Teach to Learn

“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.”

Word Banks

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.


Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Parrot: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Mind Map: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.


9 Science-Backed Benefits of Gratitude

Dear readers,

I’m pleased to introduce guest author Lena D. Meyer. She is a Transformational Life Coach, Public Speaker, and founder of Gratitude6.  She is ranked as one of the top coaches in the Pacific Northwest, and since 2008 has supported hundreds of people in living their most joyful, meaningful, and empowered lives. 


There’s a lot of buzz about gratitude these days, and everyone from positive psychologists to mindfulness mavens are touting it as a key component to joyful living.

But is gratitude just some fluffy fad that do-gooders and personal growth gurus are talking about?  Is being grateful just the polite thing we’re expected to express?  Or are there actual benefits to this whole gratitude thing that extend beyond the surface of the simple thank you and into the depths of a happier and more meaningful life?

Well, not only do I love gratitude, but I love science as well, and today’s article gives gratitude a big old hi-five and stamp of approval with 9 science-backed benefits of cultivating a deeper sense of gratitude in our lives.

1. Gratitude is good for your physical health.

Gratitude is certainly an internal emotion, but did you know it impacts the internal workings of our physical body as well?  It has been shown to lower blood pressure, increase the duration and quality of sleep, increase people’s engagement in physical exercise, and has a number of positive correlations to improved overall health and increased longevity.[1]  The message?  Be grateful, live longer, and enjoy the ride along the way.

2. Gratitude increases self-esteem.

Did you know that feeling shame, guilt, and pride all activate similar reward centers in the brain?[2]  Strange but true!  This is one of the reasons it’s so natural for us to load up with guilt and shame…it actually triggers a feeling of reward in a weirdly covert way.

The good news – there’s a way to change this that not only sheds the guilt and shame, but enhances the feeling of pride as well.  Wondering what it is?  Gratitude, of course.  How?  A great way to pattern interrupt the guilt/shame spiral is by asking the key question: What am I grateful for?  This provides instant relief, and over time begins to build new neural pathways that lead to a more habitual positive and empowering thinking spiral instead.

3. Gratitude decreases anxiety and worry.

As humans, we are naturally inclined to worry about things.  (Did you think you were the only one? Well, you’re in good company, and you are NOT.)  But why do we do this to ourselves?  Even though it may not feel good, at the same time worrying can actually have a calming effect on the limbic system of the brain.[3]   If you think about it…when you’re worrying, your mind feels like it is “doing something” about the situation by trying to see all of the possibilities or figure out a solution (often obsessively).

However, there is a way to both feel good AND “do something” by interrupting the anxiety/worry spiral with some other great gratitude-based questions: What is going well? (and) What are my successes?  Just like the guilt/shame spiral interceptors, these questions will reroute and strengthen your positive mindset in the moment, and over time.

4. Gratitude reduces depression.

On a chemical level, many studies have shown that gratitude boosts both dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain.  Interestingly enough, did you know that both of these components are found in many of today’s popular antidepressants as well?

It may then be no surprise that the effect of having gratitude in our lives has been shown to reduce depression, and in many cases can be a wonderful addition to your mental health care regime.[4]  A little bit of gratitude makes a big difference, and can be extremely effective in helping to shift into greater joy in your life.

5. Gratitude increases motivation and goal attainment.

So…you might be thinking… “If I start feeling grateful for life ALL the time, won’t I become complacent?  Won’t it decrease my motivation to do anything differently or go for my dreams?”  It might be understandable to think this (hello anxiety/worry spiral!), but studies have shown that in fact the opposite is true.  Gratitude actually enhances motivation and our ability to make progress on important goals…so go ahead, be grateful, and continue going for the gold![5]

6. Gratitude is good for business.

When people feel acknowledged and appreciated it goes a long way, and not just in our personal lives.  Studies conducted on the effects of gratitude in the workplace, over a pool of nearly 50 countries, found that gratitude was directly linked “to improvements in productivity, profitability, quality, loyalty, safety, absenteeism, and other cost and performance metrics.”[6]  Saying thank you (and meaning it) is free, and may just be one of the most cost-effective ways to boost your work experience, and bottom line.

7. Gratitude strengthens relationships.

Have you ever spent time with someone who TRULY appreciates you?  Or vice versa?  It feels good, doesn’t it?  This is perhaps an obvious connection, yet the power of gratitude in strengthening relationships is not to be underestimated.  Studies have linked gratitude to both increased relationship satisfaction and inclusive behaviors in social settings.[7]  A deeper connection based on true appreciation and acknowledgement is a powerful basis for increasing the bond in existing relationships and expanding our social circles beyond our current sphere.

8. Gratitude increases altruism and impact.

So…we know that gratitude makes us feel better, improves our social life, and creates a better work environment, but isn’t that ultimately self-serving and limited in its scope?  If that were all it did, maybe, however studies have shown that gratitude doesn’t just make us feel good and keep it all to ourselves, it actually inspires us to help others.  On top of that, it motivates us not only to help those whom we feel specifically grateful for, but to help complete strangers as well.[8]  The ripple effect of cultivating gratitude is real, so go ahead and load up on all the gratitude you like, and notice where the inspiration and action takes you.

9. Gratitude increases happiness.

At this point, we are racking up quite a list of gratitude benefits.  So far we have improved our physical health, increased our self-esteem, reduced anxiety, worry and depression, achieved our goals with greater motivation, increased our business success, enhanced our social life, AND made a positive contribution to the world.

