When Learners Become Teachers

Teaching newly acquired knowledge to someone else boosts confidence and ensures that learners transfer skills back to the job, writes columnist Elliott Masie.

Let’s say your learners have successfully finished a course or learning activity. They have demonstrated their mastery of the content, skills and even behaviors in the educational environment, digital or face to face. Now comes the important element — transferring what they learned to the workplace.

The literature is filled with important transfer tools, including managerial attention/engagement, practice opportunities and even remedial assets that will reinforce the learning objectives. Let me add “Now, teach it to someone else” to the list of transfer tools.

Elliott Masie, CEO, The Masie Center.

There is significant research, including 40 years of work by doctors David and Roger Johnson from the University of Minnesota, that highlights the importance of learners taking their newly acquired knowledge and teaching it to someone else. The learner may be confident or uncertain about their new content, but once they are asked to teach, an internal process of cognitive rehearsal and self-listening occurs.

The learner as teacher goes through these steps:

Restating in their own words: Transfer requires the learner to make the new information their own. When they have to explain a complicated theory to someone else, they will reduce, reframe and reword it to something that makes sense to themselves.

Listening to reinforce understanding: The learner hears their own words as they explain things to others. This listening is clarifying and will help them understand what they know clearly versus what gets stuck on the way out.

New questions surface as they reteach: The learner understands or surfaces questions as they explain the content to another person. Their own questions pop up as they explain it, and they hear good questions from other people.

Steps are reinforced: Learners often slice the complexity of the content into a simpler format. But during that process, key steps can be forgotten. Reteaching seems to increase a learner’s awareness of the complex aspects of the new information.

They do emotional framing: They may have learned a new process for safety procedures in a manufacturing environment. This process has both intellectual and emotional dimensions. As learner becomes teacher, they may get in touch with a more personal dimension of the behavior.

Sketching counts: Often, a learner will draw or sketch a diagram as they reteach. These illustrations are quite powerful to help the new learner integrate and transfer new elements or processes.

Levels of confidence rise: The process of reteaching can move a learner from unconsciously competent to consciously competent.

In elementary school classrooms, the concept of asking the students to learn and then reteach is used very effectively. The learners approach their learning differently when they know they will be asked to explain it to others. This process is so important for transfer because it creates a post-learning experience that actually cements new content into the learner as teacher.

The other aspect of reteaching the content is that it can be leveraged into a new phase of course evaluation. Asking a learner about the class is quite different once they have had to teach the content to another worker. Learning leaders might ask the following questions:

  • What changes to the course structure would you suggest?
  • How do you rank the elements of the content according to your confidence in using and reteaching them to others
  • What language, vocabulary or concepts continue to be confusing or complex for you?
  • What illustrations or job aids would have helped you implement the content or teach it to others in the workplace
  • What frequently asked questions would you suggest we add to the content, based on your questions and questions from others?

The learner can teach it to someone who already has the competency as part of their process to gain final readiness on the new content. I like that.

Elliott Masie is the chairman and CLO of The Masie Center’s Learning Consortium and CEO of The Masie Center, an international think tank focused on learning and workplace productivity. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.