Teachers and students regulate learning to varying degrees in educational programmes in higher education. We present evidence that students in a student-centred medical programme self- and co-regulate their learning in independently formed study groups. We describe the perceived benefits of study groups and the effect of study group membership on student achievement. Years 1'2 of a 4-year, graduate-entry problem-based medical programme. We surveyed 233 year 2 students about features of their study groups and their study group membership in years 1'2. We compared study group membership with students' scores on a written summative assessment held at the end of their second year. For students who joined 1 study group, the length of time their group stayed together was positively related to achievement in the written summative assessment. There were no differences in summative assessment results between students who had been in a study group and students who had not been in a study group. Effective study groups are supportive, socially cohesive groups who generate mutual trust and loyalty, and self- and co-regulate their learning by giving and receiving explanations and summaries and motivating individual study. Teachers can support the formation of study groups by using small-group teaching/learning activities, providing clear learning outcomes and assessment criteria, minimising competition for grades and allocating room space.