In 1986, Harvard’s then-president, Derek Bok, wanted to know if there was a way to predict whether a kid would succeed or fail in college. What was different about those who kicked ass as undergrads? Bok wasn’t really interested in improving the school’s admissions process. Harvard, after all, already annually fielded a freshman class that was, according to just about every measurable metric, the nation’s best.
What Bok wanted to learn is whether the school could study those kids who transformed those early exceptional metrics into exceptional performance, making the most of their four years in college, and apply those lessons to changing how Harvard served all of its students. A large-scale study was conducted over the course of several years and one finding in particular surprised everyone.
The research revealed the single best predictor of college success, and it had nothing to do with any metric we associate with collegiate achievement, now or then. It wasn’t GPA, SAT scores, or a number of any kind for that matter. It was, instead, the ability of a student to either create or join a study group.
Kids who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own. They even had more fun. Nothing else even remotely approached the power of that single variable in explaining college success.
That’s it! Well, yes, and no.
Like anything that only reveals it’s complexity upon closer inspection, creating or joining a study group is no trivial matter. How do you go about identifying who would make good study partners? How do you sell and entice those partners to come aboard? How do you make those people feel like they’re part of a group? What are meetings like, and how often? How do you make it personal yet efficient? Building, joining, and operating a study group involves a startling variety of component skills and behaviors that are useful for a lifetime. More surprising, the sum of those components is something greater still.
A study group is something akin to a customized DIY social innovation – a self-created infrastructure of relationships to produce and retain knowledge. And importantly, not in the static, dry way of, say, a text book, but in an interactive, experiential, personal, ever-evolving-and-adapting format that is exclusive to the conversation and the relationships of the group itself. Study groups predicted college success because, in other words, it’s the variable that most clearly indicated someone had learned the most powerful and effective way to learn.
Besides what all that may mean for your parenting – shuffle that kid of yours into some nerdy cohort ASAP! – you’d best consider what it means for you. That point was driven home in a recent Social Capitalist interview with the well-known business thinker/consultant John Hagel, and John Seely Brown, the former chief scientist of Xerox. Their most recent book, The Power of Pull, describes the new world, in which the merging of globalization and digital technology has unleashed a boundless, constant, and accessible flow of ideas, capital, talent, and opportunity. Tapping that flow, they argue, is the key to both organizational and individual productivity, growth, and prosperity.
Here’s the problem: More so than at any other time, change is the constant. Globalization means more competition. Technology means the thing that makes you better than that competition today is obsolete tomorrow. In such an environment, anything you know at any point in time is depreciating at an accelerating rate. It’s not what you know; it’s how quickly you’re able to know the new and right things.
The problem is also the opportunity: unlike any other time, we each have nearly infinite access to the information and people – the “flow” in Hagel and Brown’s language – that can help us thrive amidst this change. The question then becomes what mechanisms do we use to tap this flow and draw out the people, the knowledge, the learning, when we need it, where we need it?
That’s the question that brings us back to the Harvard study, and the key to college success that is now the key to professional success of just about any kind. Access to the flow is through relationships – having the right conversations with the right people in the right context. It means having a people-powered infrastructure in place that facilitates a flow of opportunities and life-long learning.
The question is, do you have a study group?
Tahl Raz is co-author of Never Eat Alone and host of The Social Capitalist. Click here for the audio from Tahl’s interview with John Hagel and John Seely Brown.