“I want to tell you a story that will help you understand how great study groups operate.  Many years ago, I lived in Germany, and I took a job at a factory to make enough money to pay my way to come back home.  It was in a firm that shipped tulip bulbs all over the world, and my task was to take a catalogue and a number of brochures and other inserts and put them in a large envelope to be mailed out to customers.  The job was pretty tedious — there were several dozen people in a large room, each one sitting at a table with piles of everything to be assembled.  

“We were paid based on how many of these envelops we could assemble each day, so I looked around at all the people working and discovered one young man whose pile of completed envelopes was always nearly twice as tall as anyone else’s in the room.  So I asked him, “How do you get so much work done?”

“‘It’s really simple,’ he said.  ‘Most people use just one hand to do the work.  The other hand just sits there, or maybe helps move something so that the right can do the real work.  My goal is to make sure that both my hands are equally effective and are in constant use working together.  So I organize the piles on the table so that each hand can optimally do tasks simultaneously.  Just watch.’

“I observed him run through a few cycles, and it was almost miraculous — a smooth operation with both hands moving continuously.  The stuff just flew together, the envelopes got filled and added to the pile.

“Now think about how your group is working,” I say to my students.  “Is everyone equally active, or is there a leader who is doing things, and most of you are tagging along?  In an effective group, each member is actively engaged with the task at hand.  What you are looking for is a sense of synchronicity, of being in time with each other.

“Some of you already know what this feels like.  Are any of you musicians who play with other people?”  A few hands go up.  “How about sports?  Do any of you play on teams?”  More hands.  “Have you ever had the experience where you know what is about to happen because the team is moving in synch with each other?”  Tom raises his hand.  “Yeah, it’s like you can feel what everyone else is thinking, you can anticipate when someone is going to pass the ball, and you get clear so that you’ll be there when the ball arrives.”

“Exactly,” I say.  “The experience is called “flow”, and it is a wonderful feeling, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he says.  “You really feel like your part of something bigger, and you also win more games that way.”  There is some laughter.

“There is no question that when people enter this state of synchronicity with each other, they become more effective at whatever they are doing.  So what would it be like if your group experienced it about learning physics?  I’m guessing you would both enjoy the experience more and you would learn more physics too.

“One more example, and then I’ll let you get to work.  Several years ago, I was working on building a deck with a former student named George, and I discovered that we had this sense of flow while doing the job.  When I needed a hammer to do the next step, I would turn around and George would be there handing me a hammer.  When he needed another board, I had already gone and gotten it for him.  

“You can practice this skill in this room.  Start to anticipate the needs of the group.  If you are doing a lab together and are going to need a ruler to do an upcoming experiment, don’t wait for someone to ask for it — just go get it and have it ready when it’s needed.  The group will be more effective that way.

“This is a great life skill, and you can practice it every time you work with other people.”


As a person I have learned that I work really well in groups.  In this class I got the chance to do my work and struggle through things, and then come together with my group.  Being in a group I could check my work and then have the time to see what others weren’t understanding.

Erika K.