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We learn better when we teach

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“The best way to learn is to teach” Frank Oppenheimer

There’s an old saying from the legendary particle physicist Frank Oppenheimer that the best way to really learn something is to try and teach it to someone else.  A new study suggests that far from being an old wives tale, this may have a good chunk of validity to it.  The study, conducted by researchers from Washington University in St Louis highlights the valuable role teaching, or even expecting to teach, can play in our learning capabilities.

“When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information,” said lead author John Nestojko, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL.

The study saw participants involved in a range of reading and recollection type experiments.  The participants were split into two groups, with one told that they would be tested on the material they were learning, whilst the second group were told they would have to teach that material to another student.  The reality however was that all of the participants would take the test, with none actually doing any teaching.

It emerged that even telling people they would have to teach was enough to shift their mindset sufficiently to engage them with the material much more than the test managed to.

“The immediate implication is that the mindset of the student before and during learning can have a significant impact on learning, and that positively altering a student’s mindset can be effectively achieved through rather simple instructions,” Nestojko said.

The group who expected to teach the material were able to produce both more complete and also better organized recitations of the passage.  They also were able to answer more questions about the passage than their peers from the other group.

The researchers suggest this is because teaching requires us to organize information coherently and arrange key points from the content.

“When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organize information into a coherent structure,” Nestojko said. “Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach.”

Suffice to say, the study only conducted this mental ‘trick’ once, so it is difficult to see whether it would work repeatedly or whether people would get wise to the mental manipulation they’re exposed to.  Of course, a simple way around that would be to actually get people to teach their learnings to other people.  It’s a nice, simple way of ensuring that students really do absorb what they learn.

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