Why Teaching Helps You Learn

By: Natalia Patterson

Being a high school student, I know how beneficial it can be to find a learning strategy that helps you effectively remember new material. But, because every individual is different, it’s hard to find a universal learning strategy to fit different people. However, there is a strategy that is proven to help any student gain a deeper understanding of the information: having the student teach the information themselves.

The concept of learning by teaching has been known for a long time by ancient philosophers, and is known by scientists today as the Protégé Effect. A study conducted by Richard E. Mayer, a distinguished professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, confirmed the value of teaching. In their study, they compared two groups of students being taught the same information, telling one to prepare for a test and the other to prepare to teach the material. Out of the group that was told to be prepared to teach, some of the students were asked to record their own lecture on the material. In a test given to all of the students, the group that prepared to teach scored higher than the one that prepared for the test, with those who really taught having the deepest understanding and most long-term retention of the information.

Why does teaching help you learn so efficiently? One reason is that it compels you to have a good enough understanding of the information to be able to explain it in a clear and logical way. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” In addition, to teach something, you have to view the information from your student’s perspective. Your student does not have the same understanding of the subject as you do. As a result, finding a way to connect the information to what they already understand will also help you draw connections between pieces of material and find new applications for your knowledge. 

Furthermore, the expectation of having to teach a subject provides motivation to study it harder. Because of the social nature of humans, having to explain information to someone activates our fear of failure more than studying for ourselves does, which helps us focus and remember the information. Also, if your student asks you a question about the material that you don’t know the answer to, finding the answer to their question will help you expand your own knowledge on the subject.

While it may not be possible to tutor other students during the pandemic, there are other ways that you can take advantage of the Protégé Effect. If you have a younger sibling, you can help them with their homework or try to teach them more advanced concepts. If you do not, you could learn material in class imagining that you will have to teach it to someone. This will help you assess whether you have a deep understanding of what you learned and actively try to gain a better understanding. As psychologist John Nestojko says, “when teachers are prepared to teach they tend to seek key points and structure information in a consistent manner.” Also, you could visualize that you really are teaching the material to someone, and explain what you are learning about aloud. All of these methods are scientifically proven to work, and are worth giving a try the next time you are having trouble remembering information.

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