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Learn better, by teaching

2020 SPS Learn Better Learn By Teaching

The ‘Protege effect’ states that the best way to learn is to teach.

By doing this, students develop a better understanding, and retain knowledge longer than those who study in more traditional ways. The Roman philosopher Seneca put it simply:

While we teach, we learn

This was originally developed by Jean-Pol Martin in the 1980s. For more info watch this short video.

There are many theories about learning and education, but the most powerful ones are those that resonate with your own experiences.

Many of our tutors point out that no matter how much they think they know a topic, the process of teaching always offers up new insights, and deepens their understanding.

The teacher as a student

Usually the teacher teaches, and the learner learns. But the teacher need not be the person who stands at the front of class and dictates. Sometimes the teacher can be the student.

This role reversal is not as odd as it at first might seem. A good teacher will always listen to the student’s answer in order to evaluate their own performance. And if you think of it like that, who is teaching whom?

The teacher is learning how to be a better version of themselves through the act of teaching.

But how does it work?

Imagine you were asked to teach a subject to your friends, or people in your study group. Knowing you were going to have to explain a topic increases your level of engagement with the subject.

In addition, reflection will be far deeper as you continually ask: does this make sense to me? This process of preparing is one of the reasons teaching improves learning, but there are others.

For example, putting together learning materials requires imagination and creativity as you have to work out how to deliver the subject. You may choose a simple conversational explanation, or perhaps something more formal, requiring slides and illustrations.

Once again you’ll be forced to reflect. You might write down some of your ideas and ask questions, such as: ‘How long will it take? Am I making myself clear? What questions could I be asked?’

At this point you may even discover gaps in your learning, requiring you to revise what you thought you knew.

Preparing to teach vs teaching

There is research* that proves that preparing to teach, in the belief that you will have to do so, improves learning. However this has a lesser impact than going one step further: the teaching itself.

In 1993, US academics Coleman, Brown and Rivkin investigated the learning impact of the act of teaching. They saw a significant improvement in performance of those that taught, compared to those who prepared but didn’t eventually teach.

To summarise, preparing to teach and believing that you will does improve learning, but following through with the actual teaching is even better**.

What you can take away from this

This article isn’t a plea for students to pair up and teach each other, as good an idea as that might be. We’re simply wanting to explain why teaching helps you learn, giving you insights into how we all learn.

It highlights that reflection (i.e. thinking back on what you know) is important. It also shows that high levels of concentration are required for deep learning, and that talking out loud, as you do when presenting, embeds your learning.

So when you study, imagine you have to teach the subject you are learning. Study with a “teaching mindset”. Prepare notes as if you’re going to teach, craft ideas as to how you might explain it to others. Get involved in group discussions, try to answer other students' questions as they might answer yours.

The Learn Better blog is a series of evidence based stories from the world of education, with a common theme - to inspire and motivate students. They are mostly based on original articles/blogs by Kaplan's Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith.

*Bargh and Schul 1980
**Protege in practise. Betty's brain is a computer based, teaching/learning tool that students can use to teach and therefore learn.