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Those Expecting to Teach Learn Better

It’s conventional wisdom that “the best way to learn something is to teach it,” but at least one study suggests that the mere expectation of teaching may be enough to boost learning significantly.

The study (full text here), which was published in the journal Memory & Cognition, is based on a set of experiments in which university students were asked to read and recall key ideas and details from two relatively length text passages. Participants in one group of students were told that they would be tested on the passages while participants in a second group were told they would be required to teach the passage to another student.

 In reality, both groups were tested, but participants in the group expecting to teach were able to answer many more questions about the passages, particularly questions having to do with major ideas. According to lead author John Nestojko, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, when “compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information.” (Source: Science Daily)

An interesting implication from the study is that, while testing – particularly practice testing – can be an effective tool to boost learning, it may not be sufficient for getting students to bring their “A-game” when it comes to using common learning strategies effectively. The researchers note that, when students merely expect to be tested,

they underutilize these strategies, although our results clearly indicate that these strategies must be available to them and, furthermore, would better serve their presumed goal of achieving good test performance than do the strategies they instead adopt for this purpose. Students seem to have a toolbox of effective study strategies that, unless prodded to do so, they do not use.

The expectation of being a teacher, it seems, brings out the best in us as learners.

Implications for Self-Directed Learning
Of course, it’s one thing for a teacher to manipulate student expectations to achieve better learning results, but in many cases, lifelong learners are self-directed. There is no teacher involved, and duping yourself into thinking you will teach what you are learning may be a stretch. Still, I think there are ways to bring the expectation of teaching into your lifelong learning practice. These include:

  • Accountability Groups: From study circles, to book groups, to master minds, lifelong learners participate in a wide variety of collaborative learning situations. Build the prospect of teaching into these groups. Create a collective understanding that participants may, at any time, be asked to teach others something they have been reading, practicing, etc. And, of course, follow through – make teaching a regular part of group meetings.
  • Public Speaking: As I noted a while back in “Take one or more of these 5 risks and really learn something,” there are many opportunities for getting in front of audiences of learners. So, sign yourself up. Submit to speak at a conference. Launch a podcast. Deliver a Webinar. You don’t have to do this with everything you are learning, of course, but in the areas you really want to master, creating teaching opportunities can be a powerful strategy.
  • Writing: Perhaps one of the most overlooked forms of teaching, writing well about a subject forces you to think through key points, question your own knowledge gaps, and structure your ideas – precisely the types of activities the researchers in the study above think the expectation of teaching may encourage. Learning with the expectation that you will blog about it, guest blog, publish in newsletters or journals, etc. may be one of the most readily available ways to up your learning game.

Those are just a few suggestions. What are yours? In what ways have you built the expectation of teaching into your learning, and have you seen benefits? Please comment and share your experience.


P.S. – I’ve often heard “the best way to learn something is to teach it” attributed to Edgar Schein. Wikipedia, however, gives the credit to Frank Oppenheimer.

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