The Trick to Absorbing New Information: Teach it to Someone Else

Unlike a computer’s hard drive, your brain has an almost limitless ability to acquire and store new data. The brain has several distinct circuits for memory and learning different types of information and scientists have spent decades researching to get the optimal use from those learning circuits.

One recent study from psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis presents an interesting option about how to most optimally learn. According to the study, people learn better and recall more when given the impression that they will soon have to teach newly acquired material to someone else.

Lead author John Nestojko, PhD said:

When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information.

Reading and Recall Experiments

Involving a series of reading-and-recall experiments, one group of students in the study was told they will be tested on a selection of written material. Another group was led to believe they are preparing to teach the passage to another student.

The immediate implication is that the mindset of the student before and during learning can have a significant impact on learning, and that positively altering a student’s mindset can be effectively achieved through rather simple instructions,” Nestojko said.

But is it that simple? Did telling learners that they would later teach another student change their mindset enough so that they engaged in more effective approaches to learning than did their peers who simply expected a test?

Or is there some other factor at work here? Perhaps recall is enhanced by the act of teaching someone else, when the information is verbally expressed?

In reality, all the participants were tested, and no one actually did teaching. So that possibility is ruled out.

It may be of interest to test for different types of memory in the same scenario.

For example, a reading and recall activity involves semantic memory, based in the frontal cortex and hippocampus.  It also would use some declarative memory, the rote type of memory by which we remember dates, names and facts, and which is based in the hippocampus.

A test using procedural memory (driving a car or playing a musical passage on the piano) which depends on the striatum and cerebellum may perhaps produce different results.

More Complete and Better Organized Recall

In this study, participants who expected to teach produced more complete and better-organized free recall of the passage. They also, in general, correctly answered more questions about the passage than did participants expecting a test, particularly questions covering main points.

said Nestojko:

When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organize information into a coherent structure. Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach.

The results imply that something as simple as instilling an expectation to teach may have the potential to increase learning efficiency at home and in the classroom.

Co-author Elizabeth Bjork, PhD, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, had this to say:

Despite many years of active involvement in both formal and informal learning activities, students do not necessarily employ activities that best foster learning — even though, as our results indicate, those strategies are in their “toolbox” of effective learning strategies.

Worse yet, telling students to prepare for a test does not lead them to select from this toolbox those strategies that would lead to their best performance.

The important takeaway for teachers is that it appears students often need to be guided in how to discover strategies that are optimal for learning.


John F. Nestojko, Dung C. Bui, Nate Kornell, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork.
Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages.
Memory & Cognition, 2014; DOI: 10.3758/s13421-014-0416-z

Coleman, E. B., Brown, A. L., & Rivkin, I. D. (1997).
The effect of instructional explanations on learning from science texts.
The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), 347–365. DOI: 10.1207/s15327809jls0604_1