How the ‘protégé effect’ can boost employee learning
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How the ‘protégé effect’ can boost employee learning

“If you want to master something, teach it.” It’s a quote attributed to the brilliant theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, and it sums up a multitude of truths about the brain and human behavior.

And, it can give new vitality to your employee learning efforts.

How? If you train rank-and-file employees to train others, you not only multiply your effectiveness, you improve the breadth and depth of the trainers’ own skills and knowledge.

A variety of benefits

A number of organizations are already using this practice, and they testify to its worth, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). An article on SHRM’s website quotes Jamie Irwin, a director at Straight Up Search, as saying it “provides a way for employees to develop new skills and fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for the company’s training program.”

Linda Shaffer, chief people operations officer with Checkr, a background check provider, told SHRM that when employees are trained as trainers, “they can take ownership of the entire learning process…  Not only are they more engaged in the material, but their knowledge and expertise become a valuable resource for the company.”

David Aylor, principal of a law office in South Carolina, says his in-house program of training attorneys to train others “develops their leadership skills, communication abilities, listening skills and emotional intelligence.”

Complex problem-solving

Behavioral researchers have conducted numerous experimental studies about the “protégé effect,” which describes the way people put in more effort to learn, and learn more effectively, when they know they’ll be teaching others.

In one of these studies, students were randomly assigned to learn complex math problems. One group was told they’d be learning for the sake of their own understanding, while another was told they’d be teaching problem-solving to others once they’d learned the material. As part of the learning experience, the students were directed to develop “concept maps” of the problems. The researchers found that the concept maps created by the preparing-to-teach group were more detailed and better organized than those of the students learning just for themselves, meaning that students in the first group understood the problems better. Unsurprisingly, they also did better at solving them.

Reading comprehension

In another study, participants read a passage of text and were either told that they’d be tested on it afterward, or that they’d be explaining it to others. Those in the second group did better than the first at recalling what the passage said and answering questions about it.

And in yet another experiment, students who were preparing to teach a topic in biology spent more time studying it than another group of students who were learning for their own benefit.

Purely voluntary

So the cognitive and motivational advantages of training people to train others are clear. The method isn’t a panacea, though. For one thing, some employees will have no interest in training their co-workers. Others may want to, but lack the communication skills.

That’s OK. Any program like this should be voluntary, and the message clearly communicated that there’s no shame in finding out that you’re not cut out to be a trainer.

You’ll still have enough people who will be good at it, and understand the edge they get in their careers — building their own speaking skills, becoming more confident, expanding their knowledge base — when they learn to train their peers.

This blog post is based on the following research studies:

Muis, K. R., et al. (2016). Learning by preparing to teach: Fostering self-regulatory processes and achievement during complex mathematics problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(4), 474–492.

Nestojko, J.F., et al. (2014) Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory & Cognition, 42, 1038–1048.

Chase, C.C., et al. (2009) Teachable Agents and the Protégé Effect: Increasing the Effort Towards Learning. Journal of Science Education & Technology, 18, 334–352.




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