Why Study Groups Short-Circuit Your Problem-Solving Ability

And why problem solving is mission critical to your success as an engineer.

Lacy remembers her first semester of engineering school in a different country region…. (Realistically, how different is Canada from the US? Don’t answer that.)

I didn’t know anyone in my classes, so I studied the best I could and just like I did in high school: intermittently and mostly solo. It wasn’t until I tanked my midterm exams, earning my first (and last) ever D, that I realized that university is a different ball game than high school and I would have to study more and differently.

So, when I was invited to a study group with the guys, I thought, Yay, this is it! This is how to study! I started studying with the “smart guys” in all my classes. It looked picture perfect: studious engineering students working together in a library, the smart guys throwing a rare Mech Eng girl a lifeline to brilliance, and intelligent conversations abounding about moments of inertia.

How time is spent in study groups

Being in a study group was great and saved us all from a lot of work. It meant that you could try a problem, reach a bump in the road, lean over and get pointed in the right direction. Amazing! You could quickly understand the process and then presumably knew how to solve these problems without trudging through it alone and trying a million different dead ends. Holy efficiency, batman!Yet I slowly realized that having someone else always at the table was short-circuiting my ability to problem solve. And it wasn’t just affecting me, it was giving everyone in our group a crutch. Sure, we didn’t have to trudge through a difficult problem alone, trying it from every angle until we got it. But that was the problem. The blessing was a curse.

Having support was easier than having to work alone and felt great, and it completely prevented us from learning how to trudge through a problem and learn how to solve it.

Come to find out, people who devote their lives to researching how humans learn are convinced that it’s those times of pushing through, looking at a problem from a new angle, and working it until there is a personal click! that is the process of learning how to problem solve.

You can’t short-circuit an ah-ha moment and expect to have the same problem-solving prowess.

Now maybe that’s not the case in other majors, but engineering is a problem-solving degree at its core. And while pinky holding when trying to learn how to problem solve feels cozy, it undermines our learning. And we don’t want that.

You might be thinking: An easy pass through engineering school? Who cares if I’m not as good of a problem solver at the end of it if I graduate the fast and easy way with a study group?

And you’d be right if engineering school didn’t have any exams. And there are no group exams, so you’re SOL if you’re only “good” at group studying.

Not knowing how to problem solve well means that:

1In the short term

Your grades are going to be garbage in comparison to what you could earn if you learned how to problem solve for yourself. You’ll also take longer to solve problems as you go to higher level engineering courses because you don’t have the base knowledge to build on, and you’ll simply struggle more later.

2In the medium term

Your mediocre grades and malnourished problem skills limit your opportunities for cash (in the form of scholarships and research opportunities), future study (grad school acceptance), and job outlook (internship placement and first job opportunities after graduation). Remember — you’ll not have your study group around to help with interviews, competitions and admission applications.

3In the long term

You develop a mindset of dependency that’s difficult to shake and never foster a scrappy mindset of resourcefulness and grit that’s key to engineering brilliance. As employers ourselves, we can tell you there is nothing more useless to a company or team than a dependent engineer.

And all this because you didn’t try it out for yourself when you had the chance. You didn’t struggle a little bit in the beginning to find a way to solve problems that works for you.

I know it’s hard to leave a study group because I was there, too. Here were my friends, inviting me to struggle together, offering to help me out, and being grateful for when I did the same.

And yet I knew I had to stop going.

Don’t get me wrong, my friends and I still hung out all the time when we weren’t studying. And when I had tried a problem a million times and hadn’t nailed the answer, I would still turn to them for the help I needed (or a TA or professor if things got really bad). But my default changed.

Because learning to problem solve is an inside job. And learning how to learn on your own is one of the greatest life skills you can master in university!

Learn about the alternative to study groups that will actually help you problem solve, improve your grades, and become a masterful professional engineer in our next post.

Disagree? Let us know below how our combined 15 years of studying in engineering school are wrong on this one. We’re always excited to learn!

You got this!

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