The Protege effect – Learning by Teaching


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.

Click here for more details

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.






Video killed my teacher – metaphorically speaking

Video killed the radio star

What did you do the last time you needed to repair, cook or dare I say learn something? Did you google it and follow the link to YouTube? If so you are no different to the over one billion people who actively use YouTube every month.

This blog is not actually about YouTube but the medium of video and the increasingly important role it plays in our daily life and how we use it to learn.



Social learning and the bobo doll

Albert Bandura is the Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and is widely regarded as one of the greatest living psychologists. He is perhaps most famous for his Social learning theory, the theory of how people learn by observing others, and the bobo doll experiment. Click here to listen to Bandura himself explain.

Behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and even punishment, see Skinner and Pavlov. Bandura’s social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others. And that is where the true value of video lies, it is in the ability of people to watch what others do and learn from them.

What makes a good learning video?

Firstly, as with any form of delivery it needs to planned and structured. What is the purpose of the video, why use video and not send an email? Think about the audience, why will they want to watch it, what makes it relevant for them? Break it into three sections, a beginning, where you tell the audience what you are going to tell them, the middle, where you actually tell them, and the end where you tell them what you have told them.

Secondly It has to be relatively short, 10 minutes is a maximum. Even 6 minutes of good video takes a lot of planning, equally it wont test concentration levels too much. This does not mean you can’t record many hours of video, it just needs to be chunked, labeled and structured so it can be easily followed.

And lastly think about your delivery. Pace, tone of voice and body language all help the learner. This is where you manage the mood of your audience, if your happy they will be happy. Generally, speak more slowly than you would normally but be careful toooo slowww can be boring, vary how you say something depending on what you’re saying. Also think about the visuals and if it would be better to show an image rather than talk. But don’t go mad and put too much on screen all at the same time, it gets confusing.

Examples of good video 

But of course the best way to explain the power of video in learning is to show the videos.

1.The queen of cooking Delia is also the expert of slow deliberate, perfectly planned presenting. Here she explains how to cook an omelet, notice the attention to detail.  Ps Delia left school at 16 without a single GCE O-level. 3.43 minutes in length.

2.Here is someone who breaks the presenting rules, certainly the one that says don’t talk too fast. However, CGP Grey is great at using visuals, his dialogue is fast but incredibly informative, its packed with information, and it’s funny. If you are confused by the US elections, you won’t be after watching this.  5.19 minutes in length.

3.Crash course is a little like Khan academy which I have written before, what makes it different is the humour and how it is shot to camera using powerful visuals. Watch this clip if you want to learn about supply and demand. This pushes the boundaries time wise at 10.21 minutes.

4.This is the big one certainly as far as hits are concerned. James Stevens, Vsauceis watched by 19 million people. This one answers the questions as to, what would happen if everyone jumped at once? 7.12 minutes in length.