Let’s Get to Work with Productive Learning Strategies: Teaching Others

Paul A. Kirschner, Mirjam Neelen, Tine Hoof & Tim Surma

This blog is the fifth one in a series of eight blogs, originally written by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.

In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on and that goes further than what you’ve learned. In addition to mapping,  Mayer and Fiorella also discuss summarising, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.

Each strategy prompts learners to apply Mayer’s Selection, Organising, and Integrating (SOI) memory model. These strategies ensure that the learner engages with the new subject matter in a ‘cognitively active’ manner. In the first blog (on summarising) you can read more about why this is important when studying. 

SOI Model

 

What is teaching others as generative strategy?

Teaching others, as a generative learning strategy, means that students explain the subject matter they have studied to someone else, usually to their peers (peer-teaching). For example, a student who has studied about poverty in England (e.g., read about and wrote a paper on the topic, watched a television broadcast about it …) and explains the core idea(s) to a fellow student. Or think of students who, during geography lessons, work in four ‘expert groups’, studying content and materials about the socio-economic status of four different countries and then break out to teach about ‘their country’ to their peers in newly formed groups. This approach is called the jigsaw method.

Here’s a video explaining the jigsaw method step by step.

The jigsaw method, thought up by Eliot Aronson, is a commonly used method in cooperative and collaborative learning. When students work on a task as a team, they need certain (prior) knowledge to complete the group task or team assignment. To compensate for their lack of knowledge, students are divided into expert groups. Each expert group works on instruction materials about a specific area of expertise. In the geography example above the expert groups could be on physical geography, topography, infrastructure, and environmental geography. After that, the students form new groups with one member from each expert group who then shares what they have learned in their expert group with their new team. For example, through teaching the others. In this way, the new group has the necessary prior knowledge to work on a collaborative learning task, the non-experts learn from the experts, and the experts solidify their knowledge by teaching others. In other words, the expert groups serve as preparation for the group who will collaborate on a task or assignment.

According to Fiorella & Mayer (2015), the purpose of the teaching strategy is to help others learn instead of just focusing on yourself as a learner. That also is the main difference between teaching and self-explaining as a generative strategy. When you teach, you not only help yourself (like when you explain something to yourself), but you also help others to learn and process the subject matter. It’s precisely this aspect that makes learning by teaching a unique strategy.

After all, when you as a learner teach others, there are other factors involved that contribute to learning. As the ‘teacher’ you must first prepare yourself to give the lesson to your peers and of course, the teaching also involves interacting with others. The learners in the lesson can be invited to ask questions, which ‘forces’ both them and the student teacher who is formulating an answer, to think more deeply about the subject matter

Why does teaching others work?

Teaching others brings together many factors and each can contribute to learning. However, it’s difficult to determine which factor ‘uniquely’ determines the effectiveness of the strategy – is it the preparation, the teaching in and of itself, the interaction with others, or a combination of some or all of these things?

Students who prepare to teach certain subject matter may think more deeply about what the core idea of the information they must teach is and how to express it to explain it to someone else (i.e., elaboration, see this series of blog posts by the Learning scientists). During the teaching itself, they’re stimulated to explain the subject matter, expand on it, and make connections between the subject matter and their prior knowledge, in such a way that their peer(s) understand(s) it.

Also, there’s often interaction with others, for example fellow students who ask questions or give feedback. As a result, the student teachers are challenged to think deeply again and to reflect: Have I understood the subject matter enough myself to answer questions from others? This way, they strengthen their metacognitive knowledge and strategies (Bargh & Schul, 1980; Fiorella & Mayer, 2014).

Fiorella and Mayer (2013) investigated the influence of preparing for teaching and teaching itself on student’s learning performance. Two groups of students were taught about the Doppler effect (for example, how the sound of an ambulance’s siren changes when it approaches you and then drives away). The students received the following instruction: Group 1 would be tested after the series of lessons and Group 2 would teach other students. In the end, not all of the students in Group 2 actually gave the lesson. Some did, but the others who had prepared themselves to teach it didn’t.

For the initial test, all students from Group 2 scored better than students from Group 1. However, when the same test was taken a week later, only the Group 2 students who actually gave the lesson scored better than Group 1. The Group 2 students who had prepared themselves to give a lesson but hadn’t actually given it, didn’t score better than those who didn’t prepare to give a lesson (Group 1). The student teachers (those in Group 2 who prepared the lesson and taught it) appeared to have processed the subject matter more deeply, which led to learning gains, especially in the longer term.

We need more research to determine which of the above factors (preparing the lesson and/or the teaching itself) contribute most to the effectiveness of the strategy.

How does teaching others work?

Students can use this strategy when they study independently while preparing for tests or exams by teaching a fellow student (or even a parent or sibling!)), but also during class. For example, a student solving a mathematics problem on the blackboard might explain it to their fellow students.  Or a nursing student who explains the treatment method for type I diabetes to a peer.

Teachers who consider teaching as a productive learning strategy to encourage students to actively process subject matter, should take the limitations into account. We discuss these next.

Possible limitations

This strategy may seem easy to implement, but it actually isn’t. Firstly, as with other generative strategies, the quality of what the student generates is critical for the effectiveness of this strategy. For example, pupils who limit themselves to literally repeating what’s in the book without reformulating it (e.g., paraphrasing, summarising, coming up with new examples …) and therefore aren’t thinking more deeply about the subject matter (knowledge-telling bias[1]), aren’t optimally using the strategy. In contrast, students who reformulate the core idea in their own words and think through the subject matter do.

