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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Why Students Learn Better When They Teach (+ 4 Activities)

students learn better when they teach
When You Teach Something You Get To Learn It Twice
— Jim Kwik

Cameron, a former student of mine, who is now in college, commented on my recent post about efficient and effective learning titled Too Much What, Not Enough How. Here's what he wrote on Facebook:

As a student who graduated with a GPA well above 4.0, I completely agree specifically with the point about students teaching subject-matter. Most of what made me successful was not studying - I rarely did that - but teaching other students, and in doing so, closing gaps in and solidifying what I knew. I tutored other students in almost every single class I took throughout my high school career, especially the science courses. That was my secret to success and I didn't even realize it until senior year. The feeling you get when you help someone grasp an idea they struggled with is an awesome feeling, too.

But Why Is Teaching Such An Effective Learning Strategy?

If you closely analyze and dissect Cameron's comment you can identify at least 4 aspects that made his strategy of teaching others to learn it yourself super effective. They are Active Learning, Deeper Learning, Efficient Learning, and Emotional Learning. 

Active Learning

Active learning is about engaging the mind in processing and making meaning from the information you're trying to encode. When teaching, the student has to figure out how to explain the concept to others. While that planning might take seconds, it is an active process. Moreover, it might take multiple approaches to teach someone who thinks differently than the student-teacher. This equates to multiple ways of processing the information. If you're a teacher, a trainer, or someone who has spent time explaining new ideas to people, you get this.

Deeper Learning

When teaching, the student has to pass his understanding of the concept on to someone else and as a result, he reprocesses the learned information multiple times. This leads to an even deeper understanding of the concepts learned/taught. The reason for this is that new association happen and new neural connections form in the brain as the existing ones keep strengthening. Light bulb moments make you a lit learner. Deep, huh?

Efficient Learning

Teaching concepts is one of the most efficient ways to learn because it requires students to present information to peers in an understandable way. This requires looking at the information from different perspectives and strategizing on how to pass it on best. There's so much brain activity and processing going on in the student-teacher brain that he remembers the information through and through in a short period of time. In addition, as the student struggles to come up with ways to explain difficult concepts, his hippocampus perceives them as important, which supercharges encoding and helps storage of information.

Emotional Learning

There are emotions and then there are emotions... When learning is accompanied by strong emotions it is memorable. While Cameron mentioned the "awesome feeling" as a side note, he might not have realized that those feelings associated with satisfaction of helping others, led to the release of dopamine in his brain, which helped memory and retrieval of information. As a teacher, you undoubtedly experienced breakthrough moments when a student you've been working with suddenly got it. If you can think of a past event like this right now, you can relive it. If I'm right, you just got a small kick of dopamine. Pretty cool, huh?

4 Activities To Bring Out The Teacher In Your Students

Many teachers reading this have has had their students create slideshow presentations and present to peers. This strategy, if done right, can be a way to have students teach their peers. And while it may not always be effective for the audience receiving the information, if the presenter takes the project seriously she learns the topic well because as she prepares, she does it with the intention to teach and to be more expert in it than her peers.

Thus, teaching benefits the teacher most. And that's precisely the point.

Here are 4 easy ways to engage students in teaching I use in my classroom.

Short Instructional Videos

Recently, I asked my chemistry students to create videos explaining how to calculate atomic mass of an element. I introduced the concept the day before and students did a few practice problems in groups. The next day, I asked them to find a partner and to make a Flipgrid video. Here are the exact directions I posted in Google Classroom:

  1. Find a problem online you can solve to demo how to calculate atomic mass.
  2. Solve it and discuss the steps needed for the solution to like totally understand it!
  3. Write a script, practice it, and record the vid.

You don't have to use Flipgrid, but it is free and allows you to streamline the process. Videos are easy for students to submit and teachers to watch. 

Dry Erase Board Drawings

I am lucky to have a flexible seating classroom and student tables painted with dry erase paint. Perhaps one day I will write an article on how much of a game changer the dry erase tables are but for the purpose of this post, I want to describe how my students use them to teach each other. 

I frequently ask students to represent concepts they are learning visually. They draw diagrams showing concepts, with labels and descriptions that will allow viewers to learn about the topics they represent. It is important to make sure students consider the possibility that the audience knows little about the concepts. Such approach forces students to think like teachers. The idea is to create a product that helps others learn some concept and in the process, the diagram makers learn it more intimately. A unique Twitter hashtag is useful for capturing and sharing images of the visuals.

Spontaneously, my students often use the tables to help their group members understand the concepts better or to walk those struggling through problem-solving.

I realize not every teacher has dry erase tables. In the past, I used melamine boards sold at hardware stores. I bought two 8' x 4' boards and had each one cut into eight 2' x 2' pieces, which gave me 16 boards my students used in small groups of 2-4 students. Alternatively, students can draw on large sheets of paper.

Infographics

Using Piktochart, Canva, or Google Draw/Slides to make infographics is another way to take advantage of our visual processing power. Combining images with text to represent an idea is powerful. Going digital is not as efficient as drawing on dry-erase surfaces and Tweeting, but nevertheless effective and students learn useful design and presentation tools. If you can fit infographic making in, I highly recommend it. Check out this post I wrote for more on the benefits of using infographics in the classroom.

Paper Slide Videos

Paper slide videos marry old school posters with the digital world of smartphone video recording. In a nutshell, students research and organize information, write a script, create the slides, practice, and record a short movie in which images and speech are used more extensively than text. The process of preparing and practicing the show leads to increased expertise. Here's a video that gives more details on how to make paper slide videos.

When Students Teach They Develop Mad Skills

Call them 21st-century, future-ready, or mad skills they'll need, it is hard to argue with the fact that collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and leadership will help your students be more successful in academics and beyond. You can speed up the development of these and other skills by utilizing the Teach It strategy in your classroom. 

I talk about the Teach It and other learning strategies on my blog, teach them to my students, and describe them in my Crush School Book Series because I want all students to have these skills now.


Big thanks to Cameron for allowing me to share his story and a shout out to my sister from another mister Janet, a California teacher, for pushing me to write this post. I hope many teachers find it helpful in their practice. Thanks for reading and remember:

You have the power to change lives. Use it often. 

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Hi! I'm Oskar.          

I teach, write, speak, rant to make the world better.

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