The Scientific Reason Teachers Are Way Smarter Than You

Teaching others is the best way to learn and remember things yourself. 

The news: According to a recent Washington University in St. Louis study published in the journal Memory & Cognition, teaching might be the best strategy to retain crucial information. Researchers found that when they gave a group of students the impression they'd be teaching something, they did a much better job retaining the information than if they thought they were preparing for a one-off quiz.

The methodology: The researchers split a group of 56 college-level volunteers into two groups: one who expected to teach and one who expected be tested on the material. The would-be tutors consistently outperformed the students who thought they'd be quizzed, even though neither group actually was made to teach. Clearly, it was all in their heads.


Image Credit: Washington University in St. Louis

Mindset matters: When we expect to teach others, our brains employ strategies similar to those teachers use to engage students. Rather than skimming a history passage, for example, pausing midway through to ask how we would explain the content to a friend helps us master the information.

Often, we relate the new information to what we already know, as explained in a recent study in the Annual Review of Psychology. These types of active strategies give us a more comprehensive understanding than if we simply tried to memorize the material. 

"It's this tiny mindset change that can have a rather strong impact on learning," lead study author and Washington University in St. Louis psychology professor John Nestojko told Mic.

The takeaway: While your stacks of flash cards may have helped you temporarily remember hundreds of GRE words, that type of memorization usually doesn't work for mastering more complex material. Next time you try and commit a new skill to memory, try teaching a friend the same skill. Better yet, start tutoring someone. You'll both learn as a result.

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Erin Brodwin

Erin is a science and health writer whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Popular Science, Scientific American and Psychology Today.

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