In school, athletics, music, and pretty much anywhere else, we seem to do an awful lot of testing.

Exams, quizzes, tests, games, matches, meets, recitals, auditions, concerts, juries…it seems there’s no end to the testing we do.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that testing is inherently evil, or necessarily such a bad thing all the time.

For instance, testing (a.k.a. retrieval practice) does lead to better learning than many of the study methods (like reading, highlighting, and concept-mapping) we spend most of our time engaged in.

Heck, even the mere expectation that we will be tested leads to greater test scores than when we’re not expecting to be tested.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a break from all of this, as constant testing can start to wear on us after a while. Then again, is there any other way? Or is this as good as it gets?

Experiential learning

“See one, do one, teach one” is a learning philosophy that has guided the training of medical residents for some time.

Indeed, the concept of learning by teaching is not a new one, and as anyone who has ever tried to explain how to program a VCR DVR over the phone quickly discovers – we don’t really know something until we’ve had to teach it.

This is a concept that has filtered down into classroom settings, with strategies like the “jigsaw classroom,” where students share responsibility for each others’ knowledge. This is where a classroom is divided into groups, and within each group, the individual students are responsible for becoming an “expert” on a specific subtopic. Once each student has researched their topic, they bring it back to the group and share what they have learned with the group (i.e. teach).

I even saw learning-by-teaching being implemented at my kids’ Tae Kwon Do practice the other day. I dropped in, and couldn’t help but smile when I saw my 9-yr old semi-patiently guiding his sister through her new pattern. When he got turned around and looked a little confused, I smiled even bigger, as I could see that this was going to help solidify his learning as much (if not more) than hers.

Intriguingly, a recent study found that we don’t even have to go through the act of teaching to experience a boost in learning. Simply the expectation that we will have to teach prompts us to learn more effectively.

Teach, or take a test?

Researchers told 56 UCLA students were told that they would have 10 minutes to read a ~1500-word passage that they would later a) be tested on (the testing group), or b) have to teach to another student who would then be asked to take a test on the passage (the teaching group).

After their 10-minute study session was up, they then engaged in a 25-minute “distractor” task (to let a little forgetting set in), and designed to keep them mentally occupied enough that they couldn’t keep reviewing the passage in their mind.

Then, all the students (even the ones who were expecting to teach, rather than take a test) were tested on how much they remembered from the passage. One test was essentially a brain dump, where they were asked to write down anything and everything they could remember from the passage. The other was an 18-question short-answer test about various details from the passage.

Teaching wins!

Students who thought they would have to teach consistently outperformed their counterparts in the testing group. They recalled a greater proportion of accurate content from the passage, were able to recall information more efficiently (it took them less time to recall more details), and their organization of the recalled material was more effectively structured, looking more similar to how the original passage was written.

They also outperformed the testing group on the short-answer test.

The researchers suggest that expecting to teach may have led the students to pay better attention to details of the passage, and adopt particularly effective learning strategies that would help them teach more effectively. Essentially upping the game and studying better, knowing that teaching demands a more in-depth understanding of the material than a test would.

Take action

Motor skills and book learning are different of course, but there is a cognitive element to learning motor skills, and we do seem to pay better attention when we know we will have to teach something.

Students already are expecting to be tested on what they are learning, via lessons or performances. So if you want a student to perk up and really pay attention, perhaps setting up opportunities for them to teach a less experienced student (in addition to performing regularly), would add a valuable element to their learning process. Not to mention the confidence boost that comes from teaching, and being able to share something of value with someone who can benefit!

How do you (or could you) incorporate teaching into your students’ learning process?

photo credit: Tim & Selena Middleton via photopin cc