The Trick of Teaching

We know a great deal about the human memory, but there is still so much more to know. Much of what we learn is counterintuitive and unveils the idiosyncratic of our mind and memory. One such quirk is that when students expect to teach new material that they remember it so much better. It is a simple trick of teaching.

Research (see here) by John Nestojko, PhD, at Washington University, in St Louis, has shown that simply telling students that they will teach something to another student changes their mindset so much that even if they don’t actually teach the information, they remember it better later on when tested.

Perhaps it has something to do with the emotional commitment to their peers, or a greater mental focus given the expectation of an imminent performance, but just a few words can strengthen the performance of our students. It is research I would like to see replicated, but it is an intriguing proposition. Do students better mentally construct meaning if they know they need to pass on the information? Is it about emotional commitment, or a subtle combination of the two?

This could prove a useful revision strategy. Often, we will get students to teach items to one another. This research shows the positive impact of such a strategy when done well i.e. Tightly structured, supported and scaffolded, with clear expectations and desired outcomes. Couple that with good peer tutoring and we may be onto a revision winner. Of course, I would like to see the findings of this single study replicated so that we get a better idea of whether it is wholly accurate, but given it takes little time and energy to try – then it is worth sharing.

Yes, students need a firm grounding of knowledge and understanding first – you are not expecting students to do this before they themselves have been well taught – but this is what makes it ideal for revision and consolidatn learning. We could create this expectation of students teaching one another as a way of getting them to commit to working harder.

10 thoughts on “The Trick of Teaching”

  1. Paul Dearing

    Alex, we have been doing something similar in the geography dept, based around spaced learning, for 4-5 years now. Pupil feedback tells us they find it useful and the exam results seem to support this as we are consistently around national average ,in a school currently in SM and in a borough which is consistently towards the foot of league tables. I recently read Dr. Andrew Curran’s book ‘The little Book about Big stuff about the Brain’. His ideas on learning and memory, being founded upon our emotions, has made me look further at pupils generating their own learning. We do this through storytelling ,where pupils put themselves and friends into stories about the topics or visit local areas to do fieldwork, which is relevant to exam case studies. The app Nutshell is great here to allow them to make short, annotated videos of examples, which further engage their emotional brains with their learning and makes work, “stick”. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Yes – I think memory hooked onto the emotion of working to explain to others adds some real learning gains. I’ll take a look at the app – thanks.

  2. Love this – short and sweet. I’m convinced without the need for replication – my suspicion is that in these conditions, people start to mentally rehearse how they will explain the material, even as they encounter the material for the first time (though I agree, clean instruction should come first) – ie they *narrativise* it on the hoof. Humans are really good at doing this – we live through stories, and often practice how we might tell a story, even as events are still unfolding…

  3. I wouldn’t say teach everything – but it certainly helps and is a fundamental part of teaching through the trivium model… Rhetoric, communicating your learning.

  4. This recall by teaching thing is powerful. Within a few months of my first proper office job I became training lead because I’d notes from the 1-day all staff workshop that no one else had, so when questions were asked I was the only one who knew how… this quickly cemented my knowledge to the point where I now work remotely and my colleagues from around the world call with issues where I talk them through what they see on the screen, without any screen myself. I can be on a walk or reading a book or anything! It’s crazy. Just because I took notes and then used them in real life to help others.

    I saw a documentary recently on “how to make my child clever” and in one of the scenes the presenter was in a school playground asking the children “what have you learnt today?” and the answers were: “Victorians!” and “Lots of Maths” and the presenter smiled and how much the kids were learning while I was sat thinking; but what does this mean? Thing is, it’s taught implicitly in our school system that adults hold knowledge and pass it forward in packages… so students just name the package of knowledge we’ve ‘learnt’ because that has meaning to all adults, even this presenter they’ve never met. We do the same thing as adults with our qualifications and job titles. These things shut down conversations because the meanings are all implied.

    What if the students understood that everyone has learnt different things and when you learn something you have a chance to share it forwards, if you want? What if the students had said “Did you know that in the Victorian time X happened?” This is a story, stories are creative and invite people in. I’m excited for when story telling rather than label swapping becomes the norm in education. Now, whenever I read something interesting, I’m also thinking of who else would be interested in hearing it, or I find a way to incorporate it into these comments on-line. I’m real-learning more rapidly now, by doing this, than at any other time during formal education. Great to hear that students might be encouraged to think about what they are taught in this way as well. Keep going!

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