“He who teaches, learns.”
This classic dictum is normally used to explain how those who teach learn a surprising amount from both the act of teaching and from their students. But it also offers a prescription for effective studying: If you want to comprehend and remember something, teach it.
When you teach something to another person, you have to really understand it. You have to be able to simplify it and summarize it. You have to be able to explain it several different ways. If you can’t restate the concept using the phrase “in other words,” you don’t really get it. The ability to teach something distinguishes mere fluency in concept from true understanding. Attempting to teach something, then, is an excellent way to see how far along the mastery path you’ve come.
Teaching often requires the use of analogies to help people connect new concepts to previously understood ideas, and the metaphors we use to teach improve our own understanding. Creating such analogies demands creativity, thereby offering a chance to exercise those mental muscles. Both this creative challenge and the other difficulties of teaching require so much effort that the act of teaching does an excellent job of convincing your brain to care, thereby greatly enhancing learning.
This means that one of the best ways for students to help themselves is to help their fellow students. If a classmate is struggling to understand something, and you teach it to him, you both benefit.
Because studying is so often a solitary act, teaching to learn remains one of the most underused study techniques. But you actually don’t need anyone else around to use teaching to enhance your learning. You can simply pretend you have an audience. When I engage in mental recall practice, this is usually what I am doing. I have an imaginary conversation with someone about the topic I’m trying to comprehend or remember. I try to present the ideas in this imagined conversation in a clear, logical order. I imagine what questions the person would have, and I answer them. If I can do all this way from memory, then I know I’m well on my way to remembering it for good. If I can’t, I’ve got more work to do. Teaching, whether to a real audience or an imagined one, is a powerful form of self-testing.
Greg calls this his “crazy professor” talk. It is no accident that we often see scientists portrayed in movies mumbling to themselves. When a scientist does this, she is holding a Socratic seminar in her mind, and in doing so, she is deepening her understanding. You can do this while waiting for the bus, walking the dog, doing the dishes, or getting ready for bed.
A Note for Teachers and Tutors
This idea has also spurred one of the biggest shifts in how I interact with students as an academic coach.
Here’s a well-meaning question I used to ask all the time: “Does that make sense?”
And at least 90% of the time, students nod and say “Yes.”
But here’s the problem: They say yes even when they’re confused. Most students aren’t willing to admit that your explanation of a concept didn’t make sense to them. And unfortunately, this is especially true for the students who have the hardest time making sense of academic ideas. Many students with learning difficulties have developed this behavior over time: If an adult asks them if they understand something, they can just say “Yes,” and then the confusing topic gets dropped, and the conversation ends. This is a subconscious strategy of avoidance. It does not facilitate learning, and we shouldn’t encourage it by asking the question.
So, instead of asking students whether or not they understand something, I now insist that they prove it. If the student can explain the concept to me in her own words, then I’ll believe she understands it. If all she can do is regurgitate the exact language that I or the textbook used, her understanding might be no better than that of a well-trained parrot.
This turns out to be a big deal. The vast majority of test questions don’t use the exact same wording as the teacher or textbook. Plus, many test questions force you to apply several concepts at once. And you’ll often need to apply what you know in later courses or in real-world problem solving. You can’t do that if all you’ve achieved is rote memorization. True understanding is required.
Students need to practice combining the vocabulary and the concepts they’re learning into “the story” of the content. Doing so taps into a key aspect of natural learning – storytelling – thereby improving both understanding and memory. It is critical for educators to insist that students express full thoughts and complete sentences that form complete paragraphs and a coherent narrative.
Now, in practice, what I’ve just described is very difficult for most students, and it’s something that’s normally only achieved in a later stage of the learning process. At the beginning, when a concept is brand new, we need help. One very helpful tool is the “word bank.”
The first time students attempt to say back to you what was just explained, they might appreciate having a list of the vocabulary that they should be using in their explanation. They get to use this word bank as a reference when they attempt to explain the concept to you. Because this lightens their cognitive load, putting the puzzle together is easier. Their only job, at first, is to put the words into a logical order and make sentences.
You can ask prodding questions to get them to say more. You can give hints. Sometimes we put the words onto little notecards so students can manipulate them on the desk, trying to arrange them in the proper order before verbalizing their explanation. If this is all still too challenging, you can explain it together and ask the students to finish your sentences, or you can generate a fill-in-the-blank exercise.
Early on, many students won’t be able to tell you the story, even with a word bank, so we sometimes begin this process by having students answer questions using the word bank. Later, they’ll need to be able to answer without a word bank. Eventually, you can start insisting on more details. If the student answers a question correctly, push her toward additional depth by saying “Yes! What is that?” or “Yes! Tell me more about that.”
Eventually, they should be able to teach it from scratch with no resources.
“In other words…”
As I mentioned earlier, the ability to explain the same idea in multiple ways is the true demonstration of understanding. This means that, at some point, students need to challenge themselves to move beyond the vocabulary of the word bank. When students can answer your questions with the correct vocabulary, they may have simply memorized the right responses without actually understanding what it all means. The next challenge, then, is to have the student explain the content in other words.
This is something that students can do in class and in tutoring. The game is this: The instructor explains something, and then the student replies, “So are you saying that ______________?” putting it into her own words. By doing so, she’s either proving that she gets it or discovering that she’s misunderstood something. And she’s tapping into the power of asking questions and practicing taking healthy risks.
Often, a good ‘in other words’ statement will include figurative language. In math, we might say that distribution is like dealing cards to players around a table – a simile. In chemistry, we say that chlorine desperately “wants” an electron and will “steal” one from an element like sodium – a personification.
One important thing for students to be able to do is connect the concepts to related or parallel ideas that aren’t being mentioned by the book or the instructor. If they can draw connections between what they’re learning now and what they’ve learned in the past, they’ll form a deeper understanding and a stronger memory of both the old and the new concept. If students don’t mention these connections when they’re explaining new concepts, you should ask them how the new information fits into their preexisting web of knowledge.
I get to experience the power of teaching all the time because I teach for a living. What many people don’t realize is that, as a tutor, I’m also a student. There remains a huge amount of academic content I don’t know, so my job requires constant learning. I routinely arrive at better understandings of the things I’m learning when I teach them to my students. I strengthen my memory and deepen my comprehension every time I think of a different way to explain something.
In other words, the best way to be a good student is to become a good teacher.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.