Students learn better when they think they’re going to have to teach the material

Researchers say they’ve uncovered a simple technique that improves students’ memory for passages of text. All that’s required is to tell the students that they’re going to have to teach the material to someone else.

Fifty-six undergrads were split into two groups. One group were told that they had 10 minutes to study a 1500-word passage about fictional depictions of The Charge of The Light Brigade, and that they would be tested on it afterwards. The other group were similarly given 10 minutes to study the text, but they were told that afterwards they would have to teach the content to another student. Neither group was allowed to take notes.

In fact, 25 minutes after the study period was over, both groups were tested on the passage. Specifically they had to recall as much information as possible from the article, and then they faced specific questions about the content. The students who thought they were going to teach the material recalled more facts from the text, and they did so more quickly. They showed a specific advantage for the main points in the text, and their recall was also better organised, tending to reflect the structure of the original text.

A second study was similar but this time two groups of students studied an article about neurobiology and the test that followed took the form of “fill in the blank” questions based on verbatim quotes from the article. This time the students who thought they were going to have to teach the article showed a slight advantage for recalling the main points, although they didn’t recall more information overall.

John Nestojko and his colleagues acknowledge that more research is needed to confirm and expand on these results (especially given the more equivocal second study), but they said their findings hint at a simple strategy for improving students’ learning. They think that cultivating in learners the expectation of having to teach the material leads them to adopt strategies “such as organising and weighing the importance of different concepts in the to-be-taught material, focusing on main points, and thinking about how information fits together” that are known to boost memory performance.

In a school situation it probably wouldn’t be practical for every student to go through the process of teaching learned material, but the expectation of having to teach the material could easily be fostered by announcing that one or more randomly chosen students will play the teaching role. “We hope the present findings encourage future researchers to discover other such potentially easy-to-implement ways of leading students to adopt more effective learning strategies,” the researchers said.


Nestojko JF, Bui DC, Kornell N, & Bjork EL (2014). Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory & cognition, 42 (7), 1038-48 PMID: 24845756

–Further reading–
Evidence-backed ways to help you study.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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