Geno Auriemma is head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, where he has guided his teams to 11 national championships, the two longest winning streaks in college basketball history (most recently, a 111-win streak spanning three seasons), and hasn’t had a season with double-digit losses since before most current college students were even born.

To provide a bit of perspective, consider that the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors went 67-15 last season, which represents the 7th best season record of all time, and was a remarkable season by any measure.

UConn has lost 15 games total in the last 10 years combined.

A dedicated teacher of the game, Auriemma sets the bar high for his players, and one of his expectations is that they learn from their mistakes; not make the same ones over and over (here’s an article that shares a story about this, and gets at how he helps great players avoid becoming complacent).

Which of course is easier said than done. After all, how many times have you found yourself harping on the same mistakes or bad habits week after week in a student’s lessons?

Is there anything we can do to get our ideas to “stick,” and help our students more effectively internalize the things we’re working on?

Testing vs. teaching

A team of researchers recruited 56 UCLA students to participate in a study to test two different approaches to learning.

Everyone was given 10 minutes to read a 1541-word passage which compared the depiction of the Crimean War in the movie The Charge of the Light Brigade with actual historical events, arguing that movies tend to portray things inaccurately.

Before reading, half of the participants were told to keep in mind that they would be tested on the material afterwards (the test-expectancy group).

The other participants were told that they would be teaching the material in the passage to another student, who would in turn be tested on the material (the teaching-expectancy group).

After studying, each student participated in an unrelated memory task for 25 minutes, which was designed to distract them and hasten the forgetting process a bit.

Then, both groups were given a free-recall1 and short-answer2 test on the passage they studied. Even the folks who were expecting to teach.

Who did better?

Both groups studied the same passage, for the same exact amount of time. And took the exact same test, the same amount of time after studying.

Yet the students that were expecting to teach performed better than the students who were expecting to be tested.

On the free-recall test, they were able to recall more of the ideas from the passage. And they also seemed to recall them more easily, writing down more ideas per minute. Their scores on the short-answer test were higher too.

Why the difference?

Differences in processing

Previous research suggests that when someone is expecting to teach, they process the information they’re learning differently. They tend to seek out key concepts more actively, look for relationships between ideas, and mentally organize the material in a more effective way.

Learning information and learning motor skills are different activities, of course. But on some level, learning is learning, and this study made me wonder if some of the principles might still be transferrable to the performance domain.

Setting the bar higher?

Thinking back to my own learning experiences way back when (and even now), when I approach something new that I know I’ll have to perform, I’m generally pretty focused and attentive, but as long as I feel like I can get through the skill, I’m not too worried.

On the other hand, when I know I’ll be responsible for teaching a skill or idea, I think I tend to be more intently focused on understanding it, and break it apart in my head on a deeper level, looking for questions or holes in my understanding that I know would be exposed when trying to teach it.

Which I suspect leads me to process more aspects of the skill on a deeper level, and encode the skill more effectively.

In other words, I think having to teach implicitly motivates me to set the bar a little higher in terms of how deeply I really understand the details of a skill. After all, it’s often the details that tend to separate good from great, right?

Take action

Intrigued, I experimented with this a bit this summer, using my most readily accessible subject as a guinea pig. Namely, my son. I asked him to plan on teaching me the new techniques he learned in his jiujitsu class whenever we got home each evening.

I don’t have anything to compare it to, but it was interesting to see him recognize where his knowledge gaps were during the teaching process. If nothing else, I think it gave him a clearer sense of what to pay closer attention to in his next class, and what questions to ask his coach.

I haven’t tried this yet with my daughter and her piano lessons, but might there be a simple way to apply this strategy to music lessons too?

For instance, might it work to take a few minutes at the end of a lesson to flip things, and ask your student to teach you how to work on/practice some of their biggest challenges3? Or having them teach their parent how to do some of the new skills or adjustments that you’ve asked them to focus on during the week (for younger students, of course)?

I’d be curious to know if this is an idea you’ve found a way to utilize in your teaching in some form or fashion – and if so, how it has worked out!

Footnotes

  1. Participants sat at a computer and typed out as much information from the passage as they could remember
  2. An 18-question test, with 8 questions about important details from the text, and 10 questions about unimportant details from the passage
  3. Making sure, of course, that you tell them at the beginning of the lesson that this is what they will have to do