individual. For example, we talk of Newton’s laws of motion, Kirchhoff’s  laws of electrical circuits, Ohm’s law of electrical resistance, etc., whilst completely disregarding all those other researchers who contributed to the eventual formulation of these laws.
  2. Negative peer pressure: Academically weak students routinely discourage hard-working students from staying focussed on academic studies. This problem is particularly rife in high school. Hence, by the time a student enters engineering school, they have mustered the habit of studying alone and in secret.
  3. Erroneous belief that isolation improves concentration: Most students who prefer to study alone wrongly believe that this helps to improve concentration and understanding. This may work if you are memorising your study material. However, if you really want to understand your study material and to be able to apply it to solving problems, then studying with other students is much more effective.
  4. Fear of embarrassment: Most students prefer studying alone because they fear being embarrassed before their peers when they get things wrong. However, it is best to have someone let you know of your areas of weaknesses during the year. Otherwise, you will only discover your weaknesses in the final exam, which can be quite distressing.

What are the benefits of collaborating with others when studying?

Teaming up with other like-minded students to study has several benefits. In this section, I discuss some of the reasons that academics have offered in support of collaborative studying.

  1. Team-working always trumps lone-working: I have commented on this already. The fact is, in general, people often achieve the greatest results when working collaboratively with others. Therefore, if you study collaboratively with other students you have greater chances of achieving higher academic grades. In addition, by studying with other students, you learn essential skills like team-working and communication.  If you look at the typical job advert for graduate engineers, you will find that these two skills are highly prized by employers. Therefore, by studying collaboratively with other students you kill two birds with one stone. First, you improve your academic performance. Secondly, you acquire important skills that you will need when you start practising as an engineer.
  2. Learning and supporting each other: As most students quickly realise, in engineering school you are introduced to many engineering and scientific concepts that are complex, and sometimes difficult to understand. In addition, the pace at which you are taught is much faster than in high school. Concepts that are often taught over several weeks in high school are usually taught in just one lecture in engineering school.  Studying with others will help you to easily figure out difficult material. You also get to support each other during difficult periods. In turn, this makes engineering school less difficult and more enjoyable, and helps you to perform better academically. In fact, the failure to integrate and collaborate with other students is one of the biggest indicators that a student is most likely to underperform or to drop out of their studies entirely.
  3. Collaborative study gives you a more positive student experience: Students who collaboratively work and study with others often have more positive experiences of engineering school than those who prefer studying alone. Maryellen Weimer, writer of the Teaching Professor Blog, believes that when students collaboratively study with each other they reap the following benefits:
  • Studying and working with others provides a safe environment to ask questions and admit confusion
  • It is often easier for students to understand each other than the teacher
  • When students figure out things on their own, that builds confidence
  • When students explain to each other, the student doing the explaining develops a deeper understanding of the subject matter
  1. Collaborate, being smart is not enough: This point is taken from an aptly named study guide by Dilaura. In  this guide he suggests that studying with others helps students to discuss and share ideas in problematic areas. This enables them to hear and consider different viewpoints, thereby enriching their learning. Most importantly, when students study together, they are better able to resist the temptation to put off things. It also enables them to resist distractions when studying.
  2. Multiple heads are better than one: When students take part in a study group, they achieve more than they would each do in their individual capacities. For instance, three students working collaboratively to solve a calculus problem have better chances of solving the problems than when they are working individually. Moreover, study groups help students to benefit from each other’s’ individual talents and strengths, and to ultimately succeed in their studies.

What makes an effective study group?

Valeria Burdea has published a blog post entitled “Joining a Study Group: The Benefits”. In this blog she gives four steps that students must follow if they want to set up effective study groups:

  1. Seek to study and work only with those students who motivate and inspire them. Students should omit from their study group any student who is simply looking for an easy way to get a passing grade.
  2. Look out for those students who are alert and focussed in class. These are usually the students who participate in class through asking questions and answering any questions posed by the lecturer.
  3. The ideal study group is made up of 3 or 4 people. If it is too large, then it becomes too difficult to coordinate and to maintain the necessary discipline required.
  4. Each study group member should prepare adequately prior to each meeting. This will enable the study group to focus on group discussions, as well as adding value to individual student understanding.

How to Create an Effective Study Group?

In 2007, Anastasia Pryanikova published a blog post entitled “How to form an effective study group.” This has since become  one of the most widely referenced articles on creating effective study groups. In this section I outline the major steps that she set out for those considering forming their own study groups:

  1. Choose your study partners wisely. Ideally, these should be self-directed and motivated learners who are responsible enough to prepare for the study group meetings. They should also be able to contribute with ideas and tips, and their  schedule must be compatible with your own.
  2. Always have a meeting agenda. At the end of each meeting set an agenda for the next meeting, and allocate specific times for each task. Make sure that you have an ending time, and during the meetings ensure that you stick to the agenda.
  3. Assign a person to each topic on the agenda to lead discussion. Do this in advance to ensure that the assigned people have enough time to prepare. Whilst the assigned person will lead discussion, other group members should actively participate in the discussion.
  4. Speak concisely. Whenever you contribute to the group discussion, do not waffle about. Make sure that your message is brief and to the point.
  5. Always resolve uncertainities. If your study session reveals disagreement, confusion, or misunderstanding in any area of your study topic, prepare a list of questions and ask your subject lecturers and tutors.
  6. Practise questions as part of your meetings. These could be workshop questions, homework questions, or even past exam questions. Work out the questions individually, and then compare answers and give each other comments and tips for improvement.
  7. Predict the exam. Get into the habit of predicting the questions that are likely to come in the exam. Each group member should contribute by setting a possible exam question. Group members should individually answer each question, and then compare and discuss answers, giving each other advice and tips for improvement.

References

Landis, R.B. (2000). ‘Academic Success Strategies’. In Studying Engineering: A Road Map to a Rewarding Career (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Discovery Press. (Read excerpt here: https://goo.gl/ZMvFi9)

Weimer, M. (21 /09/2016). Faculty Focus: What happens when students study together [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/ASTBXu

Dilaura , D.L. (2001) Being smart is not enough – Chautauquas for first year engineering students. (p. 60). Boulder: University of Colorado at Boulder. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/GdUPqs

Community College of Allegheny County. (n.d.) The power of study groups. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/kRZhUy

Pryanikova, A. (18/04/2007). Lawsagna: How to form an effective study group. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/A9W029

Burdea, V. (15/04/2013).Topuniversities: Joining a Study Group -The Benefits. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/XQOFdM

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