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Studying can often feel like a lonely endeavour, with most learners spending many hours alone with their materials. Yet, research suggests that working together with other people may significantly boost your chances of study success. Organisational psychologist Dr Rob Yeung suggests ways that can help you to get better results

Reciprocal mentoring

In the world of healthcare and medicine, it’s an established fact that patients who support each other tend to get better outcomes. For example, a group of researchers led by Michele Heisler at the University of Michigan recently ran a study. Pairs of diabetic patients were asked by the investigators to have a once-weekly phone call with each other. Another group of diabetic patients were managed through direct contact with nurses.

Now, you might expect that the nurses would do a better job of managing their patients’ diabetes, given that the nurses were experienced healthcare professionals. However, it turned out that the pairs of patients who talked to each other on the telephone actually ended up with better blood test results six months later. Somehow, having the support of a peer resulted in a more successful outcome than having the support of a trained professional.

You can use this exact same model to keep you motivated and on track in your studies. So see if you can find someone to set up a similar reciprocal mentoring partnership. Try to find someone who is of a similar age or at a similar life stage. For example, if you have a family and several children, you may find that someone with similar family circumstances may be more able to empathise with you.

Begin by agreeing a time and date for a phone call. The time and day of the week can change from one week to the next in order to fit into both of your schedules. The only important thing is to ensure that the two of you can speak at least once every week.

Share progress and discuss strategies

The majority of people who enter into reciprocal mentoring relationships usually find that they get the most benefit when they set an agenda to make good use of their conversation. That way, you can focus on achieving your goals rather than risk having the discussion lapse into a less productive whinge about your studies or life in general.

Perhaps the first agenda item could be on the progress that you are each making. So before you begin the phone call, make sure that you have written down at least a handful of bullet points summarising where you have got to with your studies, the different topics you are covering and your assignments.

As you listen to your counterpart, think about techniques or tactics that have helped you. For example, if your peer is struggling with a particular topic that you have already mastered, see if you can make a helpful suggestion on how best to tackle it.

Set goals

It’s a well-established finding in social psychology that people who write down specific goals are significantly more successful at achieving their goals than people who have vaguer intentions.

So take it in turns to set goals for each other. Think about which topics or assignments you will tackle and when. For example, if you would like to spend six hours working on a particular topic in the coming week, when do you foresee yourself actually doing the work? Perhaps you think that you have a half-hour every weekday morning, followed by a more intensive chunk at 10.30am on Saturday morning because you know that the rest of your family will be out of the house at that time.

This may seem like a patronising level of detail to go into. However, trust the science: studies conducted all over the world have repeatedly shown the value of writing down goals that specify not only what you will do but also exactly when. So if you wish to make the most of your reciprocal mentoring relationship, push each other to make similarly specific goals.

Explain what you have learned

Some reciprocal mentoring relationships stop after those first three steps. However, a 2016 research study led by Melanie Sekeres of the Rotman Research Institute in Canada suggests that reciprocal mentoring partners could benefit even more from one additional step.

We all know that our memory of what we have learned tends to decay quite quickly with the passage of time. Our memory for details gets noticeably worse as the days and then weeks pass. However, the study by Sekeres and her colleagues found that students who immediately told the details of what they had learned to a friend tended to recall the details better and for longer.

So use your weekly phone call as an opportunity to spend a few minutes telling your mentoring partner about a topic that you have recently learnt. Try to do it without referring to your notes. Rely as far as you can only on your memory.

It doesn’t matter if you get a few of the details wrong (although this may also be an opportunity for your mentoring partner to contribute by correcting you when possible). You can always look back at your notes after the phone call. The main aim here is not so much to educate your partner as to practise the process of retrieving information from your memory.

Much learning is about inputting information into the mind. However, such research studies show that practising the process of outputting is of at least equal importance in helping to lock memories into the mind.

So powerful is this so-called testing effect that you can practise it on your own too. When you are learning new information, simply put your materials to one side and try to write a handful of bullet points summarising what you have learned. Or, if you prefer, speak out loud and imagine that you are telling someone the gist of what you have learned. It may feel like an odd practice, but trust the large volume of research showing that testing yourself repeatedly should help you to retain information much more successfully.

Last updated: 16 May 2017