Learn by Preparing to Teach

By Kevin Meyer Updated on May 11th, 2018

Many studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to learn new material is not just to perform an activity with the new knowledge, but to teach it.  It’s the reason why several companies ask interview finalists for new positions to teach a small group about some topic they’re passionate about.  You are able to assess teaching ability – which is a function of the ability to distill and apply knowledge – and often learn something unexpected about a potential team member.

I know several people in my last company who are into beekeeping after seeing the presentation of successful quality engineering candidate.  I also leveraged this concept by asking people I sent to conferences to come back and, as a team, present to us the top three concepts they learned about that we needed to begin working on immediately, and the top five to put on the parking lot so we could review at future planning activities.

But what is it about teaching that supports effective learning?  A recent research paper titled The Learning Benefits of Teaching: A Retrieval Practice Hypothesis provides some analysis.

Prior research referenced by the authors delve into how teaching improves both comprehension and retention.  Of particular interest to us at Gemba Academy is research led by Vincent Hoogerheide that suggests teaching via video is more effective than presentations and writing.

The authors performed several experiments where participants were asked to either simply solve problems (ie no teaching), taught with externally-prepared notes, taught without externally-prepared notes, or just had to retrieve knowledge previously learned.  Factors such as teaching ability and style, prior knowledge, and perceived difficulty were controlled for.

It’s important to note that “retrieval” from the perspective of the authors is very different than simply “restudying.”  Retrieval requires reflecting on the new knowledge, distilling it, and determining how to apply to a current circumstance.

The groups that taught without prepared notes and that had to retrieve knowledge previously learned performed better than the ones that didn’t teach or taught with prepared notes. The authors concluded that the knowledge retrieval process was the key element that created effective learning, not necessarily the act of teaching itself.

The condition that best evaluates whether the learning benefit is fundamentally a retrieval benefit might be a retrieval condition in which learners are given “standard” learning instructions and then retrieval practice.

Sound familiar?  Knowledge retrieval and the reflective learning process is one reason why TWI Job Instruction is so powerful.

This also applies to leadership competency.  When I’ve recruited for leadership positions, especially at the executive level, I’ve found the best indicator of success is having a strong learning process.  A candidate that has a thirst for new knowledge, including outside of their usual scope of interest, and then knows how to distill, apply, and especially teach that new knowledge, has a higher likelihood of being successful.  Digging into and understanding this characteristic has become a primary focus of my interviewing process.

How can you provide your team members with more opportunities to both obtain new knowledge – and then to truly learn it by reflecting, applying, and teaching?

  1. Thomas Devaty

    May 16, 2018 - 10:10 am

    While I was reading this article I put myself in the position of having to demonstrate a teaching task and I immediately thought of the TWI JI methodology. How surprised I was to read later that you had mentioned the same thing. Bravo.

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