Want to Absorb New Information Better? Teach It to Someone Else

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As Science of Us has pointed out before, the science of how to best learn new information is tricky, and false beliefs abound. A recent study in Memory & Cognition offers up an intriguing possibility about how to best learn: that learning with the expectation of teaching might be more effective than learning with the expectation that you'll be taking a test. In two experiments, the researchers had students at UCLA read passages of text, distracted them with another task, and then tested their memory of the contents of the tests with free-recall, short-answer, and fill-in-the-blank exercises.

Key to these experiments was the fact that in both of them, half the students were told they'd be tested on the material they were about to study, while the other half were told they'd be teaching it to another student. But as it turned out, no teaching took place — the student who was going to be taught failed to show up (a common "accident" in these sorts of experiments), and the students in the teaching group were told they'd be taking a test instead.

Overall, the students in the teaching group did better, even though they weren't expecting to have to take a test. In the first experiment, they recalled more key information and their free responses were better organized. In the second experiment, there wasn't much of a difference in fill-in-the-blank performance between the two groups, although the teaching group did appear slightly better at remembering details deemed to be particularly important.

This study had some serious limitations, and they're worth keeping in mind: The sample size was small and consisted entirely of students, for one thing, and the results in the second experiment were rather weak. Plus, the subjects only had ten minutes to study the passages in question in the first experiment and nine in the second, which certainly isn't a real-world type of scenario.

Still, the results from the first experiment were pretty solid, and the researchers' explanation for why the learning-to-teach strategy might work is interesting:

Why does expecting to teach enhance organization of output and encoding of the main points of a passage? The explanation we currently favor is that participants expecting to teach put themselves into the mindset of a teacher, leading them to adopt certain effective strategies used by teachers when preparing to teach—such as organizing and weighing the importance of difference concepts in the to-be-taught material, focusing on main points, and thinkin gabout how information fits together.

So yeah: not conclusive evidence that learning-to-teach is always better, but certainly an intriguing line of research.