Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Here’s an addendum to that old adage: Once they start teaching, they may be able to “do” after all.

Research suggests that asking people to teach something is an effective way to boost their learning and performance.

It’s not the teaching per se that seems to make the difference; it’s the preparation. The prep work forces learners to use two techniques that have been shown to improve long-term learning:

  • active processing (applying knowledge to a task), and
  • self-explanation (explaining concepts in one’s own words).

The research
A recent analysis of studies shows the impact of asking learners to teach:

In one study, a group of students was asked to study material and learn it as best they could. A second group was asked to use the same material to prepare a lesson plan to teach others.

On a follow-up test, the second group performed much better. The students didn’t need to actually teach; the preparation itself caused the learning to stick better.

In another study, a group of students was asked to describe how much self-explanation they engaged in.

The study found that students who were asked to teach engaged in more self-explanation. Not surprisingly, it also found that more self-explanation led to better learning outcomes.

When to use it
As every trainer knows, teaching is hard work, so this technique must be used judiciously. Here are three times when it makes sense to recruit “student teachers”:

When the task is mission critical. When a group really needs to master something, have them teach one another. Say cold-calling is a must-have skill for your sales force. Divide it up into topics, such as “how tos,” “case studies” and “best practices.” Ask each rep or a group of reps to tackle one of the topics.

When someone is struggling. Consider asking people to teach a topic that they themselves find challenging.

They’ll learn more themselves, and may be better at connecting with others who are also struggling.

But don’t let struggling learner-teachers sink or swim. Walk them through the preparation process.

Have them select the topic and show you how they plan to approach it. Then have them explain the material to you (that is, test their own self-explanation ability) and coach them. And let them know that if they do get in over their heads in front of the class, you’ll be there to help them out.

When you need some extra trainers. Having trainees teach serves as a force multiplier. Don’t be afraid to enlist their help – even if they’re not experts on the material.

Everyone wins: You get more training completed, and your “student teachers” are more likely to master the material themselves.

Schwartz, B., et al. (2011). Four principles of memory improvement: A guide to improving learning efficiency. International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving, 21(1), 7-15.

Chi, M., et al. (1994). Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding. Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 18, 439-477.

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