Accountability Partner or A Study Buddy, Which Do You Need?

Last month I wrote a post featuring seven sites that you can use for online Islamic studies. In that post, I broke the sites down into two categories. The first being more "traditional" online programs that have a definite start and end date, all students go through the material at the same time, and have interaction with one another and the instructor.  The second category, which is relevant to this post, are what I called learning libraries. These sites contain hours of great content, BUT students are responsible for self-regulating because they are self-paced, and there is no interaction with other students or the instructor to keep motivated and on course.

After reading the post, one of my Twitter followers asked a question re how to maintain motivation when you're studying alone. Coincidentally, around the same time one of my favorite podcasters Sean McCabe, had an episode on Why You Need An Accountability Partner & How to Find One.

Coming from a background in education, I understand the impact study buddies, or a community can have on learning, but I wanted to dive a bit deeper into the difference between a study partner and an accountability parter and which one you REALLY need.                      

Before jumping into which would benefit you most for self-paced study it'd be helpful to talk about what these terms really mean.

Study Buddy

Discussion is a means of processing, personalizing and internalizing information. As adult learners especially, we all have a unique set of rich experiences that inform how we see and interpret things. When you have the opportunity to discuss what you've learned with another person, you both benefit from a different point of view. You get to hear why a particular point/hadith/ayah might have resonated with someone, based on their life experiences and that could be a means for deepening your own understanding of the material. In Islam we are constantly encouraged to be among people who reflect, in fact tafakkur is used in the Qu'ran 17 times. Essentially we are encouraged be active participants in our own learning, making connections between what we see/experience/learn in this world and the divine. Making the effort to have a conversation with a fellow learner about your experiences with the material not only increases your understanding and retention from an academic stand point, but might bring you one step closer to that "aha" or "Subhanallah" moment where it clicks and "the facts" truly become meaningful to you.

Having a study buddy can also help clarify minor misunderstandings. Your partner might have understood a point that you missed and can explain it to you, or point you to the spot in the lecture that clarifies it. They may also have knowledge of another lecture, article, etc. that can shed more light on the topic. If you find that there is something that you both don't understand, or would like to know more about, you can work together to articulate questions that can be posed to someone who is more knowledgeable.

Unlike an accountability meeting, which we'll cover shortly, a conversation with your study partner doesn't have to be as structured. You can have a series of general reflection questions to get you started, and just let the conversation organically flow based on what you're studying.

Some of these questions might be:

  • What surprised /impacted/resonated with me most?
  • What do I want to know more about?
  • What didn't I quite understand?
  • How does this tie into something that I've previously experienced/listened to/watched/read?
  • What were the main take-away lessons?

In a nutshell, the essential function of this type of relationship is increasing understanding.

Accountability Partner

It is very easy for us to break promises, commitments that we make to ourselves. How many times have you promised you'd only eat 1 more cookie? you'd go to the gym at least 4 times a week? or you'd resist the urge to climb back in bed after fajr and work on Qu'ran instead? Things change however, when you have someone waiting to meet you at the gym, or you know that your going over your recitation with a friend and you don't want to be stuck at the same verse you were on a week ago. While it's quite easy for us to let ourselves down, we rarely want to disappoint other people or have them see us not meet our stated goals.

One of the major differences between an accountability partner and a study buddy is that you aren't usually learning the same thing, at the same pace. Generally, people in an accountability relationship come to the table with their own goals/objectives and they just help to encourage one another and help stick to their individual commitments. The overall purpose is still learning and growth but with an emphasis on action.

Instead of discussing what you learned from a lecture like you would with study buddy, you'd outline the actions you'd like to take as a result of your learning. As you talk through with your accountability buddy, based on what they know about you they may be able to help you think through your plan and make sure that the things you commit to are actually achievable before your next scheduled meeting. If you meet your goals it's on to next steps, and if you don't it's an opportunity to talk about what blocks, "mental, time, motivation, etc." you need to work through to achieve your goal, or go back to the drawing board and set a more realistic goal.

According to the episode on the SeanWes podcast the accountability meeting needs to have the following elements:

  1. Regularity/Scheduled
  2. Structure- there is a definite purpose for the meeting, be cordial but don't waste forever on small talk
  3. Taking notes- write down your commitments & your partners
  4. Recap- check in on the completion of the commitments from the previous meeting
  5. Time to talk about what you're struggling with
  6. Time to talk about what's up next
  7. What commitments will you have done by your next meeting
  8. Switch- now it's your partner's turn in the "hot seat" 

In a nutshell, the essential function of this type of relationship is taking action.

Interestingly, while I was doing research on accountability partners, I realized that this is a pretty popular phenomenon among Bible Study groups. The basic tenets of the accountability relationship are the same however accountability partners are also expected to pray for the other person which is an interesting twist. In some instances, Christian accountability relationships also involve giving advice, which we Muslims would call "naseehah". It seems that an accountability relationship where one regularly shares their wins, misses, lessons, and goals is a perfect environment for sincere advice,  rather than say, someone just running up on you in the street admonishing you without knowing you or your situation.

Ok now that we are on the same page re the structure and benefits of both relationships, let's get down to which is  the most crucial for success in your self-paced studies.


In his talk on 12 Prophetic Lessons on Continuing Education, Shaykh Ramzy Ajem used a phrase that stuck out to me "You are not an 'alim (a person of knowledge`a) unless you are an 'amil (a person of action)." The concept of knowledge being coupled with action is also found outside of Islam, in fact a quote attributed to famous American inventor Thomas Edison is quite similar to one attributed to Abu Bakr As-Siddiq the first Caliph of Islam.

Knowledge without application is meaningless- Thomas Edison

Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile- Abu Bakr

Given the above quotes, one can conclude that having only a study buddy, or only an accountability partner doesn't lend to maximum benefit. In fact, you need someone who is able to play both roles to help you deepen your understanding of the material, AND help keep you on track for implementing what you've learned.


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