This teaching strategy could be the difference between a C and an A-

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This teaching strategy could be the difference between a C and an A-

Learning by teaching may help students understand material on a deeper level, writes Elisabeth Stock, the CEO and co-founder of nonprofit PowerMyLearning, for EdSurge.

The principle behind learning by teaching (also known as the Protégé Effect) is simple: “When you explain something to someone else, you understand it better,” writes Stock. She recounts a story told to her by Ms. D’Angelo, a seventh-grade science teacher in the South Bronx.

As part of a homework assignment, D’Angelo asked her students to teach a family member about food chains by creating a model food chain together. When the assignment was due, D’Angelo was surprised to see not only that her students understood the material on a deeper level, but also that they appeared much more confident and engaged in class discussions. “I couldn’t believe it,” D’Angelo told Stock. “I’ve never seen homework make such a difference.”

In fact, research involving K-12 students suggests that learning by teaching can significantly improve grades. In a recent study, Richard Mayer, an educational psychologist, and Logan Fiorella, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, conducted a random control trial with two groups of students: one that was exposed to learning by teaching strategies and one that was not.

Mayer and Fiorella found that students who learned by teaching others developed a deeper and longer-lasting understanding of the material than students who did not. Students got a learning boost even if they only prepared to teach a lesson, though they learned more and remembered longer if they did actually teach the material.

Mayer says he was surprised by just how much learning by teaching helped.  The effect of learning by teaching was 0.77, where a difference of 0.5 equals one grade point leap, and a difference of 1.0 equals two grade point leaps. This means learning by teaching could be difference between a C and a B+ or even an A-.

Learn more: Why it’s so hard to evaluate teaching methods

Mayer speculates that the strategy works because students prepare better when they know they’ll need to teach the material later. When students teach a lesson, they must make connections and elaborate on the material with each question their “pupil” asks. When you “mentally re-organize [the material] and integrate it with what you already know—that’s how you make sense out of it,” says Mayer.

Learning by teaching can also improve students’ confidence and communication skills, according to Mayer. “If students feel confident enough to explain it to someone else, they might develop a higher self-efficacy,” he says. “That’s going to be motivating to see themselves as competent learners.”

While Mayer’s research focuses on K-12 classrooms, there is evidence to suggest that learning by teaching and other forms of peer tutoring can be successful in higher ed.

For instance, research suggests that the traditional lectures may not be an effective way for students to learn. And a recent study from the University of British Columbia‘s (UBC) Okanagan campus concludes that lectures are unlikely to teach students problem-solving skills.

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The UBC researchers encourage faculty members to explore new, more active teaching and learning strategies. “If they haven’t already, professors will need to move from traditional lectures and expectations of memorization to approaches that see small groups of students actively discover knowledge on their own,” says Heather Hurren, one of the UBC study’s authors and a manager of academic development at the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning in Kelowna (Stock, EdSurge, 1/24).