Why Teaching Is So Effective At Helping Us To Learn

It has long been regarded as true that one of the most effective ways of learning is to try and teach someone else.  Indeed, previous studies have shown that people who teach others what they’ve recently learned tend to retain knowledge better than peers who take the study only route.

A recent study attempts to explain why this is.  The hypothesis they were testing was that teaching others forces us to retrieve what we’d previously learned.

Teaching to learn

Volunteers were asked to study a text about the Doppler Effect, which none of them had prior knowledge of.  They were instructed that they would have to teach the material without notes later on.

After the volunteers had studied the material, they were split into four groups.  One of these was filmed whilst delivering a five minute lesson on the material.  The second group stood up and taught verbatim from a set script.  The third wrote down all they could remember from the text, whilst the fourth group completed some arithmetic exercises.

A week passed before the volunteers were asked back to the lab to undertake a surprise test on the Doppler Effect.  The test required them to answer six free-form questions that tested their ability to explain the key concepts.

The group who taught without the notes outperformed both the group teaching from a script and the group performing some maths exercises, albeit not the group who simply retrieved what they had learned from memory.

“The benefits of the learning-by-teaching strategy are attributable to retrieval practice; that is, the robust learning-by-teaching strategy works but only when the teaching involves retrieving the taught materials,” the researchers suggest.

So does this mean that teaching as a way of learning is not all its cracked up to be?  Not so fast.  It’s still valuable, but there are practical factors to keep in mind.

“In order to insure that students and tutors learn and retain the educational material that they have prepared and presented in class, they ought to internalize the to-be-presented material prior to communicating it to an audience, rather than rely on study notes during the presentation process,” the authors say.

Suffice to say, it’s worth pointing out that the scenarios the study volunteers were placed in were not entirely realistic, or indeed reflective of how people usually exchange information at work.  There was also a degree of priming of volunteers to expect to teach during the experiment.  This expectation of having to teach may have had an impact on their absorption of the material in itself.

Whilst it’s a topic that undoubtedly requires more research, with the ability to learn in organizations growing to help employees adapt to the surge of AI technologies that are entering the workplace, it’s perhaps a finding that will be valuable to learning and development teams.