The Protege effect – Learning by Teaching

Protege

The Protege effect states that the best way to learn is to teach someone else. Students develop a better understanding and retain knowledge longer than those who study in more traditional ways. The Roman philosopher Seneca put it even more simply ‘While we teach, we learn’.

The method, also called learning by teaching was originally developed by Jean-Pol Martin in the 1980s. Click to watch a short video.

 

There are many theories written about learning and education but the ones that are always most powerful for me are those that you can evidence in some way from your own experiences or from the experiences of others whose opinion you value. And I would be very surprised if any of my teaching colleagues would disagree with the basic concept that no matter how much you think you know about a subject or topic, the very process of teaching always offers up new thoughts and insights, deepening your understanding.

The teacher might be the student

The argument hinges on the relationship between a teacher and learner. Traditionally the teacher is the expert who provides knowledge, the learner the one who receives it, but the teacher need not be the person who stands at the front of class, the teacher can be the student and the student the teacher.

This role reversal is not as odd as it at first might seem, a good teacher will always listen to the answer a student gives in order to evaluate their own performance. And if you think of it like that, who is teaching who?

But how does it work? Imagine you were asked to teach a subject to others in your peer group. Knowing you were going to have to explain a topic will increase your level of engagement with the learning materials. In addition, reflection will be far deeper as you continually ask, does this makes sense to me? This process of preparing, “prepping” is one of the reasons teaching improves learning but there are others. For example, the construction of the learning itself will require imagination and creativity, how exactly will I teach this subject?  It may be a simple verbal explanation, conversational even, or perhaps something more formal, requiring slides or additional illustrations. Once again you will be forced to reflect, possibly writing down some of your ideas and again asking questions, how long will it take, am I making myself clear, what questions could I be asked? Its at this stage that you may even find your understanding lacking, requiring you to go back over what you previously thought you knew.

There is research (Bargh and Schul 1980) to prove that preparing to teach in the belief that you will have to do so improves learning, however there is one final stage, the teaching itself.  In 1993 Coleman, Brown and Rivkin investigated the impact of actually teaching, eliminating the effects resulting from the interaction with students, their conclusions, that there was a significant improvement in performance of those that taught compared to the those who prepared but didn’t in the end teach.

In summary, although thinking you have to teach and going through the process to do so improves learning, following through with the actual teaching is even better.

Protege in practice

Bettys Brain (Vanderbilt University) – Bettys brain is a computer based, Teachable Agent that students can teach and in so doing learn. The students develop a visual map (A concept map) of their own knowledge, forcing them to organise their thoughts. There are resources available within the programme to help them develop a deeper undertesting of the subject. They then teach what they learned to Betty, who like any other student will face a test at the end. If she does not do well in the test it is a reflection of the quality of the teacher or perhaps more precisely their understanding of the subject.

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Lessons for students – This is not a plea for students to pair up and teach each other, as good an idea as this might be. It is a hope that by explaining why teaching helps you learn, it gives an insight into how we all learn. For example, it highlights that reflection, i.e. thinking back on what you know is so important, it shows that high levels of concentration are required, the result of knowing you will have to explain concepts and ideas to others, and it offers up some evidence as to why talking out loud as you do when presenting, consolidates learning.

A few other takeaways, why not imagine you have to teach the subject you are learning and study with a “teaching mindset”. Preparing notes as if you are going to teach, crafting ideas as to how you might explain it to others. Get involved in group discussions, try to answer other student questions as they might answer yours.

Oh, and don’t always assume that the person in front of you fully grasps what they are saying, they are still learning as well.

 

 

 

 

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Boring is interesting

One of the reasons a subject might be difficult to learn is because its just very boring…….but is any subject really boring?

boredom11

Why do we get bored?

Firstly, we should define what boredom is, surprisingly for something that many people have experienced and therefore feel they know, definitions are a little vague, for example, from the dictionary we have, “the feeling of being bored by something tedious”, which is not particularly helpful. If we dig a little deeper we find “the aversive experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity” or put another way, what you are currently doing is not sufficiently stimulating such that your mind will wander looking for a more satisfying alternative task.

The brain is in effect searching for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control your reward and pleasure centres. The implication being that the task you are currently involved with is not delivering enough dopamine for you to continue with it. There is some evidence to show that people with low levels of dopamine production may get bored easily, continually looking for new and more stimulating activities. This so called “trait boredom” has been linked to dropping out of school, higher levels of anxiety, gambling and alcohol/drug abuse.

Boredom is an emotion often brought on by routine, monotonous and repetitive work that has little perceived value.

The opposite of boredom is engagement

On the basis that being bored is not a particularly good emotion when it comes to learning we should look to change it by becoming more engaged. One small but important point before we move on, being bored is not completely without its uses, watch this TED lecture – How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas, presented by Manoush Zomorodi. In this Manoush argues that because the brain is searching for stimulation when bored, it can lead to increased creativity and great ideas.

An interesting way of thinking of engagement is that it’s what you see when someone is motivated.  This is important if you want to pass an exam because there is evidence (Wang & Eccles, 2012a) to show that students who are engaged are more likely to do well in examinations and aspire to higher education.

But what to do?

  • Recognise that you are feeling bored. This is the first step because if you don’t know your bored its easy to build up a deep dislike for the subject, and when you do that the answer becomes easy. It’s not my fault, it’s the subject that’s boring.
  • Your subject needs to be meaningful. Students often say, “I will never use what I have to learn.” This is of course an opinion; the truth is you simply don’t know. I can still remember thinking I would never need to understand the Capital Asset Pricing Model (a formula used in Financial Management to calculate shareholder returns) little did I know one day I would actually teach it.
  • Be curious, keep thinking, “that’s interesting”. Nothing is really boring it’s only the way you are looking at it. Curiosity is a state of mind that fortunately has is no cure.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.    Ellen Parr

  • Make it fun or turn the activity into a game.  There is no doubt that during your studies there will be a need to rote learn information and because this is a repetitive task it can be boring. But if you break up what you have to learn into bite size chunks and turn it into a game with rewards e.g. if I learn these 4 definitions by 6.00 I can finish for the day, you will be amazed how much easier it can become.
  • Find people who are engaged and ask them to explain what they see, why do they find it interesting. This might be necessary if your teacher or lecturer fails to bring the subject to life, fails to engage you in the subject. Interest and engagement are contagious, unfortunately so is boredom.
  • Its too easy – its too hard. Your boredom might come from the fact that what your learning is basic, if so ask for more advanced work, I know that sounds counter intuitive but you will benefit in the long run. And if its too hard, speak to your teacher, they will be able to help. This is an example of taking control, often boredom strikes when you feel there is nothing you can do, sitting waiting for a train that has been delayed. By taking some form of control e.g. checking alternative routes home, the boredom will pass.

And if you want to find out more

Why Do We Get Bored? 

On the Function of Boredom

The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention