“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”-Albert Einstein
The protege effect is a well-known psychological phenomenon that states teaching other people a subject helps a person learn that subject more effectively in the first place. And that’s not all, if the effect is true, it can help people who are preparing to teach—or even pretending to, too!
Probably the best example is to think of a typical college student studying for exams. If that student were to partner up with a classmate and take turns teaching each other the material on an upcoming exam, chances are, they’d perform vastly better.
And the best thing about it? It’s not even that hard to do. This article discusses the reasoning behind the protégé effect, studies, examples, and how you can use it yourself!
Psychology of the protégé effect
There are several reasons for why the protégé effect is thought to work more effectively than just straight-up self-learning.
#1. Respect for teachers
Imagine your relationship with any teacher you’ve had in the past you liked. Now compare that to one you didn’t. I bet for that first teacher you had a lot more respect, listened a lot more, and generally absorbed what they had to say, right?
Now imagine you were tasked with teaching that person some small snippet of knowledge. You’d be sure you knew the information, you’d probably collect it in an organized manner, and you might even practice saying it out loud before going to the teacher.
Essentially, when we are told we need to teach someone else something, we’re more inherently motivated to do a good job. We spend more time learning the material, we organize it better, and we gain a better long-term memory of the information.
#2. Brains work harder
Learning by preparing to teach has been proven to activate parts of our brains that might normally lay dormant when doing simple self-learning. This study found students who were preparing to teach a math problem they were learning used 1.3 times more metacognitive strategies than the group that didn’t.
#3. Motivation and Agency
A neat study was performed using a digital assistant called Betty’s Brain, where one group of students had to teach the software a certain subject. The students who had to teach far out-performed the group who didn’t when later tested on the recall and knowledge learned.
Lastly, when we’re told we need to teach information later, it’s natural for us to spend more time truly understanding the key concepts. And to do that means we need to organize information in a way we can completely grasp the subject. One study set out to prove this exact premise, and according to their results, they did.
Using the protégé effect
Whatever the actual reasoning or motivation behind the protégé effect is, we can be sure it’s a more effective way to learn almost any skill in life. It doesn’t matter your age, either. The extra motivations and effects of learning by teaching can be applied to most situations, such as:
- At work: When new employees are onboarded, many are faced with tombs of dry dictionary-like standard operating procedures, how-tos, and motivational drab spoken in a robotic corporate voice. In my opinion, it’s almost useless. We all know that people learn better by doing, and having new employees teach back concepts they just learned to their supervisors is likely a far more effective strategy for them to learn. And what kind of business wouldn’t want shorter employee training times? (Hint: That saves them money.)
- At college: I used to do this myself when taking phenomenally boring taxation and accounting classes. Every semester come exam time, I teamed up with a classmate and spent time going over each concept that was going to be on the exams. We’d take turns teaching the concepts to each other, eventually being able to do it without referring to the textbook. While it definitely took a bit more time, those exams were always aced in comparison to the ones I didn’t use the buddy teaching system.
- At school: If you’re a teacher or have a kid in school, the protégé effect can also help. Having students teach each other the concepts they just learned, whether for a test or just as a routine action, will help them retain the knowledge far more effectively than traditional methods.
I’ve used the protégé effect throughout my life without even knowing it. This very blog is an example of it. When I take the time to write about a subject that isn’t pure conjecture, it often takes me down winding holes of interest and depths of information. But the thing is, if I’m writing an essay or article on that idea, I have to go back and recheck facts, figures, and concepts to make sure I’m not writing gibberish.
Once that’s all wrapped up into a shiny nice article like the one you’re seeing, I’ve actually learned that material (and can later recall it accurately) far better than if I didn’t spend the extra time doing so.
Think of an article you read last week that tweaked your interest and you wanted to tell a friend. Could you recall all the specifics correctly? Could you answer any questions they shot back at you? Or, did you just send them the article link to read because explaining the entire thing from memory would’ve been impossible?
For me and I suspect most people, the case is often the last one. But with researching and writing articles like this one, I feel like I’m actually gaining new knowledge instead of just going through the never-ending scroll of information we call the internet.
And to me, that’s incredibly important.
Is it also to you?
If so, take a moment to think of using the protégé effect the next time a subject is really interesting to you. Good luck!
You might also be interested in reading about the Wason selection task.