In fact, it’s only when they do paraphrase or summarise, that they think critically about whether they have a sufficiently profound understanding of the subject matter (reflective knowledge building; Roscoe & Chi, 2007). Student teachers who also interact with others during (or after) teaching by, for example, answering questions, may be encouraged more to focus on reflective knowledge building (Duran, 2016). In other words, you have to learn how to teach (but all teachers know that this is the case!).

Research by Koh and colleagues (2018) suggests a second limitation, namely that this strategy is especially effective if the students who teach do so without reading from their own prepared notes. Thus, in order for peer teaching to be effective, the student teachers must actively retrieve the knowledge from their memory. This means that actually, they’re combining the peer teaching strategy with retrieval practice.

Finally, a student’s prior knowledge also determines to what extent they can optimally use these (and other generative strategies).

When teachers allow their students to teach, they should take these limitations into account. They can do so by monitoring the quality of both the student teacher’s explanation and possible questions from fellow students. This way, teachers can determine when and how to support the student teacher and their peers. The support can consist, for example, of paying explicit attention to formulating good questions that the students can then ask, which is also a form of generative learning.

Scientific evidence

There is less empirical evidence for this strategy than for other generative strategies such as self-explaining. Or rather, the way in which teaching others is used as a generative strategy in classroom practice is very diverse; it can be done through peer tutoring, cooperative learning, group discussions, and so forth. Research shows that student teaching as a strategy can be effective (Roscoe & Chi, 2007) but few studies have the effects from teaching to learning mapped in isolation. This strategy is therefore best used in a well-considered manner. Fiorella & Mayer (2015) refer to 19 studies examining teaching as a generative strategy. This strategy had a positive effect in 17 of these studies.

References

Aronson, E., Blaney, N., Stephin, C., Sikes, J., & Snapp, M. (1978). The jigsaw classroom. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing Company.

Bargh, J. A., & Schul, Y. (1980). On the cognitive benefits of teaching. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(5), 593–604.

Brod, G. (2020) Generative learning: Which strategies for what age? Educational Psychology Review.  

Duran, D. (2016). Learning-by-teaching. Evidence and implications as a pedagogical mechanism. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54(5), 476-484.

Enser, Z. & Enser, M. (2020). Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), 281–288.

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2014). Role of expectations and explanations in learning by teaching. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39(2), 75–85.

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Learning as a generative activity: Eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Koh, A. W. L., Lee, S. C., & Lim, S. W. H. (2018). The learning benefits of teaching: A retrieval practice hypothesis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 32(3), 401-410.

Roscoe, R. D., & Chi, M. T. H. (2007). Understanding tutor learning: Knowledge-building and knowledge-telling in peer tutors’ explanations and questions. Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 534-574.


[1] Knowledge telling refers to a relatively shallow engagement with instructional/learning materials. Rereading is a good example of this. Rereading might give you, as the learner, the idea that you’ve understood something, while actually you simply only recognize what you’ve previously read. In the context of student teaching, simply repeating what you’ve studied, might give you the idea that you now understand it (which isn’t necessarily the case). This is called knowledge telling bias.


7 thoughts on “Let’s Get to Work with Productive Learning Strategies: Teaching Others

  1. Rich James says:

    I have used the jigsaw but only as far as using it to demonstrate to faculty how it works. What I wonder about, and not addressed in this summary, is the quality of learning experienced by others in the jigsaw group. The student preparing to teach can gain quite a bit. But I am suspicious of how well the listeners in the group are learning, especially if they are waiting for there turn to do the teaching. I am reluctant, in some contexts, to believe the jigsaw is sufficient to address all the content instruction.

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  2. George Hall says:

    I have used the Jigsaw Method before, very effectively, in a game. This game, LeadOut, see https://www.leadout.com/, is a group exercise for in-person learning experiences. I have run the game, which has several rounds, for groups of say 20-30 people, with table groups of about 5. This game is well-worth buying at $600 – if you have the opportunity to run this game 20-50 times. With that sort of experience with the game, you will find the gameplay to be fascinating to watch and great fun to manage – and a great learning experience. If you have a chance to run the game with highly diverse groups of professionals, you will find core ability differences that affect the team’s strategy. The Jigsaw Method is very effective – but it is not fast – and has to unfold and be debriefed. The game is competitive – between the teams – and this tension causes the teams to concentrate on SELECTING, ORGANIZING, and INTEGRATING information to craft winning strategies. The teams, if they are in the lead, work on strategies to keep and maintain their lead – and hedge against other teams and what they are capable of score-wise. Teams that are behind sometimes make big, risky bets to catch up, and not always successfully. When you add game elements and competition to the Jigsaw Method, you have a compelling game. They will need a break after this game and will be ‘mentally winded’ by this mental exercise – but in high spirits. If you further add unknowns that the teams must accommodate themselves to, which I always do, you can force each team to deal with an obstacle in real-time. One thing that I do in round 3, for example, is to transfer the group leaders randomly. The strategy leader from group 1, say, is moved to group 4, and so on. This dynamic forces the teams to construct a new strategy – or suddenly import a strategy that was working well in another, high-performing group. So, this is a rich technique to explore, the Jigsaw Method, and can be used to structure game mechanics to create high-energy, engaging games.

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