Perhaps it seems quite clear that greater happiness would ensue, and in fact, both logic and research back up this claim.  Gratitude has been shown across multiple studies to increase happiness overall…from the basics of simply having more “feel good” neurotransmitters floating around, to increased overall life satisfaction from the shifts and changes that having a regular connection to gratitude supports and creates.[9]


So…now that you know the powerful benefits that gratitude can deliver, are you wondering how to cultivate more of it in your own life?  If yes, stay tuned for more gratitude resources over the next few weeks, including this month’s Coaching Toolbox, where I’ll introduce a fun and easy way to bring more gratitude into your life.

In the meantime, let me know if you have questions or want to say hello.  I read every note that comes my way, and if you are inspired, I’d love to hear from you.

With love and (of course) gratitude,


Want to connect?  Have questions or inspired to take action?  Send me a note to say hello or book your complimentary Discovery Call to find out whether coaching together is a match for you.  I read every single note that is sent my way, and look forward to connecting soon.


Copyright © 2017 Gratitude6, LLC, all rights reserved.


[1] Research reported by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. and Anjali Mishra.  “Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know” 2010.

[2] [3] Research reported by Eric Barker in “New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy” 2015, on findings from Alex Korb PhD, author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time” 2015.

[4] Research reported by Alex Korb Ph.D. “The Grateful Brain: The Neuroscience of Giving Thanks” 2012.

[5] Research by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. and Anjali Mishra.  “Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know” 2010.

[6] Research by IBM Smarter Workforce Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, Globoforce, as reported by Dr. Robert Emmons, Ph.D in “Three Surprising Ways That Gratitude Works at Work” 2017.

[7] Research by Monica Y Bartlett, Paul Condon, Jourdan Cruz, Jolie Baumann & David Desteno.  “Gratitude: Prompting Behaviors that Build Relationships” 2011.

[8] Research by Christina N. Armenta and Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D.  “How Gratitude Motivates Us to Become Better People” 2017.

[9] Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School.  “In Praise of Gratitude” 2011.

Note: This article in no way represents nor replaces medical or psychological care.  Please seek appropriate medical care and counsel for any occurrences of anxiety, depression, physical ailments, or any other wellness or psychological topics that may affect you.  Read full disclaimer here.


Start With The Summary

A chapter in a typical textbook will present all the information, in detail, and then conclude with a chapter summary. The logic behind this is that, after reading all those details, you’ll want to refresh your memory with an overview.

The science of learning, however, shows that this standard format is backwards.

It turns out, we comprehend and remember the details better if we read the summary first. Luckily, there’s no law against flipping through the pages of a textbook out of order. Any student can easily flip to the end, read the summary, and then return to the beginning and read the chapter. Of course, this requires actually having a textbook, which we are strongly in favor of.

But why is this better?

Why does it help to start with the summary?

One reason is that, because a summary provides only the big picture, it is digestible. We can understand it. And once we’ve discerned the lay of the land, it’s much easier to examine the details without feeling overwhelmed and confused.

History textbooks are perhaps the best example of this. A typical history chapter will present a deluge of information that inundates the mind. Most readers don’t know which details to focus on. What really matters here? Which facts are most likely to show up on the test? But when readers get a sense of the big picture first, they navigate through the chapter more adeptly. Because they understand what story the information is telling, they have an easier time deciding which details to pay attention to and which ones to discard.

Often, a chapter summary will briefly mention how this chapter’s content fits into the textbook as a whole – how its ideas are connected with the other ideas in the course. When we see how it fits into the larger puzzle we’re building, it makes more sense and sticks in our minds more easily. The new knowledge has a home, a place where it belongs. Conversely, ideas are much more difficult to understand and remember if they’re presented at random with no explicit connection to things we already know.

Normally, the big picture offers a sense of the subject matter’s significance. A good summary will explain why the content is important. When we know why something matters, we become more motivated to learn the details. We also remember the content better because significance is one way to convince the brain to care.

What if there is no summary?

Unfortunately, many textbooks do not contain a chapter summary. Dr. Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and co-creator of Coursera’s Learning How to Learn, offers a solution.

She suggests that we flip through the chapter and read the section headings and sub-headings before reading. When we do this, we get a sense of where the chapter is going and what the big ideas are, which is almost as good as reading a chapter summary. This process also creates metaphorical bookshelves in the mind, complete with boxes and folders. Learning a mess of details is easier when we can sort the information into categories and sub-categories.

In many cases, however, this won’t be enough. For example, the most commonly used textbook for AP World History is Strayer and Nelson’s Ways of the World, which contains a staggering amount of detail and no chapter summaries. The amount of ground covered and the level of detail make reading the section headings in each chapter woefully insufficient. Students need to seek out summaries and additional teachers online to make AP World History easier to navigate. Here are some resources that I’ve found:

And it’s not just textbooks that struggle with this. Sometimes teachers neglect to provide an overview before diving into the details. I see this most often in biology, specifically with the topic of meiosis. Meiosis is the special type of cell division that produces sex cells: eggs and sperm. The process takes many steps, introduces a bunch of new vocabulary, and is, well, pretty overwhelming:

Students benefit enormously from seeing a highly simplified version of meiosis before attempting to digest this Thanksgiving feast of biological detail.

But just as no one needs to be a victim of a textbook without chapter summaries, no one should be a victim of a teacher who fails to deliver an overview before teaching the details. In most classes, it’s fairly easy to predict what topic is going to be taught next, and seek out a pre-lecture summary of the topic that will be covered in tomorrow’s lecture. And if you’re not sure what’s coming, ask questions.

Students are in charge of their own success. Preparing for lectures by finding summaries the night before and seeking out additional resources to improve your comprehension of a textbook are both excellent ways to practice being an active agent. The ability to go find what you need and use it to succeed is the most important skill students can learn in school.


Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Map: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

File cabinet: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Meiosis: “Meiosis.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010.